March 20, 2019
By: Jason Tyler, RPA
The house I filled with ice does not answer—it is gone already—if you will do me the favor to cause a description of yours to be taken—the size—manner of building, & mode of management, & forwarded to me—I shall be much obliged.
George Washington to Robert Morris, June 2, 1784.
George Washington’s wood-lined ice house may have failed him at Mount Vernon, but recent excavations have revealed the presence of something similar here at Cloverfields that appears to have proved more resilient and remained in use during the 18th and 19th centuries. Ice was a desirable commodity for Colonial gentry and ice houses were used to store ice that was collected from the rivers and ponds during the winter for use in making ice cream and iced drinks, while also sometimes serving as a dairy where meat, milk, and butter could be preserved.
The potential for the existence of such a structure has been known since Dr. Horsley’s initial geophysical survey in January 2018, when he identified a deep anomaly close to the well, but it wasn’t until we began our January 2019 excavations that we really got an idea of what we were dealing with. Our preliminary investigations revealed the presence of a large, now filled, pit that reached a depth of approximately 10 feet below the surface and in which the walls and floors had been lined with wood. The pit was undoubtedly covered with some form of overlying superstructure, but as yet we have little evidence for the form or shape of it. At some point during the middle of the 19th century, the ice house/dairy structure fell out of use and/or suffered a catastrophic failure that caused the uppermost portions of the wooden walls to collapse inwards, with the tops of the walls falling into the center of the pit. No longer serving any purpose, but with no easy means to fill the large hole in the ground, this large pit remained open, only 60 feet from the side entrance to the main house. Abandoned and in disrepair, the soil around the top of the pit continued to collapse into the open pit, and around the end of the 19th century the hole began to be used as a trash pit. Cloverfields’ residents began filling the pit with the increasingly easily available machine-made bottles and goods that were being churned out by America’s burgeoning industrial economy. Where to dispose of these cheap bottles and containers became an increasing problem in a time before municipal trash collection, with stream heads and ravines being an increasingly popular place to dispose of such goods. It seems likely that this large pit, in close proximity to the house, became a convenient place within which residents could quickly dispose of their trash. With the Callahan’s purchase of the property at the turn of the 20th century, it appears that this practice ceased and efforts were made to fill the pit with soil until the pit was long forgotten.
But if this evidence tells us of the Ice House’s ignominious demise, albeit one hundred years after Washington’s initial structure failed him, what can the excavations tell us about its construction?
Luckily, when the upper portion of the wooden lining fell inwards it covered and protected much of the wooden floor and the lower portions of the wood lining. Our initial excavations have recovered artifacts on the floor of the ice house that indicate that it was in use during the latter portion of the 18th century through the mid-19th century. However, it is the artifacts that we have found behind the wood-lining that really tell the tale of the ice house’s construction. The pit that housed the ice house was roughly excavated by hand, likely by enslaved workers, and then the wood lining was fitted inside it. While the earthen walls were irregularly shaped, the timber forming the wood lining was straight and even. Soil was shoveled into the spaces that existed between the earthen walls and the wooden lining to fill the gap, and a small number of artifacts fell into the gap along with the soil. AAHA recovered these artifacts and has found them to date to the middle through the third quarter of the 18th century. This would indicate that the ice house was used by Colonel Hemsley and his family, and may have been constructed to his design.
These initial excavations have provided tantalizing clues as to the construction date and shape of Cloverfields’ ice house/dairy, but more will be necessary to confirm these preliminary findings. Also, we have much yet to learn regarding the form and shape of the structure that once sat above the pit. Was it a wooden, earthfast, structure like the lining of the pit? Or was it more substantial in nature – using brick or stone? While George Washington’s initial attempts at constructing an ice house appear to have failed him, it seems that the one we have here at Cloverfields proved substantially more effective and served the Hemsley family well. We look forward to discovering more about this exciting, but unknown, aspect of Cloverfield’s life in the future.
“From George Washington to Robert Morris, 2 June 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0285. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1, 1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, pp. 420–421.]