Ice House

To keep ice for the plantation, Thomas Jefferson constructed an ice house.[1]  In the winter of 1802-1803 the summer's harvest of wheat was safely stored in barrels and barns. Monticello overseer Gabriel Lilly had to wait for freezing temperatures before he could harvest his next crop: ice from the Rivanna River. Every available neighborhood wagon was assembled to bring ice from the river to the newly constructed ice house on the mountaintop. Jefferson, monitoring the operation from Washington, recorded it took "62. waggon loads of ice to fill it," and cost $70 for the hire of wagons and food and drink for the drivers.

This was not Jefferson's first ice house. He had had one built and filled at the President's House the year before. Until then he did without ice in the country and bought a weekly supply in the city. In Philadelphia in 1792, he actually subscribed to a summer ice service. The vaulted cellar of James Oeller's Chestnut Street hotel provided a daily supply of ice for a shilling a day. A Wiltshire clothier stopped at Oeller's for a refreshing round of punch, and thought fit to record that it was "brought to us with a lump of ice in each glass." He was not the last Englishman to marvel at the American ice-cube habit.

Jefferson had taken notes on ice houses in Italy and Virginia before he undertook construction of his own. He placed it on the coldest side of the house, under the North Terrace. His drawings show a cylinder sixteen feet below ground level and six feet above it, with openings at the top "left only 9. I[nches] square that a person may not get in at them."

That specification indicates that more than ice was in the ice house. "Dishes of butter, cold dressed provisions, salads, etc." were kept in Oeller's ice cellar and Monticello's may have been used in a similar way. The preservation of butter and fresh meat was Jefferson's main concern. It would be "a real calamity" if the ice house were not filled, he wrote his overseer in 1809, "as it would require double the quantity of fresh meat in summer had we not ice to keep it."

Then there were the less critical uses for the ice crop, such as the making of [[ice cream]] or chilling of [[wine]]. Jefferson liked to tell of his efforts to elicit expressions of astonishment from the Indian delegations that visited him at the President's House. He succeeded only once-when wine bottles in ice-filled coolers were placed on the table in July.

After viewing the Italian ice house, Jefferson had recorded that "snow gives the most delicate flavor to creams; but ice is the most powerful congealer, and lasts longest." We know that in 1815 the ice lasted until October 15.

The day before Christmas in 1813 Jefferson wrote: "Filled the ice house with snow." As ice house at the river took over the primary role and the mountaintop cellar now became the "snow house"-and Monticello may be here today because of it. In the spring of 1819, the North Pavilion caught fire. As Jefferson reported to a friend, "our snow house enabled us so far to cover with snow the adjacent terras which connected it with the main building as to prevent it's affecting that."

Primary Source References

1787 April 23. (Jefferson-Tour through Southern France). "The Ice-Houses at Rozzano are duge about 15. f. deep and 20. f. diameter and poles are driven down all round. A conical thatched roof is then put over them 15. f. high. Pieces of wood are laid at bottom to keep the ice out of the water which drips from it, and goes off by a sink. Straw is laid on this wood, and then the house filled with ice always putting straw between the ice and the walls, and covering ultimately with straw. About a third is lost by melting. Snow gives the most delicate flavor to creams; but ice is the most powrful congealer, and lasts longest. A tuft of trees surrounds these ice house."[2] 

1802 March 19. (Jefferson to James Dinsmore). "As I suppose Mr. Lilly is digging the North West offices, and Icehouse I will now give further directions respecting them. The ice house is to be dug 16. feet deeper than that. The ice house is then to be [walled?], circular to a height of 6. feet above the office floors, leaving a door 3 1/2 feet wide on the N.W. side of it."[3]

1802 December 10. (Jefferson to James Dinsmore). "I some days ago wrote directions to Mr. Lilly for filling the Ice house: but I forgot one previous requisite, open at both ends, 6. I. square within, and reaching from the bottom of the tube to be notched thus to let water run into it at bottom. Then make a square bucket about 12. I. high, a little smaller than the [internal?] square of the tube, so as to run easily up and down the inside of that. In the bottom of it make a hole, and nail a bit of stiff leather as a valve, so that when it goes down it may fill with water and bring it up. Put a handle to it like that of a bucket, but fixed, whenever it is found that there is water in the well. I have said that the tube and bucket should be square. Yet if they are easily made round, I imagine they may be made tighter, and to work better...It had better be fixed immediately and got in, before a season happens for getting ice, as it can not be put in afterwards."[4]

1803 February 7. "Inclosed to Gabriel Lilly for waggonage of ice 30. D."[5] 

1803 March 12. "My ice house here has taken 62. waggon loads of ice to fill it, have 1. foot thickness of shavings between it and the wall all around. The whole cost including labour, feeding, drink etc. has been 70. D."[6]

1804 January 21. (Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead to Jefferson). "Your ice house will be full by ten oclock today."[7]  

1804 May 6. "Paid Gabriel Lilly for David Anderson for...I am to remit him for John Rogers 2-0-0 Price 2-0-0 hauling ice."[8]  

1804 May 24. (Jefferson to James Dinsmore). "I desired Mr. Stewart to make Joe draw off the water from the ice house twice this week. I at the same time supposed that Mr. Wanscher taking his water from thence might keep it always down."[9]   

1804 June 13. (Jefferson to James Dinsmore). "Mr. Culp promised me he would propose a pump for the ice house. I presume Mr. Wanscher keeps it clear of water. If he does not, Joe should clear it twice a week."[10]  

1805 July 11. (Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead to Jefferson). "I was at Monticello where we dined one day last month. I am afraid the ice will give out this summer."[11]  

