From the ruin of a summer kitchen
to a garden

original summer kitchen

The original summer kitchen was located behind the main house, just a few steps from the back wall, although between the two structures, when Andy was doing some light grading to direct water away from the house, we found the foundations of at least three other buildings, plus a windmill. We think one of the buildings was a slave cabin and another was a bake oven. Clearly, at one time the back yard was a hub of activity for supporting the house. Mary Jane Johnson generously gave us the photo above, which shows the summer kitchen when it was still standing and intact. To the left is the dairy section of the structure, while on the right side was the kitchen. The second floor was a slave's cabin.

Years of neglect, as well as flooding, took their toll on the building, and by 1997, when we came to Riverbank, the ruins stood in the middle of the woods, invisible except in the winter. After preliminary cleaning and removal of most of the trees, the ruins were in the clear again.


It was an awful sight, and a frightening one. The vines covering the broken walls and the standing chimney were grapevines gone wild and poison ivy, and on the river side of the ruin was a massive heap of flood debris that I truly believed we would never be able to clear. Of course, Andy knew differently, but it took more than a year before we were able to get all the way around the ruin.


Although broken glass, crockery and bits of china (which surface almost everywhere we dig a hole) were common, the kitchen site was clean, meaning there were no artefacts lying on the surface. Except for the small holes to plant the flowers and bushes, we didn't dig into the site at all, so the archeological record below is still in place. We were astonished, and very gratified, that the swinging arm in the fireplace was still there, and functional, although we don't ever plan to light a fire there.

Cleaning up the site took a while, partly because it was so intimidating and partly because we had other priorities to deal with (like the holes in the walls of the house). But starting in the early spring of 2000 a garden started to take shape in the old kitchen.

kitchen garden

That left the dairy side of the building, which was still choked with weeds and heaps of debris. We suspect that at some point before it collapsed it was used store trash. In the cleaning we found parts of a muffler and an oil pump, as well as a lot of metal and unrecognizeable plastic. Also, when the shutters had been removed from the house they were stored in the dairy, where they slowly rotted.


One of the things that living at Riverbank has taught me is not to rush a solution to a problem, especially one that feels insurmountable. I circled the dairy for months, torn between wanting to fill it in and wanting to clean it out. Finally, in January when I knew that nothing was slithering, I started the slow cleanout, first of the choked weeds and then of the heaps of fallen rock.

I did not want to rebuild the walls of the dairy, but I wanted to evoke where they had been. Another thing I was determined not to do was to disturb the archeological layers beneath the collapsed structure. So slowly, with a hand fork and working on warm days a little at a time, I began to dig, to sort rotten wood from crumbled concrete and masonry, to recover the rocks and broken bricks and return them to their original locations, and to learn what the dairy would have looked like.

The interior was plastered. It was built about the same time as the house. The bottom half of the walls are all river rock, and at about waist-height the builders began to use broken bricks from the house, which suggests that the structure was half-built when rubble from the house construction became available for incorporation.

As I uncovered the original floor and the trough that was used to cool milk, it became increasingly clear that this little garden space was perfect for herbs. To place the bricks for the retaining walls I cut through the hard-packed floor and exposed limestone rubble under the foundation, just enough to place the beds. Now that the beds are backfilled and ready for planting, the garden will take shape.


As the summer wears on I'm planning to collect flat river rocks to pave the open space in the middle. The shelf will be for pots of herbs and flowers.

The only story we have ever heard about the summer kitchen was from local people who, as children, were warned away from the structure because the ghost of the old slave cook would come after them. After spending a number of hours puttering around in her home, I have to report that she must be pleased, because we haven't seen any sign of her.

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