Not too old to stay cool

When they stumbled on a dilapidated springhouse in the heat of summer, their imagination kicked in.

It always amuses Charlie and me to overhear complaints about the oppressive heat of July and August. True, a humid day of 95 degrees F. or higher, especially as encountered between one air-conditioned space and another, makes for an enveloping experience. But if you live and work in ambient summer temperatures, as we do, acclimatization happens. And respites, if few and far between, are all the sweeter.

We typically take to the hayfields when the temperatures are high and the sun blazes, and consider ourselves fortunate in comparison with roofers, pavers, and the stalwarts who labor beneath hot engines in the pit of our local oil-and-lube service. I had not thought of their plight until I drove in to top off the tank and check the tire pressure on a sweltering day, saw a greasy arm emerge from the darkness beneath another customer's car, and heard a voice plead: "Water." An ice-cold cup was quickly delivered.

In the fields, we at least have fresh air to breathe, and sometimes benefit from a breeze. We pack and drink thermoses of water and electrolytic beverages. If we tire, we stop and sit for a spell under a shade tree. At the edges of some of my favorite hayfields old farm pumps stand sentinel, still willing, with some priming, to deliver up cold well water.

One week I found a more perfect coolant yet – a rare and unexpected source of natural air conditioning close by the eight-acre field of mown and raked alfalfa we were baling.

This particular farm was new to Charlie and me, though we knew it had previously been a dairy like our own and had recently changed hands. The old farmhouse had been replaced with a large, new one, but the owner kept the fields in production. We were there helping our young friend Jason stack and load the sun-cured hay coming up from the baler. Jason drove the tractor pulling the machinery and wagon while Charlie and I stood on rocking planks to receive the bales coming up from the chute. The heat index that day hovered around 105 degrees F., and there was no shade out in that field.

Between loads, though, as Charlie and Jason adjusted the baler, I wandered with a glass jar of thermos-cooled water to a shady area with a little limestone building that had piqued my curiosity. Its rough walls looked sturdy enough, though its roof had largely fallen in and holes gaped where doors and windows had been. Leaning in, I encountered a rush of deliciously cold air rising from an interior pool of clear water. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness I saw broad stone steps, liberally mosaicked with animal footprints, leading down to the pool, which drained out from under the building and rippled along a mint-and-grass-bordered rill into a small patch of wetland, lively with birds.

The old springhouse sat comfortably in its bower, as it had for perhaps a century or more. Its block walls, made from locally quarried limestone, were hand-chiseled and cool to the touch. A pair of decorative cornices with flowers carved into the stone offered the only embellishment to the unassuming, anachronistic, and somehow soulful little structure. Its contrast to the big, new housing development climbing an adjacent hillside could not have been more complete or poignant. When Charlie and Jason joined me, we dipped our jars into the ground-refrigerated water bubbling along the exiting rill to drink our chilling fill.

Inevitably as we took in the structure's historical charm and perfect ongoing functionality, the mental wheels started turning. Charlie and I are like-minded about such things and cannot resist a listing or otherwise compromised structure with some agrarian history under its eaves.

We'd built a cabin from pioneer-era logs, brought back the WPA outhouse on our own farm, and saved an 1860s brick cottage from collapsing into a yard in historical New Harmony on the Wabash River (it became our cottage and yard shortly after we spied the old place no one else seemed to want). What was a little old springhouse?

Charlie noticed the wrought-iron hinges upon which the door once swung. I envisioned metal milk cans cooling on the steps. We gazed at the unprotected roof rafters, which, despite some weathering, still had plenty of integrity. The little place all but spoke to us, and we suddenly knew what our October project could be.

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