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Cunningham Springhouse

New world exhibit: Map location 38

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Cunningham Springhouse

Life in America demanded innovation, hard work and self-sufficiency - qualities represented in this humble springhouse. It was built over a natural spring, its cool waters helping to keep meat, vegetables and dairy fresh. The logs are notched to fit snugly with each other, with a mixture of clay, straw, stones and animal hair forced into the gaps. Imagine having to fall back on your own resources, as the Cunningham family did when they built this, and many other buildings on their farmstead in Pennsylvania.

Keeping it cool

Before refrigeration, American settlers had to find clever ways to keep their fruit, meat and dairy products from spoiling. The wooden springhouses that were constructed over the family’s spring kept the water clean and the food fresh.

This springhouse was part of a farmstead near Bakerstown in West Deer Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. It belonged to Abraham and Nancy Glasgow Cunningham who emigrated from Ireland and arrived in West Deer Township in 1810 where they purchased 200 acres of land.

Many Irish settled here, attracted by low taxes and large tracts of farmland. The family grew vegetables, hay and grains and raised milk and beef cows.

Their son Hugh stayed on the family farm when he married Eliza McNeal. After having seven children, Eliza died in 1862 and Hugh remarried. His self-sufficient farmstead became known as Graystone Poultry Farm.

The Cunningham farmstead centred on a red brick farmhouse built about 1840 using bricks made by the family. They also cut wood to make farm buildings. These include a barn built in 1890, a large chicken coop, two springhouses and several wood outbuildings.

This one-and-half story springhouse is made from poplar, pine and oak hand-hewn logs. The logs are steeple notched with chinking of clay, straw, stones, and animal hair. A spring flowed through the house to keep it cool.

The loft walls consist of pine board-and-batten covered with whitewash. Here, cream was churned into butter and stored in the basement troughs. From the loft, a painted blue wood door opened onto a farm lane that connected the barn and farmhouse.

The Cunningham Springhouse is a fine example of how farm life demanded an expert mix of craft, innovation, hard labour and self-sufficiency.

Look for the water flowing into the sandstone troughs in the ground floor of the springhouse. The cool spring water keeps milk and other perishables from spoiling.