Let’s talk about water. It’s been on my mind a great deal over the few days, as we saw the water in our cellar rise and the rain gauge overflow at six inches plus of precipitation in 24 hours. But besides my rain barrel (and the basement, sadly), we weren’t collecting any of that water, since we’re hooked up to “city water.” But the retention and protection of clean running water historically has always been a priority, and if you’re lucky, you may spot a historic springhouse or pump house in rural Kentucky.
One of the most essential elements on every Kentucky farm was water and a reliable water source. As EuroAmerican settlers moved into Kentucky, sites were chosen because of water. While a dependable spring was a blessing, it sometimes was not ideally located to the rest of the buildings on the farm. In order to protect the water source, and provide a cool storage space for dairy products and other perishable food items, many farmers constructed a building over the head of the springs.
Springhouses in Kentucky are typically square or rectangular, stone or brick buildings. Dry storage rooms above the springhouse are common, and these areas may be constructed of log or frame, but the lower level (the area in contact with the water) was always masonry – for obvious reasons (a wood springhouse wouldn’t be around for long).
The interior of a historic springhouse might have shallow troughs through which water flowed, keeping perishable foods fresh and cold.
Many of Kentucky’s historic springhouses have vanished, as is the pattern when an outbuilding becomes obsolete.
Springhouses aren’t the only historic outbuilding associated with water, of course. Most historic farms in Kentucky have pumps, cisterns, and wells, sometimes one of each.
Wells were hand dug during the nineteenth century, and lined with brick or stone. Sometimes a hand pump (sometimes simply the pump apparatus, sometimes encased inside a decorative metal cover) would be placed over the well covering, but water could also be hauled up with a rope and bucket.
Raised conical cisterns, often brick covered with a veneer of poured concrete, were common in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These cisterns collected water from gutters on houses and outbuildings. The water then flowed through an underground pipe, either by gravity or through a pump, to its desired location.
Farms might have multiple cisterns to collect and store water, and complicated system of piping and pumping to deliver the water. The most efficient way to deliver the water from the cistern was a pump at the cistern itself, since it is easier to push rather than pull water to its desired location.
Poured concrete exterior cisterns, either square or rectangular in shape are a common sight on farmsteads. Another common type is the cistern included on an enclosed porch of the main house.
Pump houses became common on Kentucky farms starting around 1930. Pumps moved the water up from a well or cistern. Constructed to hold pump machinery, these small structures are square or rectangular, and built of frame, poured concrete or concrete block.
They typically have a front gable or shed roof, and one human-sized opening on the front. Many have steps leading down to the pump equipment – the below-grade location helped insulate the pipes from freezing.
Our cellar is now free of water, but we have a long list of issues to address to try and keep the water out in the next big rain – and then perhaps I can turn my attention to our cistern – no longer hooked up to the gutter system, but capable of holding much more water than my 75-gallon rain barrel. We may not need the water for drinking or bathing, but my garden would certainly benefit from the collected rainwater. And water conservation makes sense no matter the weather forecast!