1848 jul 1: Build an Ice house north end of the wood house. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20]
1866 jan 27(?): Buy in conjunction with Chh. County Right of Nee’s(?) Fruit House cost $2000. N.F. takes 1/3 ‘ $666.34. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20]
1866 jan: Take old Blacksmith Shop for Ice House fill from Lower Pond. Put in 95 loads of Ice in 1866. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20]
1867 jan Fill new Ice House & Blacksmith Shop 70 loads. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20]
1869 jan 1: Finished Fruit House. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20]
1891 dec 16: Begin to renovate Ice House. Great job. take out all the packing and put it on Asparagas bed. On Currants, and all round K[itchen] G[arden]. Take out all the insides — floors, timbers. Draw boarding from the East Farm to board up with. Does nicely. Put on a Tin Roof. And a Barn(?) Cap.(?). [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20]
Last weekend, in conjunction with the opening of the its 2018 summer season and in celebration of the Town of New Lebanon’s bicentennial, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon presented a lecture on the North Family Dwelling House – a building that was built the same year the Town of New Lebanon was incorporated. The Dwelling (1818-1973) is the most significant structure to disappear from the landscape at the North Family but it is not the only important structure to have been taken down for one reason or another. Around 1963 a building generally referred to as the Ice House had fallen into disrepair and, since there was no apparent repurposing would make it useful, Darrow School had the building leveled. “Ice House” does not fully describe the function of this building.
Fruit House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939, Historic American Building Survey, Nelson E. Baldwin, photographer. Retrieved from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ny0538.photos.115433p/
The Ice House was built in the summer of 1841 as a blacksmith shop and was used for that purpose until a new blacksmith shop with a water-powered triphammer was built between the stone buttresses on the west side of the Brick Shop in the spring of 1864. The 1841 blacksmith shop, a one-story stone building, was converted to an ice house in 1866, and the North Family brothers filled the new ice house in January 1866 with 95 loads of ice. But the family had bigger plans for the building. That same January the family journalist noted that the family would, “Buy in conjunction with Church [Family] ____ Rights of Nee’s Fruit House.” The rights cost $2000 and the North Family paid one-third of that. The “Nee’s” Fruit House refers to a fruit house invented and patented by Benjamin M. Nyce in 1856 and patented in the fall of 1858. The patent (Letters Patent Number 31977) reads:
My invention relates to a means for preserving fruits, vegetables, or other organic perishable substances; and it consists of a room or chambers guarded externally by walls impervious to moisture or other atmospheric changes, and provided at its upper part with an insulated ice-reservoir, and having within its interior a means of mechanical or chemical agitation of the contained air, thus bringing it in contact with absorbents of moisture, with which the chamber is provided- as chlorides of calcium, magnesium, or other similar substances- my purpose being to keep the interior ingress of moisture and heat.
Fruit House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1938, Historic American Building Survey, Nelson E. Baldwin, photographer. Retrieved from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ny0538.photos.115434p/
The North Family was heavily invested in raising fruit for their family and for sale. By this time they were also eating a vegetarian diet and relied heavily on fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. They were cultivating grains, had built the Great Stone Barn in 1860 to provide a sufficient supply of milk, butter, and cheese, and now had turned their attention to better preserving their fruits and vegetables. Nyce’s Fruit House appeared to be a viable solution to being able to keep fruits and vegetables palatable for a longer period of time. Nyce’s industrial Fruit Houses had been built in Philadelphia and his home town of Cleveland and had received mixed reviews. In principle, by sealing out as much air as possible, providing an absorbent material to remove moisture (this had to be changed regularly), moving the air around the room, and keeping a supply of ice over the fruit room to supply cold air, he achieved some success in extending the time that fruits and vegetables remained fresh. The agricultural press expressed reservations, saying that while apples benefitted from such storage, pears, for example, did not do as well. The Shakers, however, appear to have been satisfied with their Fruit House.
Fruit House Door Frame and Door, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 2018. Staff photograph.
Detail of Cloth Seal on Edge of Fruit House Door, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 2018. Staff photograph.
Shaker buildings often contain little innovations that are not apparent from the way the Shakers named them or how architectural historians interpret them. Unfortunately when they are taken down – for whatever reason – all we have to work with is what little information is left in the written record. For some reason, however, when the Fruit House was dismantled, someone made a decision to preserve – possibly for some future use – the doors and door frame to the storage chamber. The doors are about six inches thick as prescribed by Nyce and appear to be filled with sawdust or chaff. They fit tightly into the frame and the edges are layered with cloth to seal out air and moisture. The doors were discovered in the cellar of the Brick Shop, having apparently been placed there by Darrow School when the building was dismantled.