Volume IV, No. 4, Summer 1977
Story and photography by Mike Doolin
Many of nature's resources have been put to work for man--rivers for transportation and for power to grind grain and run other types of machinery, and the wind to run windmills to pump water. Another source of nature put to good use by the Ozark people is the natural fresh water spring.
As recently as fifty years ago if farmers didn't have a spring house or other water supply such as a cistern, a dug well or cave nearby, they had trouble keeping food fresh. But with a spring covered with a spring house, they were in pretty good shape. Not only could they keep milk sweet overnight in the summer and store other perishable foods as we do today in a refrigerator, but they had a fresh plentiful water supply for household and farm use.
The spring is a natural source of water that comes out of the ground to flow on the surface. Water from snow and rain falling on the wooded, leaf-strewn hills seeps into the ground. There it filters through the pores and cracks in the thin soil into the layers of rock. The underground of the Ozark plateau is made up mostly of limestone and dolomite rock which is very corrosive and unstable. The surface water, turned slightly acid by filtering through the leaves, dissolves passages through the limestone as it seeps down. That is the reason for the large number of caves, underground rivers and natural springs in the Ozark plateau.
As the water filters through the rocks, it finally reaches a resistant layer that it cannot pass through. It is caught in the pools, the excess flowing horizontally. This ground water which can be tapped for wells or which surfaces as springs is what makes up the underground streams.
Natural erosion often exposes these underground streams. Wind or erosion from surface water that forms rivers, creeks or hollows would create bluffs, hills and valleys, cutting across these underground water ways and cause the water flow to continue on the surface. Many springs flow directly into streams or come out of hillsides and bluffs. Springs also occur on level places. Underground forces may cause the water to flow through the rock strata uphill, rising until it finds a crack or soft enough place to push out of the ground forming a natural fresh water spring.
In many instances the water in these springs accumulates to great quantities and flows underground in cave-like canals. Where such canals reach the surface, as at Big Spring, Round Spring, Bennett spring and Greer Spring, great quantities of water may erupt from the ground creating rushing spring branches that tumble or rush to the nearest rivers.
However, the springs most useful to the early Ozark settlers for home water and cooling uses were the less spectular ones which in early days were plentiful. Then almost every farm would have one or two in varying sizes. This abundance of water was one of the reasons people settled in the hills, even though the soil was not suited for agriculture.
Since the presence of the spring determined the original home site, obviously the spring was near the house. Any spring with enough flow to form a natural or rocked in pool and keep it always full with some run off was adequate for family use. Even drip springs--which did just what the name says, release one drop at a time--by dripping constantly formed big enough pools of water for family supply.
Usually the spring was downhill from the house. Before every meal it was a chore for the women or children to make a trip to the spring house. Nora West remembered, "They used to carry water up from our spring. And time you would get up that steep hill with two buckets of water, you'd know you'd been somewhere." In some cases settlers did nothing to change the spring, going to it several times a day with buckets for household water. Sometimes they improved the natural pool by deepening it and bordering it with flat sandstone rocks so that they could sink a three gallon bucket and not stir up the water. To keep the water good, everyone would clean out leaves and trash continually. But many people who had springs took further advantage of them by building a house either directly over the spring or down from the actual spring a way where the building could be built. The house protected the water supply from contamination from domestic or wild animals and provided a safe place to store food.
The natural fresh water springs were ideal for keeping foods and milk, for they kept an almost constant temperature year around of about 58 degrees. This was cool enough to keep foods fresh in hot weather and warm enough that the constant flow from the spring kept foods and water from freezing in the winter. Though it was not impossible, spring water would hardly ever freeze over. When it did, it was not the spring that froze, but the top water that ran out into the trough or on the ground. Break the ice and the warmer water was flowing underneath. The presence of the spring even affected the air inside the house, being cooler than outside temperature in summer and warmer in winter.
Though the surface temperature did not affect the spring, other weather conditions did. Obviously during dry seasons, especially prolonged ones such as in the mid-thirties and fifties, some springs went dry, and all springs suffered with less water flow because ground water is dependent on rainfall.
