When the heat of summer descended, before the days of widespread rural electrification, many a farm’s culinary captain moved the cook stove out of the house and into a smaller single-room building called the summer kitchen. It was a wonderful purpose-built structure where the year’s canning, preserving, pickling and processing all took place on a wood-fired stove that generated enough excess heat to chase anyone out of the main house.
I grew up on a Wisconsin century farm, and our family’s summer kitchen sat a few steps away from the house. I assume it was constructed around the same time as the house, which was in 1865. Perfectly rectangular, our summer kitchen was originally made of logs and had been sided with boards. The building had two windows on each side, a brick chimney, and a solid, oak door, complete with glass doorknob.
My father replicated the original interior of our summer kitchen with a white enamel and black iron cook stove as its centerpiece. He did some baking and cooking there and allowed me to watch as he took a black iron handle, pried open one of the stovetop’s round lids, and dropped wood chunks into the fire below.
Our summer kitchen, like most, had enough room for chairs and a table where meals could be served or preparations made. The structures typically complemented the main house with matching paint or outside décor. Ours was quaint and, measuring only 10-by-12 feet, it looked like a cute cottage, white paint, blue shutters and all. The floor, originally made out of logs, was easy to sweep and wash.
While the principal work that took place in the summer kitchen included cooking, baking and preserving, the building was used for many other activities. It was the place where people gathered to make soap, churn butter, clean freshly laid eggs and do laundry. “Cooking” white socks, underwear and shirts in a boiler on the stove was the only way to get those whites their whitest. Baths were also often taken in the summer kitchen, which proved both convenient and private.
Coziness prevailed in such a wonderful place. The interior was filled with the season’s bounty. Cast-iron pots and pans hung from the walls. Herbs and vegetables hung to dry from rafters, while fresh-baked pies and cookies cooled on racks atop the long wooden table. Jam would be fresh, ready to be spread on a slice of homemade bread. In short, the summer kitchen was a place of comfort, a symbol of the provender put up and a food-producing season well managed.
With progress came electricity, and with rural electrification the summer kitchen was slowly abandoned.
Once treasured for its worth, a summer kitchen became just another outbuilding.
Relatively few summer kitchens still remain, but with the resurging interest in getting closer to our food supply, some folks are using the buildings for their original purpose once again. And while many people living in the country look for other ways to bring their kitchens outside, for me, there is no other way than with a summer kitchen.
Heidi Overson lives on a century-old farm in rural Coon Valley, Wisconsin. She treasures the remaining, original log cabins on her farm.