Two Egg TV and Chipola Divers, LLC located a mysterious and long-lost stone structure on the bottom of Southwest Georgia’s Lake Seminole earlier this month (please see Mystery Structure found in Southwest Georgia Lake). The big questions now are who built it and why?!
Here is what we know at this point.
- The foundations of the structure are still intact beneath the sand and silt on the bottom of the Spring Creek arm of the lake. Some recent writers have claimed that it was on the Flint River but this is not the case. Spring Creek is a tributary of the Flint, but the structure itself is well upstream from its confluence with the river.
- The ruins are consistent with descriptions of the structure – commonly called Jackson’s Oven – from the 1940s and 1950s. They take the shape of an oblong oval that is 20 feet long and 12 feet wide. The surviving walls range from 18-30 inches thick. There is a narrow entrance on the southern end of the structure, which is oriented in a north-south direction parallel to the original bank of the creek. It was built right on Spring Creek and is now completely inundated.
- The stone wall formed an interior room that was more rectangular in form. It was 15 feet long and 9 feet wide. The room was dug or cut approximately 2-3 feet deep into limestone and the material removed from the floor was probably used in the construction of the walls, the base of which were made from unshaped stone while the upper levels and roof were built using cut limestone blocks.
- The original arched roof of the structure was built of cut limestone blocks but these had been removed by local residents for use in construction projects long before the completion of the Jim Woodruff Dam and flooding of the site in 1958.
There has been much speculation in recent years about the origin and purpose of the structure. One writer claimed that it was probably built by the ancient Maya or Irish. Others have suggested that it could have been a Viking burial cairn, etc. These writers also claimed that it had been largely destroyed by construction crews at the time of the building of Lake Seminole and that the site had never been investigated by professional archaeologists. Neither of the last two claims is true.
Locals called the structure “Jackson’s Oven” because it did look similar to a stone bake oven of the 18th-19th century era. It was too big to be an oven and there was no evidence of fire or scorching on the rock from which it was built, but it looked something like a stone oven so they thought that perhaps it had been built by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army during the Seminole War.
The assertions of some modern writers aside, archaeologists did visit “Jackson’s Oven” not once but twice during the years before the completion of the Jim Woodruff Dam.
Dr. A.R. Kelly of the University of Georgia visited and examined the structure during the late 1940s. He noted that it probably wasn’t an oven as there was no scorching on the stone of the interior walls, but otherwise drew no conclusions about it. He mentioned Jackson’s Oven in a 1950 report:
Also investigated during the first season was the well known local site popularly referred to as “Jackson’s Oven.” Within the memory of informants this site on Spring Creek in Decatur county was recalled as having been a dugout roofed over with logs and stone. Excavation revealed a cellar like pit with stone lined sides and vestiges of a tunnel entrance, but no artifacts of any kind, either aboriginal or European. [I]
More telling was Carl Miller’s visit to the site in the 1950s. Miller was an archaeologist for the Smithsonian Institution and conducted salvage excavations at sites along the lower Flint River prior to the flooding of Lake Seminole in 1958. He revisited the Jackson’s Oven site and was able to locate a number of artifacts from the immediate vicinity of the structure. ALL were of European, early 19th century origin:
- 12 whiteware sherds from a single plate.
- 1 green feather-edge sherd (possibly shell-edge).
- 1 blue feather-edge sherd.
- 1 blue transfer-ware sherd.
- 1 glass bottle neck [II]
The artifacts recovered by Miller strongly suggest that the structure was used by local residents during the early 19th century. The absence of any Native American or other early artifacts further suggests that it probably dates from that time period.
The obvious question is whether any similar structures exist at other sites of this time period in the United States. The answer is yes.
The files of the Historic American Building Survey at the Library of Congress reveal that several structures very similar to Jackson’s Oven still exist at historic sites throughout the country. Perhaps the closest match is one that was found on the grounds of the George French Farm in Henry County, Missouri.
French was born in Kentucky in 1825 and moved to Missouri in 1854. There he established a farm in Henry County and built a comfortable one-story, L-shaped frame home. Of particular interest is a structure that stood next to his home. Described by historian Paul Garfield Weed as “an excellent vaulted root cellar,” the stone structure was built by Mr. French during the 1870s. [III]
As the photographs show, the Missouri structure is almost identical to Jackson’s Oven. Ironically, it too is now underwater having been inundated by the completion of the Truman Reservoir during the late 1970s.
The similarity between Jackson’s Oven and the French Farm root cellar – and other 19th century root cellars around the United States and Canada – is so complete that it is possible to say that the “Oven” was really the root cellar of a 19th century settler. This is further confirmed by the presence of 19th century – and only 19th century – artifacts from its vicinity.
Root cellars were basically the refrigerators of our ancestors. They were designed to create a cool, high humidity environment for storing perishable foods in the days before electricity and refrigeration. People would store potatoes, turnips, onions, salted meat or fish, jarred preserves and more in them. They were often called potato houses or potato cellars.
In fact, they are even growing in popularity again today. The expanding interest in heritage varieties and gardening has modern generations digging root cellars and putting them to use. There are books on the subject and The New York Times even published an article on root cellars about ten years ago (See Food Storage as Grandma Knew It).
It might not be Mayan or Viking or even have anything to do with Andrew Jackson, but Jackson’s Oven is a rare surviving example of a 19th century Southwest Georgia root cellar. There will probably always be a bit of debate over its origin and purpose, but its rediscovery has answered many questions about the structure’s design. The archaeological and architectural evidence is clear that it was built to keep food cool.
Perhaps we should start calling it Jackson’s Icebox instead of Jackson’s Oven!
You can watch actual video of the moment of discovery by clicking play in this video box:
[I] Dr. Arthur R. Kelly, “Survey of the Lower Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers,” Early Georgia, Volume 1, Number 1, Summer 1950: 31.
[II] Carl Miller’s materials from Montgomery Fields Site, 9Dr10, relating to historic sites of Jackson’s Oven and Pirates [sic] Den, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, Museum Resouces Center, Suitland, MD. Classified by Dr. Nancy White, University of South Florida, May 2017.
[III] Paul Garfield Weed, “George French Farm (Tract #12657),” Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress, 1977.