Conversely, great quantities of rain affect springs. Surface run-off gets into the spring and muddies up the water. Since water flows through the porous underground water ways of the Ozarks so rapidly, even the underground water becomes dingy for a few days after prolonged or heavy rains. The flow from the springs at these times is greater, sometimes flooding the house temporarily. This was a minor inconvenience, however. In hours, or a day or two at most, the water would clear again and be back at normal levels. Food could be replaced in the house and water used for drinking once again.
Since the main purpose of the springhousese was to keep food, mostly milk and butter, cool and safe for family use, the houses were built with shelves and troughs for holding containers of food. Earliest houses were built of logs on sandstone foundations, but they soon rotted out. Later more permanent ones were built of thick rock walls for better insulation. Some were constructed simply of rough oak with no attempt at insulation, but only as a protection against animals and wind. Most houses were small from 6x8 feet to 8x10 feet. Some were as large as fourteen feet square, but the larger the building, the harder it was to keep cool.
The simplier ones had dirt or gravel floors with rocked-in troughs to set crocks of milk around which the spring water could flow, or deeper places where sealed jars or fruit like mellons could be immersed in the water. Still later some houses had troughs built deep enough to set milk cans. When cement was available, houses were built with poured concrete floors having spillways or troughs for the water to flow through. The spring water might be piped in or flow directly into the troughs which were often lined with gravel that acted as a filter. In some houses the troughs had wider places or deeper places designed for storing different foods that needed to be in direct contact with the cool water. Then at the other end of the house would be an outlet, a hole or pipe or trough for water to continue on its way. Often it would flow outside into a trough or pool for watering the stock.
Inside there were usually shelves to set food on and nails to hang meat and other foods.
Before farmers had cream separators, they had to let their milk stand in open crocks for the cream to rise to make the butter they sold. Some, such as the Fern Dale Creamery of the Creed Summers family, used the spring house for their dairy business. After milking the cows, they put the milk in large crocks until the cream rose to the top and could be skimmed off and sold or made into butter. Since this process took several hours, the milk had to be kept sweet. The spring house was also a holding place for the cream and butter until taken to Springfield, Missouri, the closest dairy distributor at that time. Milk would keep in the water for three or four days.
The Summers family also made cheese and butter at the spring house, putting them into crocks and lowering them into the trough to store. The water flowed around the crocks and over sealed containers keeping things fresh.
Some people kept stone jars of pickles in the springhouses. Cucumbers were put into crocks with brime and were kept there while making pickles. After the brime had finished its work of turning cucumbers into pickles, Adley Fulford remembers they would pour the pickles and brine out on the concrete slab and let the spring water run over them to wash out the salty brime.
Some meats were also kept in the spring house. If the house kept itself cool enough, fresh meats like chickens and beef would be placed on shelves to cool out a few feet above the water trough and would keep good for overnight or a day or two. If not cool enough, the meat would be put in containers and placed in the water. Cured pork not consumed during the winter might be moved from the smokehouse and hung on nails on the wall during hot weather to keep it from getting so strong.
The family laundry was often done by the spring house in the shade of a big tree. Since most of the springhouses were a distance from the main house, it was easier to do the washing at the spring house. It was a lot easier to take the wash down to the spring than it was to carry the water to the house, even in the wintertime. The women dipped the water into large black kettles and heated it with a wood fire underneath. With scrub board and lye soap in hand, they washed their clothes.
Bathing was not done there for the water was too cold, even in the sun, her. People carried the water to the house to heat for bathing.
Creed Summers summed it all up, "We always done our washing down there...and everything down there. It was just as cool and nice. Oh, it was a fine place, there ain't no question about that."
Lois Beard agreed, "Our spring house on my old home place was a beautiful place and clean as a pin. We did a lot Of our work down there-our laundry in summertime, our food in the summertime and carrying water for the house anytime of the year. We just really enjoyed the spring and spring house."
