Spring Houses were

Valuable Additions to the Farmstead

Robert Wood


A spring house was a valuable addition to the early farmstead. A good, year round spring on a property often influenced the location of the dwelling house and barn. The spring house usually was built directly over the spring and served as a cover, protection it from dirt, leaves, livestock, and other foreign material, but it also served as food storage area and sometimes work area. Before wells were dug, the spring was also the household water source.

Since springs usually emanated from the bases of hillsides, the springhouse was often a sort of bank house. The hillside above the spring would be excavated a bit and stone walls built so that the spring room was partly below grade. Sometimes, depending on the contour of the land, the springhouse would be built below the spring and the spring water flowed into the spring room from outside through a channel. As with most structures, there was no exclusive way of construction, but each was adapted to on site land contours.

The spring itself was often dug out, and lined with stones so that a stone lined pool of cold water a foot or two below the surface level of the floor was available to keep fresh such perishables as milk, cream, butter, cheese, meats, vinegar and cider. The water coming from underground was about 55 degrees year round; not as cold as our refrigerators, but a lot better than the farm house kitchen in summer. In winter the relatively warm water kept the interior above freezing.

Usually the water flowed from the stone lined pool into a channel or channels in the spring house floor and then outside to form a small stream. In Berks County where the springs are stronger, it was not uncommon to have the spring house outlet lead to a pond where locally caught trout, catfish, bluegills and such were held until they supplied the family with fresh fish.

The floors were usually brick or flat stones and set a foot or two below the ground level. In the spring and in the water channels leading from it rested the jugs, earthen pots and vessels, pans and jars, their contents kept cold in the flowing water. The interiors tended to be rather dark as there were few windows  if any, the open door also admitting light.

The structure itself was built of stone and in the early days furnished with a roof of thatch, split oak shingles, or clay tiles. Size and shape varied widely.  Some were little more than a low, squat, stone “box” about ten feet on a side containing not more than the spring itself. Others were almost small houses with a second story and a fireplace to heat water. Hired men could live on the second floor. Because the inside atmosphere tended to be humid and moderated by the flow of cold water, the larger spring houses also served as a storage place for apples, beets carrots, turnips and other vegetables and foods.

Cream for butter making was kept cool and sweet  in the spring house water until enough had been collected for churning, and in the larger ones often the churning itself, salting, and finally molding the butter was done inside. Stone or wooden shelves were built around the sides to hold the various bowls, tubs, and containers needed for this chore.

There are few perennial springs in New Hanover since the shales of New Hanover bed-rock are fractured and porous and do not hold surface water very well. Most of our springs are small “winter springs” flowing when the ground is saturated, but drying up when most needed in the heat of summer. The exception is in the more northern areas that are underlain with traprock. Lying  well below the surface, the impervious trap rock prevents rain water infiltration and so rain water pools above it and migrates down-grade until breaking out as a spring.

Many New Hanover farmers compensated for the lack of springs by constructing “caves” or root cellars in combination with their hand dug wells. The arched roof of the cave was covered with a few feet of earth while a two foot by three foot “hole” in the cave’s back wall opened directly over the hand dug well. The well was a pool of cold water into which a bucket with the perishables could be lowered. The cave itself tended to be cooled by the open well.

There are all sorts of lore associated with springs and spring water. One bit that I have observed to be true is that, “when the winter springs start flowing in the summer, that means rain is coming.” Perhaps decreased air pressure allows the earth to “rise” and open miniscule cracks in the bedrock. Atmospheric pressure being 14.7 pounds per square inch produces over 45,000 tons per acre, a slight decrease in pressure might open cracks in the bedrock. A fraction of a millimeter would be enough to allow seepage.



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