The Ice Can Stove: A Brief History

An uncommon version of an ice can stove fitted with a large chimney cap and a damper on the flue.

In backcountry campsites scattered throughout the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties lie the rusty remains of ice can stoves. In some places the wood-burning relics mark the long lost locations of old trail camps and are all that remain of sites that, as Craig R. Carey reminds us, “have been abandoned, removed, or forgotten.”

The stoves endure in various states of decay. Some are little more than remnant pieces of folded up, rusted out sheet metal riddled with bullet holes, while others are still in surprisingly good condition and functional. The creation of a California butcher nearly one hundred years ago, the stoves were fabricated from metal boxes that had once been used as molds to produce block ice.

A closer view of the chimney cap. The coiled wire handle of the flue damper is visible on the right and was used to control the intensity of the fire by increasing or decreasing the amount of oxygen flowing into the stove box.

The following brief history of the ice can stove was written by Bob Burtness and published in his guidebook, “A Camper’s Guide to the Tri-county Area: Santa Barbara – Ventura – San Luis Obispo.” The story is reprinted here with permission from Mr. Burtness.

The Ice Can Stove In Retrospect

Did you ever wonder why an ice can stove is called an “ice can stove?” Even though it looks more like a miniature steam engine without wheels, it began life as neither a steam engine nor a stove.

It all started back in 1919 when a butcher in Banning built a stove from a 100 pound ice mold, a steel container which, before the days of refrigeration, was used to freeze water into blocks for domestic and commercial use or loaded into freight cars filled with perishable food or other cargo requiring cool temperatures for shipment. The butcher showed it to Forest Ranger S. A. Nash-Boulden who expressed interest in it because it “had a tight bottom, top and sides.” It therefore heated quickly, provided a large cooking surface, and didn’t blacken pots and pans.

The butcher gave Nash-Boulden an ice can, and before the year was over, several of them were installed in some campgrounds. They proved to be so popular that the butcher offered the Forest Service all of his discarded ice molds. A short while later, the 100 pound size was superseded by a large 300 pound size. These were widely used, thanks to the early efforts of Mr. Nash-Boulden, in the 1920s and 1930s. During the Depression many of them were placed by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps who also built trails, campgrounds, debris dams, retaining walls, bridges, and other public works in order to have jobs, during a time when it was hard to obtain them, and also contribute toward the public good.

Although other camp stoves have been designed and put into use since the 1920s, the ice cans predominated into the 1930s and were still in general use in the 1950s. Even today one may still find examples in isolated campsites.

They did have disadvantages, though. They were always considered makeshift stoves (suggesting, at the same time, a good example of recycling), and the light sheet metal warped with heat. And, as we all know, nothing lasts indefinitely for weather, time, use, and abuse have exacted their tolls against these venerable veterans of the wilderness.

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5 Responses to The Ice Can Stove: A Brief History

  1. craig says:

    Great topic and entry, Jack. I’d been tinkering with something similar myself.

  2. steve says:

    Thank you for the story and the research you put into it. After seeing pictures and references to the stoves by CRC and EW i had decided i would research them sometime (couldn’t imagine where their name had it’s origins). You’ve demystified them for me and offered a few great visual examples to boot. Anyone have a suggestion of a location with a stove in operable condition please speak up. Would love to give one a try.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good to have some history, thank you for posting it. I will be hiking around Pine Mountain some time soon, and would love to know how to actually use one of these. Any info is appreciated. Thanks!

    • Jack Elliott says:

      They’re really more a relic of a bygone era that have been left in place by the Forest Service than an effectively functioning piece of equipment. I think it’s pretty rare that anybody uses them these days and the few that do do so as a novelty for fun as much as for cooking.

      To use one, if you find one in useable condition, stoke up a fire inside the firebox and place your pot or pan atop the box. Maybe if you’re lucky and get a raging hot enough fire you may be able to boil water in twenty minutes. 🙂

      Most are so badly rusted out, and warped so the bottom of a pot won’t sit flush on the firebox and so will not absorb heat effectively, that it’s not possible to use them with much success. But there are a few remaining that could probably be made to function as they once did in their heyday.

  4. Eric Snow says:

    Greetings Jack,
    The Ice Can Stove was superseded in Northern California by the Klamath Stove. My brothers and myself (when I can) camp in the Pearch Creek Campground by Orleans with our families and our friends every year. My older brother and I like the stoves in the Pearch Creek Campground so much because they work so well we decided to build a couple for ourselves. Looking up the history of the Klamath Stove I found a reprint online of a USFS publication that described the Ice Can Stove and its replacement the Klamath Stove. But the history of the Ice Can Stove wasn’t in the publication. Then I found your brief history and explanation of the name. Thanks for that. I know my brothers will be interested in it too. Since our home made Klamath Stoves are built from 1/4″ steel plate they will outlast the Ice Can variety but won’t have the cool history (oops! a pun) and your great historical description.

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