Monday, July 18, 2011

Spring House

In the days before refrigeration, settlers sought after property that had a spring or was near a spring.  A cool branch was also desirable.  A small house was built up over the spring or branch and a small pool dug where perrishable items such as cheese, butter and eggs were stored to prolong shelf life.  This was called a 'spring house' and was quite significant to household  resources.  In the absence of a spring, the cool waters of a deep well was utilized by lowering the food in an animal bladder or hide that was stitched up.  In areas where there were basements, a room was constructed and lined with mud and straw as a crude insulation where ice was stored throughout the year.  The basements of many houses  also had a cheese room, where they used their excess milk to make cheese and store it.  Butter also was coated with salt on the outside and stored in the basement.  More affluent pioneers had ice houses, insulated in the same manner.  Thomas Jefferson had an ice house.  There was quite a thriving business where northern ice was carved out in the winter, stored and delivered to warmer areas through out the year.  The era of the ice man is quite well remembered by many alive today, especially after there became ice plants where ice was made for the more common ice box of the early 1900s.  The means of making ice was discovered around 1840, but it was not in common practice until much later.  Electricty did not spread to rural areas until the 1930s and after and it was only afterwards that available markets developed for household refrigerators.  I remember, and I was born in 1948, my grandfather having an ice box in his fish camp on Lake Talquin.  He put blocks of ice in the top of the box and it cooled the goods stored below it.  Worked quite well as I remember.
    Meats, poultry and fish were another story.  They were eaten entirely when caught or killed during warmer months.  In the winter, they were kept frozen, or in warmer climates salted and/or smoked.  Hog killings were never held during the summer, only in the winter.  Jerked or dried meats were common.  Game was mostly hunted in winter with more vegetables, fish and chicken used in the warmer months.  Game, especially small game, tend to have a higher infestation of worms and bugs during warm weather that dies off during cold weather and were saved for winter fare.  Eggs were sometimes preserved by pickling with salt and vinegar water but for the most part canning was not practiced other than for pickles, jams and jellies.  Jams and jellies were sealed off with wax, about 1/4 inch thick.  Pickles were stored in crocks with heavy lids.  Cannning and the Mason jar are relics of the 1900s,as are the era of frozen foods.  Freeze dried, dehydration and other packaging have come later.
     Some vegetables, especially root vegetables, can be stored for longer periods in basements, in sand pits or straw beds; grains store also.  Better methods of storing grains have now been developed.  Mylar bags and oxygen depletion packets store grains for many years without the danger of bug infestation and is easy to accomplish with a hot iron seal at home.  I have never tried this, but I understand that a watermelon buried in the summer several feet deep in fairly dry sand can be dug up and eaten for Thanksgiving and will be perfectly ripe; certainly chilled in a spring house would taste much better.
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