What Is a Spring House?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A spring house is a small building built atop a spring source for purposes of storage and refrigeration. Before the days of modern refrigeration, the natural cooling properties of running water could be used to preserve foods that would spoil in heat, and provide a consistently cool source of water. Modern spring houses are quite rare, although some historic versions and replicas built to historic standards are still in existence.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Until the 20th century, one of the most important concerns of any kind of settler, farmer, or pioneer, was the availability of a clean, reliable water source. Without plumbing or refrigerators, clean, constantly running water from a natural source was one of the primary means of hydration, bathing water, and early methods of refrigeration. A spring house was an important element of many farms and settlements, since it helped create a small space in which water could be gathered and used for a variety of purposes.

A traditional spring house was typically built out of stone, since it helped to keep the interior of the space cool better than wood. The building typically had a low ceiling and was quite small; many were set near housing. One historic example even had an underground tunnel leading from the spring to the main dwelling. Inside the spring house, a diversionary trough was sometimes constructed for the water to run through as it passed through the building.

One of the most important functions of a spring house was to act as a refrigerator for perishable foods. Milk, butter, meat, and other heat-sensitive foodstuffs would be kept there in order to keep them cool even on the hottest days. Milk, buttermilk, and eggnog could be placed in glass or earthenware jugs and placed directly into the water to chill it. Other foods, such as eggs and meat, could simply be left within the structure to absorb the pleasant chill brought by the cold water bubbling up from the source.

Without a spring house, many basic foodstuffs would have been impossible to keep on hand with any sort of regularity. In addition to keeping things cool in the summer, a spring house built over a spring source could also be used in winter to keep liquids from freezing, since the ground water that provided the spring flow was far less likely to freeze than other natural sources, such as creeks or lakes. This practice helped ensure a constant supply of safe food in all seasons, and served as an important step toward modern refrigeration.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Cageybird- I also grew up on a farm with a spring house. Ours was made mostly out of stone, just like this article said. I don't think we kept many food items stored in it, but the spring house water was much colder than the tap water inside the main house, so we would all go out there and fill canteens with it before going to the fields.


When I was growing up, one of my uncles had a working farm with a stream running through it. One of my favorite memories is the time I was sent to get a watermelon from the spring house. I'd never been inside one before, and I remember the temperature inside was at least 20 degrees cooler than outside. Water bubbled up from the floor and flowed down a trough. The watermelons were all stacked up along the back wall, where the water first appeared.

That was by far the coldest watermelon I can ever recall eating. There was no insulation or refrigeration in that little shed, but I can see how other things would have been just as cold.

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