Throughout history, many types of houses have come and gone. For example, consider the mill house, the smoke house, out house, and perhaps the most obsolete of them all: the ice house.
Not too long ago, many homes had an ice house or made use of one. Ringing the “ice man” for delivery was routine. And behemoth ice houses once dotted the Flathead Valley; the Great Northern Railway once had three ice houses in Kalispell and several in Whitefish.
Today, most ice houses are gone.
However, just north of the entrance of The Great Northern Historical Trail entrance on Somers Road stands the Somers ice house. It’s a fine relic of a bygone era. After wondering what it is, many folks wonder why an ice house would be located so far away from the lake (or anything else for that matter).
Indeed, the Somers ice house may seem peculiar. It stands in a corner of the Sliter’s lumberyard along the edge of a walking/biking trail. That’s because the bustling railroad tracks and lumberyard that once surrounded it are no longer there.
In 1901, local entrepreneur John O’Brien struck a deal with James J. Hill, the Great Northern Railway tycoon, to build and run a railroad spur line and sawmill in Somers, named after George Somers, an executive of the operation.
The sawmill provided lumber and much-needed railroad ties for the expansion of the Great Northern Railway. Likewise, the Somers Lumber Company also provided ice for hauling perishable goods and use on passenger cars.
Ice was harvested from the lake usually in late January and kept in the ice house year round. To keep ice cold – especially in the summer when it was needed most – the ice house was designed with several deceptively simple features.
For example, there are two layers of wood siding. One layer of wood siding runs diagonally along the side of the ice house. This layer is covered by another layer of horizontal wood siding. Together, these two layers provide strength and insulation to the walls.
The walls were three-foot thick and filled with sawdust to provide even more insulation. And this ice house had no shortage of sawdust, since it was in the middle of the Somers Lumber Company – the largest sawmill in the Flathead Valley at the time, producing about 600,000 railroad ties per year for the growing railroad.
The second-story door may seem oddly out of place. However, it was used to load ice down into railroad freight cars, and later special “reefer” or refrigerator cars. This was dangerous work and falling and freezing were not uncommon tragedies.
Also, the two cupola atop the roof aren’t just for decoration. They are an integral part of a venting system designed to let warm air draft out and help keep the ice from melting.
While the ice house was well built and worked well, history would alter its utility.
By 1930, the introduction of electric refrigeration altered the need for natural ice. The use of the General Electric, the Frigidaire, the Kelvinator and other electric refrigerators spread during 1930 through 1960. And the ice houses across the nation soon became obsolete.
About the same time, expansion of the Great Northern Railway had run its course and a half million railroad ties were no longer needed every year.
The sawmill was shuttered in 1949. Since then, the ice house has survived and a few real estate transactions and plans of more ambitious utility. And luckily, this relic of life in a different era still sits quietly in place –one of the very few left.
Jaix Chaix is a writer who appreciates history, art, and architecture. You can share ideas and historical facts with him at [email protected]
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