Monday, 3 June 2013

Spring Houses: Keeping Things Cool in the 19th Century

  There was a time when nearly every Pennsylvania German and Mennonite farm in Waterloo County would have had one. Varying in size, design and construction there was one thing they all would have had in common: cold and fast-flowing spring water. Many of them were banked i.e. built into a hillside where temperatures were easier to control. Some were built directly over active springs whereas others simply channeled off a section of the spring and directed the flow of the water into a stone masonry channel where the water would continue to flow, unimpeded by anything in its path. The purpose of the continuous flow of cold water was eminently clear: to keep a number of things cool at a time before the advent of electricity or refrigerator.

A peek into the spring house at the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum reveals stone shelves for holding buckets, crocks and barrels that would have been needed for the task of dairying.
An excellent view of the spring water channel where crocks or buckets of fresh cream or milk would be kept refreshingly cool when lowered into the water. 

The gentle slope belies the banking technique of constructing a building into a small hill. At one time a rivulet of fresh water would have flowed freely through this channel and would have easily been able to provide a channel of water for inside the spring house. Many Pennsylvania German and Mennonite homes had used this same technique. Even barns were banked.
Another view of the water channel. One can see the 90 degree angle through which the water would pass. The foundation of the spring house is stone as are the floors and inner shelves. Dairying equipment such as the Mennonite cheese press(on the left) and the barrel churn (right) were typical of the types of things one might find in use. Cows were milked twice daily in the barn by the women (dairying was considered to be women's work) and the buckets of milk would be carried to the spring house. Here they would be stored for a day or two before being churned into butter or longer if used for making the soft cheeses that the Pennsylvania Germans enjoyed.

Cream would rise naturally to the top of the pan of milk and would be skimmed off and transferred to a cream crock. Once they had enough, it could be churned into butter which would normally be sold for a profit. Here both windows are open and demonstrate how they would have provided ventilation and air flow to keep the cooled air fresh, not stagnant.

Setting up the spring bench once the milk buckets were washed and rinsed. The cleaned buckets would be stored upside down to dry in the warm sun.

"Dutch doors" were doors that were split and held the advantage of being able to be closed at the bottom but open at the top. This would also help with the air flow through the building.

Milk and Cream were not the only things that needed to be kept cool. Barrels of cider could also be kept cool in the spring house.
A wooden butter bowl, butter paddles and cream crocks sit along with tin buckets on the stone shelf above the water channel. In the foreground is the wooden cheese press.

 Close-up view of the barrel churn preferred by the Pennsylvania Germans. The cream was poured into the round door and then locked. The barrel sat on wooden legs yet inside paddles were turned to churn the butter by means of a handle fixed to the side of the barrel. Dasher churns were preferred by the British although the Pennsylvania Germans did use them, as well.

As mentioned, the spring house was usually located near a spring or creek, however, it was often one of the furthest outbuildings from the main house. This distance also caused some frustration when a heavy rain threatened to overturn the crocks that had been lowered into them. Louisa Schneider, daughter of pioneer Joseph E. Schneider, complained about how she and her sisters would often have to run out to clean up the mess following a rainstorm when the water level would rise so quickly that it toppled over the crocks of precious cream.

Unfortunately, few examples of early spring houses remain in the Region of Waterloo. Of those that do, only dilapidated and run-down remnants are what is usually left behind. Visible from Bridge Street (formerly known as Country Squire Drive, Waterloo, Ontario) all that remains of this spring house is its shell. The date on its entrance states 1913 but it is believed that is the date of the renovation for the building when key repairs were completed--one of them being a new roof and a concrete exterior patch job that covered much of the original stone masonry.Originally located on the farm of another Schneider family (the Snyder-Gingrich family), the spring house was a fine example of banked stone construction.

A close-up view of the stone work reveals sturdy and exquisite construction. The building was indeed durable and well-made. I often forget that these men who built these were farmers, not contractors.
A boarded up window

Inside, little of its former glory remain. However, one can still see the water flowing freely and quickly through the channel. It might be abandoned and forgotten but amazingly it still works!
Many spring houses had two stories with the upper chamber being used as living quarters or summer houses.Some even had working hearths. If space allowed, the upper storey could also have been used for cheese and butter making. In this abandoned spring house, the walls have been whitewashed and plastered over the stone exterior walls.

It is sad to see such buildings forgotten in time. My heritage conservation self is committed to preserving the memory of this building--at least in photographs.

1 comment:

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