Among the artifacts which, here and there, still dot the landscape of the land I love and speak to me over the unfolding years, are the spring houses and root cellars of an age and a state of mind fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror of “progress”. Because I will always be a “country person” at heart, I am easily moved by reminders of the provident people from whose solid roots my very DNA flows.
As a young farm kid, I felt a special bond with the regiment of squirrels which foraged the ancient butternut trees that lined a long-deserted roadway on a remote hillside of our Vermont farm. Just before the prized, but hard to crack nuts were ready to harvest for our family’s larder, I would find my tree-leaping competitors had already begun to fill every niche in the nearby field-stone wall in anticipation of the long cold months ahead. (In the end I learned that purloining some of their harvest was easier than climbing or shaking the nut-loaded trees!)
I mention those far-sighted squirrels because their forward-thinking attributes seem to be a metaphor emblematic of the very concept of provident living which has underlined the way I have wished to live my own life; and certainly those who came before me and the way they did live their lives.
Our family root cellar occupied the far northwest corner of the stone-sided and dirt-floored space beneath the old farmhouse itself. As winter approached, we filled its wooden bins with Green Mountain potatoes dug from the Bear Hill acres, Wolf River, Northern Spy, Red Astrachan and Winesap apples from the orchard, sand-packed carrots, beets and parsnips from the garden, and late cabbages just nipped by frost and hung by their roots from overhead beams. Stoneware crocks held dill pickles, sauerkraut and salt pork. Linen-wrapped-and-wax-coated wedges of handcrafted farmhouse cheese aged atop foundation stones in a dryer corner, and a hundred pounds or so of Hubbard squash went to the warmer attic room two floors above.
At the far end of our unheated woodshed, where ten cords of hand-split maple, beech and birch were stacked high, our “Keeping Room’s” paper-lined shelves held the cut-and-wrapped remnants of two Berkshire hogs, including dry-cured hams and corn-cob-and-maple-smoked slabs of bacon. Head-cheese sausage (not my favorite) also hung there, along with other meat products which needed to be kept frozen
Another feature of the Home Place was the Spring House, where ice-cold water piped underground from a hillside spring a quarter-mile away filled both a large trough from which buckets of water would be carried to the livestock in the nearby barn, and a milk house where the ten-gallon cans of each day’s farm product awaited transport to the butter churns of a Boston creamery. Like most farms of the era, that was also where our own jugs of milk, cream and butter would stay fresh in shallow, cold running spring water. On warm summer days, the spring house was also home to buckets of wild blackberries, strawberries and raspberries waiting to be culled and deployed to a myriad of delicious destinations. (We bottled garden and field produce ferociously!)
In our present southern Utah log home, the first space to be “finished off” was the in-house “root cellar” in the northwest corner of the basement. Underground, insulated, with outdoor air-circulation incorporated into the design, it is still a work-in-process, with challenges to be resolved in a climate very different than that of our New England heritage, but filled with the promise of living the “provident” life those long-ago squirrels taught us.
A northern New Jersey hillside root cellar is a classic example of the type prized by farm families of the past and still to be found in America’s northeast; especially in Amish country.
In the years before household refrigerators, a “spring house” like this one would have played an important role in keeping fresh dairy products cold.
Unheated “keeping rooms” enabled country families to protect cured meats and cheeses during the aging process, a matter especially important to immigrant families wishing to preserve old world