Spring Houses, Important Buildings in the Past

By Nancy Bender

         Folklore Associated with Spring Houses
If there are no bullfrogs in the spring house, the water is no good.
To have healthy feet one had to bathe them in the spring water every evening.
If you dipped the hands and feet of a newborn into spring water, the child would never suffer frostbite of the hands or feet.
It was gospel that when a spring went dry and became moist again suddenly, a heavy rain was expected. 

From a work by Amos Long, Jr.

         Spring houses probably go back to Colonial times.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they were a part of the rural landscape.  They were a good way to keep the water pure, and they were a natural refrigeration.  On the hottest day in the summer spring water in a spring stays at a temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

         When the early settlers in Colonial days looked for a place to build a home, one of the first things that they looked for was a good spring.  When the spring had walls built around it and a springhouse built over it, it was a year-long refrigerator.  Ledges and places to hang meat, vegetables, and fruit were made of stone and metal hooks.  Early spring houses still survive while other outside buildings have failed to survive.  Where no natural spring is near, another source of running water, a small creek or a diverted part of a larger creek, can be used.

         Spring houses were usually a small structure of either wood or stone.  Early spring houses were built of logs, but the wood did not last long because of the constant dampness.  Spring houses were usually rock structures built over a flowing spring.  Rock was used as rock holds cold, and during floods solid rock spring houses did not wash away.  Spring houses were made with stone or brick walls and floors.  The dampness rotted wood rapidly.  Construction was hard work and took precious time.  But, when finished, a spring house usually outlasted any other outbuilding.

         As farmers worked their land, a constant supply of fieldstone made a good material to use for building the little houses that would keep their supply of fresh water clean, pure, and protected.  Farmers who did not have a spring for a spring house had a dug-out cellar.

         The location of a spring on a farm and the spring house that was built over the spring made the decision of where the house and barn would be built an easy one.  The house and barn needed to be on a different level and a distance away from the spring house to keep the purity of the water.

         Before wells were dug, a spring supplied all the water for animals and humans.  A spring house was built to keep dirt, leaves, and other impurities out of the water.  Preferably they were built over a spring or the water was piped to the location of the spring house.

         Gravel was placed into the water channel in the spring house on the earth floor, and a small pool was dug in the channel for large containers.  Water would run through the pool and out an opening,  This would create a stream.  The stream could be tapped into to fill water troughs for the farm animals, and an area of water was sometimes created for fire protection. In some cases some of the pools would be stocked with fish to add a change to the menu.

         The one big problem with spring houses is that one had to have a spring.  Not every farm had a spring.  If there were a spring on a farm, there was very likely a spring house.

         Spring houses came in a variety of sizes.  A small spring house would be one room with no windows.  An open door was the only light.  One or two people could work in a small spring house.   Food and drink were put into earthenware or stoneware crocks or jars.  Produce and eggs could be stored on ledges that were built into the spring house.  Milk placed in cans and freshly churned butter in tubs were usually put into the walled-in spring.  When a second floor was built, it provided a drier storage area for items that would not do well with too much dampness.      Larger spring houses would have a fireplace and perhaps a second floor.  The upstairs could be used for sleeping for hired hands or tradesmen who would pass by

         A spring house with two separate rooms was typical, a room for making butter and cheese and a room to store supplies.  This supply room had the spring pool.  In this way the milk and milk products could be kept cool. Vegetables, fruit, barrels, jugs of cider and vinegar could be stored as well.  Prepared foods were placed into crocks and partially submerged in the water.  The second room was used to separate the cream from the milk and to churn the cream into butter.  Butter was used in food preparation but was also used  as a dressing for burns and cuts as the farmers thought that butter had a healing ability.  If there were a fireplace in the second room, this became a place to do laundry in cold weather.  Butchering and making soap could also  be done in this second room.

         Many spring houses had two levels with a second floor that had windows, a fireplace, and a separate door.  Early Colonials lived in these nearly perfect little buildings until a larger house could be built.  Then the spring house was taken over by the women of the family, and the second level was used for making butter and cheese. 

         Early butter churns were made like barrels with hoops that held them together.  A number of butter churns were operated by treadmills powered by dogs or sheep.

         Later as dairy farms were developed, deep troughs were built in these little houses to cool milk.  A spring house also came to be called a milk house.  Spring houses stayed in used until sometime around the second half of the twentieth century.

         About the middle of the 1800s creameries and butcher shops started to arrive in rural areas.  Therefore, making the butter and cheese and doing the butchering at home started leaving the spring house.  Wells started to take the place of springs.  Spring houses did not stop being natural refrigerators but stayed in use as coolers until the 1930s.

         The length of time for electricity and refrigeration to come to industrial farms figured into the length of time that spring houses were used. 

         Meat was hung in a spring house until cooking or smoking.  The icebox, the forerunner of the refrigerator, took the place of the spring house.

         The real purpose of a spring house was to be able to keep perishable food such as meat, fruit, or dairy products for a longer time that would otherwise spoil.  Sometimes a spring was used without a spring house.

         Spring houses were critical to the survival and development of farms.  Spring houses were the most common outbuildings.  Probably they were outnumbered  by only barns and privies.  Spring houses started as outbuildings to preserve and to refrigerate food for the survival of farm families.  Today they are a decorative symbol of by-gone days.  They should be preserved as they preserved for the future.

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