1806 February 7. (Jefferson to John Freeman). "Will you be so good as to see that the water is drawn out of the ice house, once or twice a week, or as often as necessary."[12]  

1806 November 10. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "In order that you may not fail in filling the ice house, with the very first ice which shall make of an inch thick, engage two waggons that can be depended on, to come at a moment's warning, laing aside all other work. These with our two will fill the house in 4. days. If the weather should break up before it is filled, they must be ready to come a second time when ice shall make again. A pumpmaker at Charlottesville promises to fix a pump for me in the icehouse. Be so good as to press him to do it immediately before we begin to put in new ice."[13]  

1807 May 12. "Edmund Bacon gives me the following list of debts...John Peyton 3. days hauling ice L3."[14]  

1807 October 11. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "Mr. Shoemaker presented me an account for the use of his cart and horses, etc...His convenience in the mill for waggoning ice recommends the employing him then."[15]  

circa 1808. "The ice house is 16. f. diam. & 16. f. deep = 22.35 sq. yds. surface & 120. cub. yds. contents very nearly. Ice of 1 3/4 I. thick from a pond 50. yards quare will fill it."[16]  

1808 January 8. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "We have had no ice yet to fill our ice..."[17] 

1808 January 15. (Edmund Bacon to Jefferson). "I expect we shall make a begining to Get ice in the morning as the weather bids far for it at present."[18]

1808 January 19. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "I am in hopes that from Saturday to this day you will have been able to fill my icehouse."[19]

1808 January 22. (Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead to Jefferson). "I have not been to Monticello since we came from there but Jefferson was there the other day and says that the green house is not done. Both your ice house and ours are filled."[20]

1808 February 5. (Edmund Bacon to Jefferson). "I Forgot to mention in my last letter I had filled the Ice House with excellent ice."Massachusetts Historical Society.[21] 

1809 January 3. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "If it is now as cold with you as it is here I am in hopes you will be able and ready to fill the icehouse. It would be a real calamity should we not have ice to do it, as it would require double the quantity of fresh meat in summer had we not ice to keep it."[22]

1809 January 12. (Edmund Bacon to Jefferson). "We filled the ice house Last week in two days with 6 waggons the first day and 8 the second."[23]

1809 January 23. "The remittance to Bacon is for the following to pay. Johnson Roe 40/ Anderson Roe 20/ Charles Hutchins 20/ Richd. Johnson 40/ hauling ice."[24] .

1810 January 22. "Began to fill the Ice house...Filling the Ice house. 4. waggons with horses and mules..."[25]

1810 January 24. (Jefferson to Joel Barlow). "P.S. The day before yesterday the mercury was at 5 1/2 degrees with us, a very uncommon degree of cold here. It gave us the first ice for the ice house."[26]

1810 September 14. "The ice in the ice house fails."[27]  

1813 December 24. "Filled the ice house with snow."[28]

1815 March 13. "The ice having sunk 5. or 6. f. was now replenished with ice from the river."[29]

1817 January 20. "Filled the Ice house at the river with ice."[30] 

1817 March 13. "Filled the Snow house here with snow."[31]

1819 May 5. (Jefferson to John Barnes). "In answer to your kind enquiries as to our fire, the loss was confined to the little pavilion which, as you remember, constituted the Northern extremity or wing of my buildings. Our snow house enabled us so far to cover with snow the adjacent terras which connected it with the main building as to prevent it's affecting that."[32] 

1820 December 9. (Edmund Bacon to Jefferson). "We had a plenty of ice on the 2nd instant and abundance of snow which enabled me to fill both houses."[33]

1823 February 23. (Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist to Nicholas Trist). "Since I wrote to you last the weather has been that of our severe winters, the thermometer falling once as low as 10. and frequently to 13, 14, and 15 but yet we have not had a snow deep enough to fill the ice house."[34]  


1. This section is based on Lucia Stanton, Monticello Research Report, March 1991.

2. Boyd, Julian P., Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 11:439.

3. Library of Congress.

4. Brooklyn Historical Society. 

5. James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds. Jefferson's Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 2:1092.

6. Edwin M. Betts, ed. Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book, 1766-1824: With Relevant Extracts from His Other Writings, 1944. Rep. 1999, 281. Manuscript and transcription available online.

7. Edwin M. Betts,  and James Bear, Jr., eds. Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1966, rep. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1986), 254.

8. Memorandum Books, 2:1126.

9. University of Virginia.

10. Sotheby's auction catalog, 23 April 1986.

11. Family Letters, 276.

12. Garden Book, 314.

13. Library of Congress.

14. Memorandum Books, 2:1203.

15. Massachusetts Historical Society.

16. Weather Memorandum Book, 55. Library of Congress.

17. University of Virginia.

18. Ibid.

19.  Garden Book, 362.

20. Family Letters, 323.

21. Massachusetts Historical Society.

22.  Garden Book, 400.

23. University of Virginia.

24. Memorandum Books, 2:1239

25. Weather Memorandum Book, 55.

26. J. Jefferson Looney, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004-), 2:177. See Cumulative index.

27. Garden Book, 426.

28. Ibid, 497.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid, 565.

31. Ibid.

32. Massachusetts Historical Society.

33. Ibid.

34. Library of Congress. 



Question - how far was it from the river to the top of the mountain?


The Ice House is popular with visitors, often capturing their interest. I like that this article sheds like on just how big of an endeavor it was to get the ice house filled up. Also, I like that this article mentions the American love of ice in our drinks. I backpacked in Europe for 6-weeks after I graduated from college, and I never knew how hard life would seem without consistent access to ice or ice-cold-drinks. Yes: I know I am a high maintenance wuss.

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