How Did the Founding Fathers Get Ice in Summer?

Famous Gadsby’s Tavern

Gadsby’s Tavern

My wife and I recently visited Gadsby’s Tavern (1785-1792), a popular pub and inn in colonial Alexandria, Virginia. Famous patrons included George Washington, George Mason, John Carlyle, and Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.

Gadsby’s Ice Well

Gadsby’s Tavern needed ice for its patrons during the hot humid summers. So they created an “ice well.” They dug a 17-feet wide and 11-feet deep hole under the adjacent street corner.  They lined the hole with bricks.

Gadsby’s Large Ice Well

During winter, they harvested blocks of ice  from the nearby Potomac River and lowered them into the well through a hatch in the brick sidewalk.  They pounded the blocks into one huge ice mass, and covered it with straw to limit melting. This large ice well it held 62 tons of ice.

Thus, Gadsby’s Tavern had ice throughout the year.  Gadsby’s also made a profit by selling ice for 8 cents a pound ($2.48 per pound today). Hence, George Washington, and other founding fathers, had ice at Gadsby’s in the hot humid summers.

Private Ice Wells

Some of the richer Founders made their own ice wells or “ice houses”. For example, Robert Morris, “Secretary of the Treasury,” had a large ice well measuring 18′ wide X 16′ deep. In 1784, he sent a letter to George Washington with detailed instructions on how to make such an ice well. Washington constructed his ice house on the side of the hill between his Mount Vernon home and the Potomac River. This allowed Washington to indulge, year round, in his favorite dessert — ice cream.

Ice Well Hatch at Street Corner


Underground Ice Well Memorial and Observation Window

 (See: “Historic Ice Well,”

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