People were not the only ones that enjoyed the moist coolness. Adley Fulford said, "You might find a snake or a frog or something in there. We always kept some little perch fish in the spring We just kept them cause we liked them. We fed them butter. They liked it. They'd get very tame after while. We could put in a little flake of butter and they would come up and almost eat it out of our hands. Course, we liked to watch them play in there. We generally had, oh, a half a dozen little ones in there."
All the uses discussed so far have to do with work. But after a hard day of work in the hot fields for the men and a hot day in the kitchen for the women, the spring house was a good place to go in late afternoon. The adults would pull up a seat, open the door to the spring house, sip on a cool drink of good tasting water or lemonade made of cold spring water and relax, while the children played school or house. The spring house made a dandy air conditioner, too.
Every bit of the water going through the spring house was used. After the water cooled the food and washed the clothes, it ran out on to the ground or into trough for the cattle and other stock to drink from. What the livestock didn't use evaporated, sank back into the ground or, if the flow from the spring was great enough, flowed down to a creek or river to begin the cycle again.
Though rarely used anymore, there are springhouses still standing, some in excellent shape, some quite dilapidated. Following are descriptions, photographs, drawings and floor plans of four different, yet typical houses.
Creed Sumuners' spring house located in a hollow between two hills was built directly over a spring that used to run a four inch stream of water. The walls were constructed of native sandstone about one foot thick. It had a concrete floor and trough that the spring ran through. A shelf was built over the trough on one side of the room against the wall to set things on. It had one small door and six small windows, three on a side high on the wall. The wooden framed ceiling was roofed with metal.
This spring house once used in their dairy business is well over a hundred years old and would still be standing intact if a tree hadn't fallen on one corner of the roof. But since the house was no longer used, the damage was not repaired.
Nora West's spring house was constructed of sandstone like the first except for one outstanding thing. There is no back wall. The back wall is a hill or bluff, for this spring house was built up against a spring that came out of the bluff. The sills are crossed at the corners and held together with wooden pins driven in. This spring house is very small, about nine feet square with only one door and no windows.
The spring that came out of the hill flowed through the concrete trough which was about three feet off the ground and about eighteen inches deep. The water then ran out a hole in the front wall into an oval shaped trough used for watering livestock. The excess water then ran out into a branch which emptied into Goodwin Hollow.
This spring used to have a strong flow and a big pool of water. Mrs. West said she stopped using it in 1955 because the water was disappearing and what was left was getting bad. There is very little water there now. She believes that the five wells drilled near there and the dry years have weakened the stream.
The third spring house is the best preserved of them all and is still being used. This house has a totally different appearance from the other two. It is about six by eleven feet with an overhanging roof or porch extending about three feet over the spring area. The walls are about six feet high, with the first two and one-half feet concrete and the remainder oak frame. It has one door leading into the side and no windows.
The spring in this house comes out right under the porch roof, runs through the house and flows out the back into a creek; On the backwall opposite the porch are shelves to keep things in storage.
This spring house is near the old Dalton School. Since the one room country school had no water supply, the children would carry their buckets to the spring, fill them and carry them back to school. The house that used to be on the place when the spring house was built burned. When the Floyd Smiths rebuilt, they installed an electrical pump in the spring house to pump the spring water to their new home.
The fourth spring house is probably the oldest, as it still has some logs used in its construction. All the studdings are logs which have been hand-hewn to a rectangular shape. The sidings are oak, the roof wooden shingles. The house now sits in a picturesque spot under sycamore trees in a meadow beside a pond.
This spring house is of fairly good size (13x20 feet) with two rooms. The outside door opens into a room which was the original house where the spring was. Years ago someone had dug a hole or open cistern about eight feet deep and lined it with rocks. Down in the hole about a foot is where the spring came out. The water accumulated in the well until it overflowed and ran out a channel.
To the right is a door leading into the second room of the house which was built in 1925. It has a concrete floor divided by a runway constructed to channel the water. There are concrete shelves for cooling. The water spilled through a hole in the well through the floor of the first room into an open channel in the cement floor of the second room. The floor of this room is lower than the top of the well. Water from the spring was channeled in two inch troughs to a larger and slightly deeper holding area, then to one much deeper (about eighteen inches) and then out the far end of the house.
