It’s spring and we’re excited to spend more time outside (at least once our Allegra kicks in). One of the nicest parts about the Museum is the historic grounds of the 1774 Homesite where you’ll find a small creek, woods, and lots of different flowers and wildlife – all in just under 8 acres! Walking the grounds to open and close and hearing the birds and the bubbling creek is one of the best parts of the day. But they’re not just for looks! The creek and the spring that feeds it are important parts of the homesite and probably part of the reason it was built here in the first place.
So what is a spring? (I am a historian, not a scientist, so don’t come for me if this is too simplified!) Aquifers are large bodies of permeable underground rock that hold and transmit ground water and they exist pretty much everywhere. Where an aquifer meets the surface of the earth is a spring! When you go hiking and find cold water pouring out of the rock, that’s a spring. The piedmont is chock full of springs and creeks and lakes simply because of our geography, where the mountains meet the prairies (yes – North Carolina had prairies!).
Before refrigeration, people all over the world used water to keep their food cool. Settlers would build a structure over the spring, to trap the cold water and the cold air that surrounded it. Literally a house for the spring. The floor of the springhouse would be dug out to trap some of the water released from the spring. The cool water would keep the interior of the room cool, usually at least ten degrees cooler than outside. Our springhouse has an additional access point for drinking water on the rear of the building. Think of this section like the water dispenser on the front of your fridge so you don’t open the fridge all day long and let all the cool air out. Carrying water up to the house and kitchen was an all-day, every-day task, one that was probably done by an enslaved child (and water is heavy!).
The springhouse is a pivotal part of the 18th century homesite. Having a source of clean, running water meant that the Alexanders and those who lived here, including enslaved people, could cook, bathe, irrigate their crops when needed, and store food for longer periods.
Springhouses could be very small, no bigger than a closet, or they could be big, like the springhouse on the Alexander Homesite. They could be made of logs, or clapboard siding, or rock. The space was meant to be flexible depending on the needs of those who were using it. The Alexander’s springhouse is unusually large, with two full stories for storage. We don’t know who built the original springhouse, though it was probably the same builders who built the Rock House. Whether they were free or enslaved is not known. Estate inventories, tax listings, and wills indicate that the Alexanders owned dairy cattle and made cheese. We also know that William Alexander bought and sold goods to his extended family and neighbors, so it seems the extra space was needed!
Step inside the springhouse with Lauren to learn more about how important water was in the 18th century (and still is!). You can also go upstairs – which is not usually open to visitors - to learn more about William Alexander’s store!
The current springhouse is mostly a reconstruction, though most of the stone is original. According to the archaeological evidence, it was used by the residents of the Rock House until the 1930s or beyond. When the DAR took ownership of the site, the roof was apparently the victim of a heavy snowstorm and the entire second floor caved in. The springhouse was restored from the rubble and looks much as it did almost 250 years ago. The spring is still active, though increased development around the Museum means that it flows much slower than it did in the past. For the last two years, geologists from UNC Charlotte have been tracking the spring’s water levels and we’re anxiously awaiting their analysis.
Come visit the Museum Thursdays through Saturdays to explore the Springhouse and the rest of the historic homesite on your own or on a guided tour!
Have a great weekend,
The Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin