A Real Spring House
My research showed how important spring houses had been in the Appalachians in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Scots-Irish wouldn’t buy a piece of property without a good flowing spring to put spring house. In fact, one of the main reasons the Appalachians were so attractive to Scots-Irish settlers was the availability of springs coming out of the hills. The water from the spring kept milk, eggs, and other perishables cool. I guess you could say the spring house was the earliest known refrigerator!
However, my only idea of what one looked like was a childhood memory of my grandmother’s spring house, near where the Pedernales River flows into the Colorado River in Travis County, Texas – near today’s Old Ferry Road. When I looked for pictures of spring houses, I couldn’t find anything that looked like what I remembered – a rough stone building set in the side of a hill over a spring.
This is what I said about the Mitchells’ spring house in my book:
There was a clear running spring that Robert determined would be a perfect place to build a spring house like the Mitchell Clan had back in Ireland. The men explained to young Adam that in the Old Country there were many natural springs flowing around the Ulster countryside, and the Scots-Irish would build spring houses around them. The constant temperature of the water coming from under the ground would keep the dairy products and eggs cool during the summer and keep them from freezing in the winter. The spring houses also made great steam rooms on very cold nights, and the spring water was much better for distilling corn whisky than water from a creek.
After I wrote the book, I wanted a picture of a spring house on the cover. I found the artist Kim Downing fairly late in the publication process, so she didn’t have a lot of lead time to paint a picture for the cover. Though I tried to describe what I wanted, Kim couldn’t quite grasp what I meant. Her first attempt was a lovely picture, but it didn’t look anything like the spring house in my mind. Fortunately, Kim is a talented and flexible artist, and after much discussion, she re-did the picture in record time. The final product matched my vision.
On my recent trip, Wanda Day of Limestone, TN, contacted me by e-mail. She had purchased a home believed to have been built by William Fain, son of the famous Nicholas Fain. Three of Nicholas Fain’s sons, including William, married three of John McMachen’s daughters (sisters to Elizabeth Mitchell, Adam’s second wife). Wanda wanted to know if I could authenticate that William Fain had built the house in the early 1800s. Although I’m not an expert, I offered to take a look and share what I knew about the architecture and history of the period. When I visited the house and talked to local residents familiar with its history, I became convinced that the history of the house was as Wanda believed.
But, for me, the most exciting moment of the visit came when I walked around to the back of the house. There was my spring house! It looked just as I’d imagined, and, as you can tell from the photos below, the historical spring house in Wanda Day’s back yard (left) looks a lot like Kim’s picture of a spring house on the cover of Spring House (right). Click on the images to view larger pictures.