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Thompson Ice House

South Bristol Town, Lincoln County, ME

Photo: Thompson Ice House 4568 Route 129, South Bristol, ME; built possibly as early as 1826; copyright © 2018, Philip H. Krugler, photographer.


The Thompson Ice House [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

The Thompson Ice House is Maine's last commercial ice house. Located on a pond in South Bristol, this structure stands on a site occupied by ice houses since 1826. Although of undetermined date, the present building is apparently of nineteenth century origin.

The main section of the Thompson Ice House is a large rectangular structure which has frame construction and a gable roof. This central section is flanked on either side by a frame lean-to structure. The lean-to on the south wall covers only half of the length of the main section, while the northern lean-to extends the entire length. That portion of the southern wall not covered by the lean-to is reinforced by a series of poles, which act as buttresses. The exterior of the ice house is covered with unpainted pine boards. The building is studded to leave a nine inch space between the inner and outer walls, which is packed with sawdust for insulation. The interior is entirely open to allow for the storage of ice.

The east and west walls of the Thompson Ice House contain the openings for storing and removing the ice. The east wall faces the pond from which the ice is harvested. This wall has an elongated vertical doorway in the central section through which the ice is transfered for storage. The ice cakes are floated through a channel of open water to a wooden ramp where a truck powered conveyor belt moves them into the storage area. The vertical doorway is elongated in order to place the layers of ice to the top of the building.

The ice house contains a similar elongated vertical doorway in the central section of the west wall. Covered by three doors, this arrangement allows for the removal of ice at different levels. Directly below these doors is a simple wooden ramp used in transfering the ice to the trucks. Another door is found on the west wall of the north lean-to.

The lakes and rivers of nineteenth century Maine were dotted with large wooden ice houses. Now only the Thompson Ice House at South Bristol remains. While the building has been affectionately described as "a weatherbeaten, drunken sailor sort of a barn," it is a rare landmark of a virtually vanished American industry.

The Thompson Ice House is the location of the last commercial natural ice business in Maine. As a symbol of what was for many years an important industry in the state, it is therefore of considerable significance. Of added interest is the fact that this location was also one of the earliest to produce ice for shipment outside the state, the first ice being cut there in 18f26 and "sold south" for $700.

In general before the 1830's Boston supplied the small amounts of ice needed to fill the demand in the southern states and the Caribbean area. Most of the ice from Maine in the early years was shipped in vessels that happened to be ice bound in the Kennebec River. By the middle of the century, the ice business was flourishing in the Kennebec area and larger ice houses were built with added mechanization including endless chains for loading and tools designed specifically for ice cutting.

The Thompson Ice House is operated by Herbert Thompson, a direct descendent of Melvin Thomson, the original proprietor. Mr. Thompson remembers as a boy that'all the cutting and storage was done by hand. Now machines are used for both operations.

The ice is usually harvested in January when it has reached a thickness of twelve inches. First, a groove is marked out the length of the pond with a straight edge. A second line is grooved at right angles to it and from these guides, the entire surface is marked off into 22" X 30" cakes. A power saw cuts to within two inches of the bottom after which the cakes are easily split off with a two-tined iron tool called a needlebar. The cakes are floated through a channel of open water to the ice house ramp where a truck powered conveyor belt moves them up into the storage area.

The ice house is studded to leave a nine inch space between inner and outer walls which is packed with sawdust for insulation. When the harvest is completed, the ice is protected on top with a foot thick layer of marsh hay. The usual harvest consists of about 6,000 cakes weighing 250 pounds apiece.

Mr. Thompson claims there is still a great demand for his natural ice and he intends to continue production in the tradition of the once great industry to which this structure stands as a monument.

Adapted from: Earle G. Shettleworh, Jr., Architectural Historian and Frank A. Beard, Historic Preservationist, Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Thompson Ice House, 1974, registration document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.