The Bantam Lake Ice House

This observation tower along the Lake (Yellow) Trail at White Memorial sits at the point where ice was taken out of the lake and sent to the ice house.

This observation tower along the Lake (Yellow) Trail at White Memorial sits at the point where ice was taken out of the lake and sent to the ice house.

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In the days before refrigerators foods either needed to be preserved (through canning, smoking, or salting) or kept fresh through the use of ice boxes.  Ice boxes were dependent upon a steady supply of fresh ice, no easy proposition in the summer months.  To satisfy the demand for blocks of ice, ice was harvested from New England ponds and lakes in the winter (usually in January and February when temperatures were the coldest).

Forty acres of Bantam Lake had to be harvested to fill the ice house.

Forty acres of Bantam Lake had to be harvested to fill the ice house.

The earliest ice harvests were done in the same manner as harvesting crops, with neighbors and friends pitching in and being compensated with a share of the crop.  Specialty tools, including gang saws, chisels and saw plows, were used to cut the ice into blocks which were then transported to ice houses for keeping.  Ice houses were designed with the floor one foot off the ground to allow for the passage of air under the ice.  They featured double walls, one foot apart and packed with shavings or saw dust for insulation.  The floors of these ice houses were pitched to allow for drainage.


The former machine shop at the ice house complex.

The largest ice harvesting operation in Connecticut was the Berkshire Ice Company (later part of the Southern New England Ice Company) on Bantam Lake.  Their facility stood near the present Litchfield Town Beach on North Shore Road in Bantam.  Here the foreman’s house and machine shop still stand, and the remains of workers’ dormitories and, most impressively, the 700 foot by 125 foot ice house are visible.

The ice house had fourteen  30-foot high storage sections that each held 4,000 tons of ice for a total of 56,000 tons of ice.  It would take 40 harvested acres of ice to fill the warehouse.  The particular challenge the workers faced was getting the ice into the storage house.  This was especially difficult as the ice was cut into the 300-pound blocks preferred for wholesale purposes.  (Retail ice was cut into 25, 50, or 100 pound blocks).


Prior to the conveyor belt system, ice was floated to the ice house via this canal.

Channels were cut into the lake, and the workers (who were paid 60 cents an hour and worked seven days a week in the mid 1920s) utilized poles to float the ice to a ramp on which rested a conveyor belt.  The concrete pillars of this system still stand as ghostly sentinels in the swampy grounds of White Memorial; the final pillars today support an observation tower on the shores of Bantam Lake.  The conveyor belt was powered by a 100-horse power engine that derived its energy from the Bantam Falls power plant.


Concrete pillars mark the path of the old conveyor belt.

The conveyor belts ran approximately 1000 feet from the lake to the ice house.  In the summer months, a spur of the Shepaug Valley Railroad ran from the Lake Station (today, the Cove Shops on Route 202) to the ice house, where it split to run parallel so cars could be filled from both sides of the structure.  Up to 20 box cars a day were filled, and the ice was transported as far as Bridgeport.   Alain White, in his History of Litchfield, described the “long trains,” which “pull out daily in the summers, carrying concentrated relief from the Litchfield Hills to the larger cities southward.”


Remains of the ice house foundation, at the southern end of the Butternut Brook trail.

The spread of electricity and refrigerators to households in the 1920s led to a severe decline in the demand for harvested ice.  On August 8th, 1929, a massive fire swept through the facility.  Some have speculated that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion of either the hay or sawdust at the site, while others reported that their were several cases of arson in the area.  Either way, over $350,000 in damages resulted from the destruction of the ice house building, nine railroad cars, and over 50,000 tons of ice valued at $200,000.  The next year the Southern New England Ice Company sold its land to the White Memorial Foundation; as a result, the foundations remain to remind us of this once vibrant industry.

For the video of the Bantam Lake ice house, click here


Hidden Nearby: Henry Obookiah’s Cornwall Grave


Henry Opukahaia (spelled Obookiah in his lifetime) was born on the island of Hawaii in 1792.  His parents were killed in a civil war and as a fifteen-year old, Henry was taken aboard the merchant ship Triumph, commanded by Captain Britnall and bound for New Haven.  While on board the ship, Henry befriended Thomas Hopu, a Hawaiian cabin boy who taught his fellow islander English.


Henry Obookiah’s grave in the Cornwall Cemetery along Route 4.

While in New Haven, Opukahaia studied under Reverend Edwin Dwight, a recent graduate of Yale.  In addition to the traditional curriculum of tutors and pupils of the time, Opukahaia focused especially on English grammar.  During the course of his education, Opukahaia was exposed to Christianity and he not only converted but asked for training so that he could spread the gospel on his home islands.  This resulted, in part, in the founding of the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall.  Over its ten years of operation, the school educated 100 students, including 43 Native Americans and 20 Hawaiians.

While a student in Cornwall, Opukaiah worked on farms in Torrington and Litchfield to support himself.  The Litchfield community encouraged Henry to systemize the Hawaiian language through the writing of a dictionary and books on common grammar and spelling.  Opukaiah also wrote his memoirs.

Hawaiian-themed mementos on Obookiah's gravesite.

Hawaiian-themed mementos on Obookiah’s gravesite.

Unfortunately, before these projects could be completed, Henry fell ill.  Diagnosed with typhoid fever by Dr. Calhoun of Cornwall, Henry died in February 1818.  He last words were reportedly “Alloah o e,” which translates to “My love be with you.”

Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher

The Reverend Lyman Beecher of Litchfield presided over Opukahaia’s funeral, stating:

He came to this land and hearing of Him on whom without hearing,

he could not believe, and by the mouth of those who could never

have spoken to him in Owyhee.


Opukahaia was buried in the Cornwall Cemetery, but in 1993 family members in Hawaii had his body reinterred at the Kahikolu Congregational Church in Kona, Hawaii.  The Cornwall gravesite is marked with a plaque thanking the community for caring for Henry, and is topped with his words, “Oh ! How I want to see Hawaii!”

The Litchfield Garden Club


This stone flower urn stands at the intersection of North Street and Norfolk Road in Litchfield.  There are no markers or inscriptions to tell the curious passerby when or why it was built, or by whom.  Further investigation, however, reveals that this is one of the many contributions made by the Litchfield Garden Club to beautify the town.

LGC-CentLogoFinal_jan2012_722013 marks the 100th anniversary of the Litchfield Garden Club.  On September 9, 1913, nine women from the Litchfield area met at the home of Edith and Alice Kingsbury on North Street and organized the club, with annual dues of two dollars.  S. Edson Gage, an architect who had designed the Litchfield Playhouse that stood at the  site of the current town hall, was elected president.

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The old Litchfield train station on Russell Street.

The organization’s first civic project took place in 1914, when – in cooperation with the Village Improvement Society – they spent ten dollars for plantings at the town’s train station on Russell Street.  After the First World War the club was active in maintaining the plantings at the train station as well as beautifying the grounds of the town’s schools and library, and in creating Litchfield’s Wild Gardens on land leased from White Memorial.


Flowers planted by the Garden Club in the trough of Litchfield’s Water Monument.

The Norfolk Road planter was installed in 1954 (the club’s website indicates there may have been others along Norfolk Road), flowers were planted at traffic intersections, and the organization was also instrumental in getting Litchfield’s Historic District added to the National Registrar of Historic Places.  More recently, the club has replanted the trees along North and South Street that were originally planted by Oliver Wolcott, Jr. to commemorate the original 13 states and installed period lighting on the Litchfield Green.

Happy 100th anniversary to the Litchfield Garden Club, which has done so much to enhance the natural beauty of our town!