From the Great Sphinx in Egypt to prehistoric Stonehenge in England, many mysterious structures have stumped historians attempting to determine their origin and purpose. Green Spring has its own architectural mystery, which lies in ruin across the lane from the Spring House. It’s not an ancient monument, but the remains of a small cobblestone farm structure. Yet even modest vernacular structures can provide important records of everyday life. This one intrigues visitors and staff alike. Why and when was it built?
Nestled into the hillside, the thirteen foot square four-chambered structure is mortared cobblestone and brick with a thin coat of concrete. We’ve long referred to it as the “fermentation tank” because descendants of Fountain Beattie, who lived and farmed at Green Spring from 1878 to the early 1900s, described its use as a tank to ferment the juices of fruits grown on the farm.
Beattie’s 300-acre farm was a thriving concern with dairy cattle and orchards…. and a burgeoning liquor business! He operated a licensed still in the c.1830 Spring House, where he distilled fermented fruits into applejack and brandies. He also operated a cider mill. On September 12, 1895, the Alexandria Gazette reported: “Mr. Fountain Beattie at his farm in Fairfax county, west of this city, has a steam cider mill which is kept running constantly and farmers for miles around are taking their apples there to be ground into cider.”
At the time, most cider fermentation was done in wooden barrels. In his 1890 guide, “The Cider Makers’ Handbook,” J. M. Trowbridge suggests that American cider makers adopt the French fermentation method for champagne using “large vats or tanks…where such conveniences are at hand or attainable.” Beattie was enlightened and progressive and may well have decided to try this out in a four-chambered tank, with a different product fermenting in each chamber.
In a c.1900 photograph, the tank is in mint condition, its corners square and its walls smooth and pristine. In 1999, Fountain’s grandson Butler Beattie recalled: “My grandfather was much more interested in the future than in the past. He used concrete in the spring house at Green Spring Farm. I heard that was the first use of concrete in that way in Fairfax County and possibly in all of Virginia.” No evidence has been found of Beattie’s innovative use of concrete in the Spring House, but perhaps his experimental fermentation tank benefitted from it.
Yet it’s questionable whether Beattie built the structure from scratch for this express purpose. Its outdoor location and configuration weren’t entirely practical. So we wondered if he might have repurposed a structure that was already there. In 2010, we consulted archaeologist Dennis Pogue, then director of preservation at Mount Vernon and an expert in historical farm structures. Dr. Pogue examined our ruin and agreed that it could have been adapted for Beattie’s purposes but was more likely to have originated some time earlier…as a water cistern.
Cisterns were common in homes and on farms throughout the 19th century, providing collection and long-term storage of rainwater for domestic use, irrigation and animals. Early cisterns were simple, plaster-lined dugouts underneath houses. By the mid-1800s, many cisterns looked like our structure: large, semi-buried or above-ground tanks made from stone, brick and cement, with partitions within to filter out debris. Shapes varied, but some were square and flat-topped. Some examples have surviving fill pipes that delivered rainwater diverted from nearby roofs. (The source of water to ours is unknown.) Others still have iron bolts to attach a wooden cover, a necessary precaution to prevent drownings and to keep out pollutants. A vengeful neighbor might even throw an animal carcass into his enemy’s cistern or well.
We don’t know of anyone dumping anything nasty into Fountain Beattie’s fermentation tank, but in 1890 somebody did burn down his barn. Beattie’s second job as a revenue officer took him across the countryside to shut down illicit stills. A disgruntled bootlegger may have been out for revenge. The loss of the barn, along with stock and feed, put an end to dairy activities on the farm, but Beattie’s legal liquor enterprise flourished and our little ruin may be an inspiring example of adaptive reuse by this visionary farmer!
Adapting buildings for purposes other than those for which they were designed is meant to give them a new lease of life, but our ruin is deteriorating quickly. Remedial work is planned to help preserve what’s left of it. This will include protective fencing, a cover to keep out debris and re-pointing and stabilization of loose mortar. Analysis of the mortar may yield more information about the date of construction.
Interpretive signage will tell visitors as much as we know about it and we’ll continue to research its origin and purpose. It’s not a riddle on the scale of the Sphinx or Stonehenge, but our mysterious little ruin is still a carrier of the history of Green Spring and our community, our farming heritage and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those who labored here.
Author Debbie Waugh is the Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.
How fascinating! We lack such old ruins in the west. There are a few old missions and associated buildings from the Spanish period, but they are not common. Some of the oldest structures do not have glamorous histories, since they were built by oppressed native people.