Monday, March 27, 2017  

Vintage Outbuildings
Once a very necessary part of living and survival for families in Virginia

I remember playing in an old smokehouse as a child. It was a magical building, very small, almost square, with bare wood walls and a high ceiling that seemed to go on forever. It was a fortress, a castle, or whatever our imaginations chose it to be. Long ago it had given up its pretense of preserving hams. Ours was a playhouse. A neighbor’s smokehouse was used for storage. But these old buildings, now all but abandoned, were once a very necessary part of living and survival for families in Virginia during the 18th and 19th centuries.

During that time, Virginia families survived on the land. They grew crops and tended livestock both to make something to sell and to provide food for their families. The outbuildings surrounding their home formed a small village, often symmetrically arranged with closeness to the main house determined by the function the outbuilding provided.

If you read property descriptions written during this time, you will find that the word out-house was used to describe these auxiliary buildings. Today, we think of an outhouse as a privy, but then it was used as a general term for all the buildings used to support the farm. These buildings were different depending on the product the farm was producing. Some were common to almost all farms. Smokehouses to preserve pork were common to most. Others were specific to the needs of the farm.

Smokehouses were common to most farms because they served the critical function of preserving meat. Hogs were slaughtered in the winter when the cold would preserve the meat while it was being prepared. A slow simmering fire burned in the center of the floor of the smokehouse. It wasn’t so much fire, as just smoke. In fact, there wasn’t even an outlet or chimney to let the smoke out, since the whole idea was to contain the smoke. Soaked in salt, the meat hanging from the high rafters of the smokehouse would slowly absorb this smoke. Many of these smokehouses were built of wood and a few from bricks. Wooden ones built on the ground were often lost over time to termites. Also the salt that accumulated on the wood softened the wood and reduced its strength. Most of the buildings I have observed have been small in dimensions, almost square with high ceilings. If they survive today, they are a delight to behold. Although they probably do not hold salted hams, many have been given modern uses for storage or play while preserving their outer exteriors.

Another common outbuilding was the kitchen, sometimes referred to as the summer kitchen. Situated in close walking distance to the main house, the summer kitchen was a separate building where the cooking took place. By separating the kitchen and the cooking from the main house, cooking odors could be kept out of the living area. More important during the summer months, the intense heat given off by the fireplace would not find its way in the main house. Finally, the threat of fire would be less if the kitchen, with its constant flame, was in a separate building. If the kitchen burned, it would be a huge loss, but not as much as losing the main house. Not all of the early plantations had separate kitchens. Some kitchens were in the basement of the main house. The main disadvantage to the summer kitchen was that the food had to be transported to the main dining room of the house. This labor intensive job was accomplished by slaves or servants who often lived in the second floor living quarters over the kitchen. Most kitchens had a large fireplace and hearth area with a huge chimney. Special tools and equipment enabled the cooks to prepare almost anything in these fireplaces.

Another building important to food preparation was the dairy. These small but unique buildings may not be easy to find today. Once modern refrigeration began to be used to store the milk and milk products produced on the farm, dairies fell out of use. The buildings were often converted to other uses or fell into disrepair. Dairies in the 18th century were usually small buildings whose floor was excavated to provide below ground storage for milk. They did not house the cows or the milking operation. Their purpose was to keep the milk, cream, butter, and cheese cool and clean. In fact, dairies were probably the cleanest building on a working farm. The walls of the building would be insulated and often plastered. Unlike the smokehouse with its open rafters, the dairy would need a ceiling to keep dirt and insects from falling into the milk while it was being stored and processed. Milk tends to have a short shelf life under the best of circumstances. But without refrigeration every effort had to be made to keep this building closed off from the outside with only a few high vents to allow heat to escape. For the most part, these small buildings were dark and cool.

Although their floors were dug out several feet below the ground to take advantage of natural cooling, the floors were brick or stone, not dirt. The solid floor made the dairy easier to keep clean. In the dairy, milk would be churned to make butter, cream or cheese which, because of their higher fat content, would last longer in these conditions than milk alone. From a distance, a dairy and a smokehouse may seem similar. If you step down several feet to get in, it is likely a dairy.

Other buildings were constructed during the 18th century and into the 19th century to try to keep food cool and to preserve the food for a few extra months. Root cellars were sometimes separate buildings, but they also could be attached to the side of the house. They were below ground storage for crops that needed to be kept cool over a long period of time. Crops such as potatoes would last for months in a cool protected environment. The covering for a root cellar was a simple roof that would shed water. They were not buildings so much as covers for the pit where the vegetables were stored.

Along these same lines, the ice house also was used to keep beverages and food cold. As the name implies, it stored ice that had been cut from ponds and hauled to the ice house in the dead of winter. It is hard to imagine the difficult and dangerous work of cutting ice from a frozen pond or stream and then hauling it to the ice house. It is also hard to imagine storing ice in the winter that would last until summer. But it happened! The magic of this storage was the large deep pit dug deep into the earth. The ground temperature remained cool and constant in this pit, an early use of geothermal energy. Food as well as ice could be stored in the ice house and kept from spoiling. The problem was getting the food or ice out of the ice house. Someone would have to go down into the pit to get the ice or food and bring it back to the surface. The first time I saw an ice house, I thought it was an odd looking well. Its depth is intimidating. Often the circular chamber of the ice house was lined with brick walls. Straw was placed over the ice to add to the insulation. Under these conditions, the ice would last for months, thus providing ice for drinks and a chance to preserve meats and dairy that otherwise would not last. The covering for the ice house was simple or elaborate depending on the wealth of the owner. Some had buildings of wood or brick over them. Others had just a roof over the pit with only enough room to get in or out.

An outbuilding that seldom gets the respect it deserves is the privy or, as it was referred to in earlier times, the “necessary house.” Constructed of brick or wood, it was sometimes quite ornate, at least on the outside. The inside was more functional with a seat or seats and a pit to collect the waste. But if you think all outhouses were wooden structures with crescent moons on them, you should visit Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest where he built a pair of brick octagonal privies that were beautiful buildings, at least on the outside.

So far I have mentioned only a few of the many outbuildings that existed on a large farm. Cotton farms had cotton buildings. Tobacco farms had tobacco barns. Depending on the product, the outbuildings varied. Barns of all types, well houses, carriage houses, schoolhouses, orangeries, laundry or wash houses, chicken houses, dovecotes (houses devoted to raising doves), and many others all existed in the early years of our country when farming was one of the main occupations.

Many of these small farm buildings from the 18th and 19th century did not last because they were built of wood and the posts that supported them were placed in the ground. Termites and moisture took their toll.

But the ones that did last and have been saved are worthy of our admiration. Not grand in the way of a manor house, they are nevertheless a reminder of our farm heritage and the hard working people who lived and worked in them. They are beautiful in their simplicity.