Learn with Hanford Mills

Create Your Own Ice House




Learn how ice houses work and how different types of insulation affect ice melting.


Students will read an article about the history of Hanford Mills that includes information on the closing of the Mill business and will explore the local and national trends that contributed to the closing.


  • Illustration of ice house interior
  • Cardboard boxes (enough for the different types of insulation used) – all the boxes should be the same size
  • Scissors
  • Plastic garbage bags (one per box – big enough to fit inside box)
  • Tape
  • Trays or pans to place under the boxes to provide a place for water to drain into.
  • Ice blocks (size depends on size of box) – all the ice blocks should be the same size
  • Different insulation materials (such as: hay, cloth, sawdust, Styrofoam, air space, down, etc.)
  • A modern food cooler – try to find one about the same size as the boxes


  • Preparation Time: 30 minutes
  • Class Time: 30 minutes
  • Wait Time: 1-2 days – depends on size of ice, box, & melt time


  • Go over how an ice house works with your students using the ice house illustration. The ice house is where the harvested ice was stored until it was needed during the warmer months. In order to efficiently preserve ice, an ice house should have: good ventilation (so warm air can escape the building), insulation on all sides of the ice (to protect the ice from exterior warmth), and proper drainage (ice melts faster if it sits in water – water is an excellent conductor of heat). There were many different types of ice houses. Hanford Mills Museum’s ice house uses a combination of a six inch air space between its inner and out walls and at least six inches of sawdust around the ice to act as an insulator. There are two vent holes near the roof of the building, and the house sits on bare dirt ground so water can drain away.
  • Make ice houses in class. You may make all the ice houses as one class, or you may choose to break the class into small groups to make their own ice houses each with a different insulation material.
    • Ask students to follow these steps in creating their ice houses:

    • Cut a small hole (about 1 inch in diameter) in the bottom of the box.
    • Line the box with plastic, but make an opening in the plastic that matches the opening in the box to allow for adequate drainage.
    • Pull the plastic hole through the hole in the box and tape it down so water can’t seep into the box material. Make sure that the water will be able to drain from the box.
    • Balance the box on a tray or pan, but be sure the box does not sit in the tray. The tray will allow water to leave the box without getting water all over the floor.
    • Cut small ventilation holes in the two of two sides of the box to allow warm air to leave the box.
    • Choose an insulation material and place it in the bottom of the box (use a different material for each box).
    • Put ice in the box leaving some room on all sides and on top for more of the chosen insulation. Record the size of the block.
    • Fill the sides and cover the ice with the chosen insulation material.
    • Seal the box and label it with the type of insulation used.
    • Place another block of ice in the cooler and close. Record the size of the block when you start.
    • Which block of ice will take the longest to melt?
    • Will the cooler ice melt faster or slower? Remember the cooler has no ventilation or adequate drainage.
    • Check the boxes at least once a day.
    • Record how much ice remains in each box every time you check. Do a quick measure of blocks when you check. Don’t expose the blocks to the room temperatures for too long.
    • Ask the following questions after making the ice houses:

    • Cut a small hole (about 1 inch in diameter) in the bottom of the box.
    • Where you surprised by what you learned?
    • Why do you think certain insulations worked or didn’t work?
    • What other types of insulation would you like to try?
  • Participation in experiment
  • Class participation in answering questions (listening and speaking)


  • Participation in experiment
  • Class participation in answering questions (listening and speaking)

NYS Learning Standards:

  • ELA 1
  • MST 1
  • MST 4
  • MST 7

Vocabulary & Spelling Words:

Drainage – n. a way for water gradually leave a place.

Ice Harvest – n. a group effort to cut ice from a pond, lake, or river for the purpose of saving the ice to use for refrigeration.

Icehouse – n. a building for storing ice.

Insulation – n. material used to prevent or reduce the passage, transfer, or leakage of heat.

Ventilation – n. a way to let heated air leave a room or building and be replaced with fresh air.