Like so many springs, this one is now dry With only a few inches of water in the bottom of the deep hole.
The coming of electricity to rural areas in the early 1940's to power refrigerators made the springhouses obsolete. People drilled wells closer to the house and pumped water directly to the kitchen for all household uses. No longer did the women have to carry loads of clothes to the spring house to wash, then lug the wet ones back to hang on the line. Modern dairy farmers installed electric milk coolers to hold their whole milk to await the refrigerated milk trucks coming to the farm to pick it up.
Even stock do not use the spring water much now. Farmers have ponds in every pasture and automatic waterers in the barnyards. With air-conditioning in most homes, no one needs the spring house to cool off.
The deserted springhouses are falling down on top of the springs, some of which are now dry anyway, because of the lowered water tables. Less forest acres which cause more surface run-off and less seepage in the ground and greater use of underground water from the thousands and thousands of drilled wells in every county have both slowed down or stopped the flow in many springs.
As is the case in so many other ways of working with nature in the older way of life in the Ozarks, the importance and use of springs and springhouses now is only in the memories of our older people such as this account from Lois Roper Beard's new book, Reflections.
There were loose rocks in the path that went down to Granny's Spring which caused stumped toes and spilled water. But it was never too great a chore to carry the water for household use. For that water, as was the spring itself, was priceless. No drink was ever so refreshing as a cup of cold water from Granny's Spring.
The family who lived with Granny in her last years was so good to her. They would carry her favorite chair out to the shade on the east side of the house on hot days and place it near the cool air from the open cellar door. There she would rock and fan with her turkey wing fan. The children, eager to please Granny, would run down to the spring to fetch a cup of cold water for her to drink.
There were two springs at Granny's. They were just a little piece apart. Each one was used for a different purpose. The upper one provided for the family. A quaint little spring house sat over this one. The inside was kept spotlessly clean. The large flat rock that formed a shelf above the rock-walled hole of water was a convenient place to set one bucket while the other was being filled.
The spring water overflowed through the milk trough, which was also made of large flat rocks. The gallon crocks of milk kept cool and sweet in the water while the cream would rise and be skimmed each morning. The cream was churned and made into butter. The skimmed milk was shared with a neighbor whose cow was dry. When no one needed it, the skimmed milk was allowed to sour to be made into clabber cheese.
The lower spring at Granny's furnished water for the horses. There was a log pen built around it, with a trough made from a split hollow log along one side, where water was dipped up and poured in for the horses to drink. The pen also kept other livestock out on open range out of the spring.
A large leaning chinquapin tree provided shade and cooling breezes around the lower spring. The abundance of water was shared. Neighbors were always welcome to do their weekly wash in the shade of that big tree. The big iron kettle was kept in place on the three flat rocks with plenty of wood for the fire to heat the water for the rub and to boil the white clothes. The punching stick, when not in use, was kept in a convenient place in the spring house.
The plentiful supply of water from Granny's Spring was shared with many folk to be used in many ways. The Indermuehle brothers used it to keep their big stream engine filled to make steam power to run their sawmill.
It was used in molasses making to clean up the pans after a day of boiling molasses. There were uses for water most every day around the blacksmith shop. Travelers who lived close by, as well as those from a distance, found refreshment and comfort at Granny's Spring.
Granny's springs are still flowing freely. Many gallons of water run down the branch. But there's no longer need for someone to carry it to the house. Modern country living has changed things. Now an ample supply of water is provided from the deep well and the electric pump. Just a turn of the faucet does the trick.
But memories linger and that little shivering, quivering screech owl still sends chills down the spine as when children Played late and forgot to carry up the night water. The moon shadows were equally frightening.
We recall the many mud pies that were made with the spring water and set to dry in the playhouse. Or the time when Little Roy ran on ahead of his big brothers to have the water trough filled for the teams at noon. The big bucket of water was too heavy and Roy went in the spring head first. But big brother was there just in time to grab a foot and lift him out.
Memories are treasures. It was wonderful to have lived in the childhood of yesteryears.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.