There is a piece of interesting history I recently had the honor of visiting. It all started with Webster, Mass., resident Clayton Harris telling Arlene and me about a strange crypt in East Thompson, Conn., sitting amidst other ruins of a farm just off of East Thompson Road. The accompanying legend states that the owner of the farm constructed the crypt for his daughter who died of a contagious disease. Being in the throes of winter, the ground was impenetrable so her body had to be kept until the spring thaw would allow a proper burial. The crypt was built away from the house as to alleviate the danger of spreading the disease throughout the surviving family.
Although family keeps, as they were called, were a common sight long ago, this particular structure caught attention of certain people for its construction. The chamber has an arched ceiling and the stones were not placed on top of each other forming a gradient beehive style ceiling. Instead, they were laid vertically, fitting tightly into place without the aid of mortar or cement.
Clayton first brought this curious building to our attention during one of our talks on legends of New England. Clayton was once a member of New England Antiquities Research Association and an avid adventurer. He came across the building some years ago while studying other foundations across the road. His inquiries as to the original purpose of the building came up with few facts other than the story that it was a holding crypt. With his kind assistance we were able to visit this alleged chamber of the dead.
The chamber sat a few yards from the present road. Upon arriving at its door, Arlene and I were astonished by its construction, but something was amiss. As we entered, we had to descend a few steps into the apartment, which was the first sign to me that this may not have been what people have claimed. I noticed there were no slabs to keep the deceased. Early keeps had large stone slabs built into the walls to keep the caskets or deceased off the ground. The sides and roof were crafted with precise placement of the stones. The ceiling was almost perfectly rounded and fit tight into the walls. This was much to an elaborate and time-consuming project for the mere storage of the dead.
On the outside, the walls tapered gradually with stonework and a layer of soil that formed a mound over the “crypt.” The doorway, being of granite slabs and having heavy iron hinge pins also made me suspect its declared purpose was not what had been relayed over the years. The front was capped with flat stones as to cover the fieldstone foundation. I conveyed to Clayton that this was not a crypt. It was far too well built and ornamented with layers of fine cut stone for such a crude purpose. What then was it?
Back at home I began looking at my notes of our travels. I then began to recollect the necessary buildings of yesteryear’s farms. That is when it hit me. The structure was an icehouse. New England farms relied on ice year round to preserve their food and ice for their summer drinks. The icehouse became one of the most important structures on the property. There were no refrigerators way back when. Ice was cut from the local ponds and delivered or created on the farm. It became the necessary commodity for keeping provisions year-round and the icehouse was designed to make sure of that.
The building sometimes had two walls separated by a pocket of air wide enough for a man to walk through. Many were constructed underground or at least partially in the ground, especially in the warmer climates. The walls and ceiling had to be thick enough for the ice to keep until the next winter. Snow and ice would be shoveled into the icehouse and packed. Then hay or meadow grass would be used to insulate it. The floor of the East Thompson icehouse is also very hard and packed, meaning that it once held a lot of weight. A heavy door was needed to keep the ice in. The building also had to be strong enough to hold the packed ice. George Washington had trouble keeping his ice until June due to poor construction of his icehouse while Thomas Jefferson built one at Monticello that could preserve ice until the next frost. The East Thompson structure met all of the above criteria, as you will see in the following photographs.
Along with the icehouse are the remains of a barn and a home. A master dry mason constructed the icehouse and foundations of the other buildings. These were very talented builders who could fit stone into place with no mortar or cement. The vertical stone ceiling of this icehouse holds itself in place. Also, being vertical there is more thickness in the roof for added insulation.
Moses Hoyle (6-22-1805 to 1-3-1883) once owned the farm. His wife Caroline lived until 1892. He, his wife, and his children are buried in the East Thompson Cemetery not far from the old homestead. Death records show that none of the children died during the winter months and even if they had, the cemetery would have had a keep for such storage. A few of their children died at a very young age making it unnecessary for such a large building. Among them were Olney who died March 28, 1841, at eight months of age and one-year-old Cora who died on August 27, 1860. Luther, however, died at 18 years of age on November 16, 1860. It would have been easier to bury any one of them as opposed to digging into the ground for the building, as the floor is actually recessed below ground level.
As you read this, you are among the first to now know the true purpose of what was once thought to be a crypt, Underground Railroad stop, armory, farm tool shed, and a host of other claims. One need only to search online by typing in “icehouses” to see other examples of these meticulously crafted early refrigerators.
History does not always mark things clearly but if we put ourselves in our ancestor’s place and forget about what we have today, we can often figure out how they made do with yesterday.
Tom D'Agostino and his wife Arlene Nicolson have written numerour books about paranormal activity in New England, including Haunted Vermont, Haunted Massachusetts, and Haunted Rhode Island. They live in Connecticut.