Virginville Ice Harvest spotlights 150-old processes

The Dreibelbis Farm Historical Society, including members (from left) Mark Dreibelbis, Janine Dreibelbis, Steve Burkholder (on wagon), Ned Dresher and Nancy Dresher, welcomed guests to the property for an ice harvest demo on Saturday, Feb. 11.
The Dreibelbis Farm Historical Society, including members (from left) Mark Dreibelbis, Janine Dreibelbis, Steve Burkholder (on wagon), Ned Dresher and Nancy Dresher, welcomed guests to the property for an ice harvest demo on Saturday, Feb. 11. Kolleen Long - Digital First Media
Eric Dreibelbis displays a set of metal tongs. The tool would have been used by farmers on his ancestor’s farm, located south of Virginville, to harvest ice more than 100 years ago.
Eric Dreibelbis displays a set of metal tongs. The tool would have been used by farmers on his ancestor’s farm, located south of Virginville, to harvest ice more than 100 years ago. Kolleen Long - Digital First Media

Sunny skies and moderate temperatures kept ice, but not visitors, away at the fourth annual Ice Harvest at a historic Berks County farm site this Saturday, Feb. 11.

The Dreibelbis Farm Historical Society organized the event, spotlighting 150-old processes used to carve ice blocks from a local pond and store them for year-round use, on a property located on Route 143 just south of Virginville.

Mark Dreibelbis, president of the society, greeted visitors to the ice harvest who first walked a snow-crusted path to a field near the farm buildings. They gathered around a crackling fire, and Dreibelbis gave an overview of the history of ice harvesting in America. It was a thriving industry until the early 1900s, when home-use refrigerators were available.

The property’s nature walks were open for exploration, and hot cocoa and chicken-corn soup were available for purchase. Guests were invited to walk down to the ice pond to hear more about the process to carve and haul the blocks to the farm or they could visit the stone-walled ice house to learn about storage.

Advertisement

At the pond, Mark’s brother, Eric Dreibelbis, explained different tools his ancestors would have used: ice scorers to create an evenly-spaced grid, saws and chisels to separate the blocks, wooden sleds used to haul the blocks to the farm site and metal tongs to maneuver them into place.

Horses were key to the work, Eric explained, and he showed a display of horseshoes he has collected since his boyhood. Some have metal spikes, which help horses maintain their grip on ice or other slippery surfaces.

“Of course, horses do what horses do,” Eric said, getting answering laughter from his audience. “And sometimes horses do what horses do on the ice.”

He explained each harvest crew had members assigned to following the horses should any manure get on the surface. They would immediately sweep the area clean, then apply formaldehyde to purify it for safe use.

“They knew enough about bacteria then to know they had to do something, and do it in a hurry,” he said, noting that ice-harvesting involved 10-hour days, seven days a week while the weather cooperated. “It was hard work. They had to make ice while the sun did not shine.”

Ned Dresher greeted visitors to the old ice house with a mix of history and story-telling. The building has its original walls, which are in the midst of restoration, but lacks a roof or door.

“The ice didn’t go all the way to the walls,” Dresher, the society’s vice president, said. “They left around 18 inches and filled the space with hay, corn husks, things like that.”

The farm-and budget-friendly insulation kept the layers cool and a thick application between blocks kept them from melting into one big lump.

“It turns out, these ice houses aren’t as rare as I thought,” Dresher said, describing several others to be found today on other area farms and how some farmers without a pond handy would board up a stream instead to create the needed surface area for an ice harvest.

He noted that the ice house is one of many old buildings on the Dreibelbis property, including a chicken house, creamery and smoke house, wash house and barn. The two-story tool shed is reputed to have beams from the property’s original log-cabin home. The current residence, a stately brick farmhouse, dates to the Civil War era and is built over a spring.

“The Dreibelbises, like many Pennsylvania Dutch people, were quite frugal,” Dresher said. “And they still are. That’s one of the glorious things about this property. They never throw anything away.”

While the day’s temperature reached the upper 40s on Feb. 11, Mark Dreibelbis was happy with attendance at the ice harvest. He surveyed visitors from his post near a smoldering fire ring. Some guests stopped to chat or to buy a bowl of soup, kept hot on a kettle over the fire.

“We can’t control the weather, but we wanted to have it anyway. It’s a unique event,” he said. “Our goal is to present educational information to the public.”

A big draw for many visitors to the ice harvest were two Percheron horses, owned by Steve Burkholder and driven by Tom Longenecker. The massive, dark horses were hitched to a wooden wagon and guests could take a ride down a farm lane or, once they were ready to head home, to the parking lot.

Visitors can visit the Virginville farm during other public events. Coming up is the 6th annual PA German Farm festival, which will be held in August. For details about the farm or its events, readers may contact Mark Dreibelbis at dreibelbisfarm@gmail.com. The Historic Dreibelbis Farm also has a Facebook page.