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Outbuildings: Reminders of the past


by Larry S. Chowning

Along the highways of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula there are relics of the past that provide a living history of years gone by. Outbuildings were a practical part of our daily life before the modern age of electricity and indoor plumbing. Today, many property owners preserve the past by maintaining old buildings that have outlived their original use.

Small farm barns like this one had enough stalls for a couple of cows and a couple of horses.

Dairy barns
There are hardly any dairy farms left in operation, yet old barns and dairies provide a scenic and often pastoral setting along the highways. Barns are large and small in size, and range in age from the colonial period to the 20th century.

Prior to modern-day grocery stores with refrigerated stock, most every small farm had a barn where cows and horses were stalled. These small farm barns, even though many today are used for storage, are reminders of a time when almost every family had a couple of cows to milk. There were usually two cows to a family, so if one went dry there was at least one more to milk.

This brick dairy building at Walboro in Saluda was used to keep milk cool, separate cream and to make butter. Into the 1960s, grocery stores in Urbanna and elsewhere sold “real” butter made from dairies similar to this one.

Colonial plantations and antebellum and post-Civil War farms had small dairies, not for milking so much but to separate cream and make butter. The early dairies were built in English-style basements in the house—underground where it is cooler than ground level. Later, various styles of dairies were built in separate outbuildings with sunken floors and cool bricks. A typical dairy is located at “Walboro” in Saluda where the building is a brick, one-story structure.

Large dairy barns came along in the late 1930s, 40s and 50s, when families started purchasing milk and milk products from grocery stores. These barns were used for milking large numbers of cows, and a small dairy close by was used for pasteurizing and bottling the milk.

The era of World War II sparked a need for scheduled availability of milk at military bases and schools, where milk was being served for lunch. This brought about the construction of large milking barns. Most dairy farms have closed on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, but the old barns are still part of our landscape.

This circular icehouse in Gloucester County was used to store ice for a large household. Usually there was a large icehouse like the one above on a property and a smaller kitchen icehouse near the home for convenience. 

Ice houses
Before ice boxes and refrigerators, there were ice houses, and a few still stand today. Most large farms had two ice houses. One was usually located far beyond the family orchard, and packed full of ice every winter. Many were just large holes in the ground with ice and sawdust packed deep below the surface. Others were well-constructed circular houses built over the hole, and made of brick and under lock and key. 

The second ice house was a smaller “kitchen” model located close to home, where ice was brought from the larger one and stored for immediate use.

The source of ice was nearby ponds. When the pond would freeze in the winter, ice was cut by saw, removed and put in the large ice house, which was built near the pond to avoid as much travel as possible.

Many ice houses had wood frame structures built over them to keep animals and people from falling in.

Around 1918, some homes in Urbanna got electricity. Early electric home plants were housed right on the property. Large carbine batteries were used to produce the electricity.

The early home-powered plants required a building to house and keep the batteries dry. Richard and Ann Donoff have one of the buildings in their yard in Urbanna, and use it today to store yard tools.

“I was told our home was the first in town to have electricity,” said Ann. “Today, we use the little building for storage because it’s a sturdy, dry block building and very functional.”

Before the days of good roads and transportation, there were deputy treasurers in each county district hired to collect taxes. This small building was built near Millstone Landing in Water View where it was used by taxpayers in the Jamaica District to come and pay their county taxes. A.C. Powell was the deputy clerk for the Jamacia District and had the structure built. Although all taxes are collected today at Saluda, the little house is still maintain on the property there in Water View.

Many types
Another unique outbuilding is at Betty Cook’s home at Water View. Mrs. Cook’s relative, A.C. Powell, was deputy treasurer of Middlesex County in the horse-and-buggy days. Middlesex residents living in the Jamaica District could go to Powell’s office and pay their taxes.

The little “treasurer’s office” just up from Millstone Landing could be accessed by water or land. As many folks arrived in sail-powered log canoes as they did by horse and buggy to pay their annual taxes.

Prior to the Civil War much of the population on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula lived in slavery. There are still a few slave homes standing. The one at Walboro near Saluda just received a new roof.

Log buildings were used as schools, barns and corn cribs. There is a log corn crib standing at Plain View Farm near Saluda.

Although not logged, an antebellum schoolhouse stands at Harmony Village.

A meat house and a smoke house are two different outbuildings. A meat house was used primarily for storing and curing meats without the use of smoke. The appearance between a smokehouse and meat house are often similar, but the smell of a smokehouse stays with the building, whether used a century before or last week. Smoked hams and middling cured in a smokehouse with hickory or applewood left a wonderful odor for many generations to enjoy.

Meat houses usually have built-in tables along the inside walls of the house for hams to be cured and stored. There also were crocks filled with salt fish with lids covered in cheese cloth to keep the flies away. Canned meats also were stored in meat houses.

Throughout the region, there are buildings that housed doctor offices in the days when offices were next to a doctor’s home.

A tide mill in Mathews County is still standing as a reminder of the days when corn and wheat were ground at the local mill. Essex County still has one gristmill standing and the foundation of several others.

Car windows are often an avenue for seeing the landscape and providing an understanding that even though everyday life has changed, many people continue to maintain old, outdated buildings— primarily out of a respect for the past.

This iron barn door hinge is a signature of days gone-by when a local smithy hand-crafted most anything made of metal at the local blacksmith shop or right on the farm.

posted 03.23.2012

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