Kentucky’s Historic Outbuildings: Water, Water Everywhere!

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.

Lulbegrud Creek, Montgomery County, 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.

Early 19th century stone springhouse, Woodford County, Kentucky.

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).

This mid-19th century springhouse in Casey County has a stone lower level, and above it, a frame dry storage area with a cantilevered front gable.

The interior of a historic springhouse might have shallow troughs through which water flowed,  keeping perishable foods fresh and cold.

Stone springhouse, Mason County, Kentucky

Many of Kentucky’s historic springhouses have vanished, as is the pattern  when an outbuilding becomes obsolete.

This Mercer County springhouse, located on the Salt River, has lost  its original overhang or roof.

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.

Well, Crittenden County, Kentucky.

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.

Metal pump cover, Bath County, Kentucky.

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.

This is one of the more unusual cisterns/pump houses I’ve ever seen. Best I can tell, from the metal staves on top of the roof, a wooden cistern was located here and gravity fed into the pump house, which has splayed sides. Clay County, Kentucky.

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.

Raised conical cistern collecting water from a barn roof, Crittenden County, Kentucky.

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.

Well on the porch of a house, Livingston County, Kentucky.

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.

A pump house at a spring in Mercer County, Kentucky.

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.

A pump house behind a house in Livingston County, Kentucky.

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!



Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Rogers Barde says:

    I loved this – the pictures and the explanations. Wonderful. Very important stuff. Thank you!

  2. Lisa says:

    Loved seeing the pictures of the different types of water sources! Keeping water out of the basement is a challenge! Sloping the grade around our house, removing the top soil near the base, replacing and compacting using a clay type soil and fixing gutters has corrected about 90% of our basement flooding issues. Hope everything is going well with the restoration on your new-old house! Don’t know how you have time to keep this information going in your blog, but it’s really so awesome & appreciated!

  3. Bob McWilliams says:

    (Not necessarily intended for publication)

    I am sure you are aware of the old spring house on Weehawken Lane in Frankfort. If not, it’s a nice stone, round example. The owner Kent Scott has not even been inside it.

    I believe that it was part of the Weehawken estate (mansion is beautifully restored). It may predate the mansion back to the property when owned by John Major(?). Also nearby is the John Major(?) stone house purportedly built circa 1784 or thereabouts. Before we were a country if my recollection is correct.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      I know the main house, not the springhouse – I’ll have to look into that!

  4. Bobbi Rightmyer says:

    Excellent article and I loved the photos! Kentucky outbuildings have always interested me!

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thank you!

  5. Annie Jaech says:

    This article is very special. Obviously a work of love. It illustrates why so many prosperous Kentuckians were willing to move westward for one last time – To Missouri, where the lay of the land and composition of forests and prairies are almost similar. 40-50 years ago Missouri’s out buildings were essentially identical except in Missouri, limestone rocks were used. I feel strongly you could sell this in newspaper form to either the Columbia Missourian at Mizzou, or Columbia Tribune. Many Boone county natives considered themselves Kentuckians as recently as 1970. You could easily convince me this is MO; especially the spring house in Mercer. I would say it was at the homestead of Nathan Boone in Defiance, MO, where Dan’l died.
    Fine work!

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thank you so much!

Comments are closed.