I was scared to death of Gramma Ell’s root cellar. I swear it felt like darkness pushed down on me as soon as I entered and the scent of it crept into my nose and filled my ears with worms and dirt. I would stand at the door, one toe and one hand reaching carefully into the darkness while the other foot planted itself firmly on the last inch of daylight and the other hand glued itself to the door frame. The hand that was reaching into the darkness was searching for the cord to turn on the single low watt bulb, the only light source. The searching toe was making sure there was still a floor to stand on beneath all that dark.
On the north side of her house Gramma Ell had a root cellar. She said it stayed cooler if it faced north. The cellar had only one door, a rather short one, and adults didn’t seem to enjoy stooping to enter it. At the end of harvest season they carried the baskets of root vegetables down the three steps to the doorway of the cellar. It was my job to drag the baskets into the cellar then place the vegetables into their proper containers for winter storage; my job mostly because I didn’t have to stoop since I was already pretty low to the ground. No matter how frightened I was, I’d been told that my job was important, so I didn’t complain. Not that my complaints would have been heard anyway.
The root cellar built beneath the home of Larry and Wilma Rettig
in the Amana Colonies in Iowa. The home was built in 1900 and
the cellar doors can be seen to the left of the herb garden.
In addition to the vegetables, there were other things to be stored, things like Gramma’s prized dahlia bulbs and her gladiolas. And garlic that was last to be dried just before first frost. Apples, potatoes, onions, sometimes a pear or two. Chestnuts and walnuts were stored there, too. When you have a few baskets filled with odds and ends and each odd or end goes into a separate storage container in the root cellar, it takes awhile to put it all away. Sometimes it took hours in the shadowy darkness to find the apple baskets and the potato baskets, the dahlias and glads, and to hang the garlic and onions just so. It took a long time to fight off the dark creatures that lurked there, too.
The root cellar was dark. Very dark. And smelled funny. Unseen things lived in that root cellar, just waiting to catch me when I wasn’t looking. They reeked of rot and decay and lurked around waiting to pounce on little girls. I paid close attention.
The door that led outside stayed closed; two reasons: one, it simply swung shut on its own; and two, Gramma Ell said it had to stay shut to keep the heat/rain/sleet/snow and varmints out. Truth was, I knew it had to stay shut to keep the scary critter things in and to keep them from freely roaming the mountains we lived in.
The door had a latch on the outside. There were a few times when they forgot I was there and locked me in. They couldn’t hear me if I yelled; the dark cellar simply absorbed the sound so I had to wait till they finally missed me. Sometimes that took awhile. And sometimes I just knew I would disappear into the darkness of that cellar and never see the light of day again. It was surely scary to be locked in with those invisible creatures, but even scarier to think that they might get out through the open door. I tried to be quiet because I was afraid yelling would rouse the scary things.
But you know, I learned a lot in that dark cellar, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I learned of differences between roots and tubers and the various vegetables that had to be placed into their proper storage baskets. I learned that the jars lined up like soldiers dressed all in the same color on the shelves above my head held food that had been canned to preserve it for winter. I learned that the dark reds most likely were strawberry jam and the greens were beans and the yellows were apple butter.
Potatoes were buried in wooden baskets of straw and covered over with a dry burlap feed sack and apples were separated in their own straw filled baskets but must never touch each other because apples can rot and rot can spread. And onions and garlic had to be hung from cords that had loops that were hard to find in the dim light.
The storage baskets didn’t sit on the damp earth floor; they sat on planks that were propped up by large stones at each end, or they sat on layers of gravel. I understood that the dampness of a dirt floor could make mold form on the vegetables or could make the apples rot. I learned a lot of things without even knowing I was learning.
Root cellars are the ancient technology that allowed food to be safely stored for long periods of time without harm to the food. For thousands of years people have found ways to preserve food depending on the climate in which they lived. Ancient Egyptians dried foods in their arid climate; the Chinese developed the fine art of salting and pickling. In various locations, root vegetables were buried in the ground for preservation. Sometime around the 17th century in the cold winter climate of England, root cellars were built. The arrival of colonists upon the shores of North America also brought the arrival of root cellars into that part of our country. The eastern parts of Canada and the United States are still dotted with old root cellars. They provided an inexpensive and safe way to preserve food year round because the earth itself protects what it shelters.
Most of the root cellars that I ever visited were built into an area beneath a house, always facing north. They were easy to create in the mountains, since most houses were built against the side of the mountain itself. The cellar was dug out of the earth beneath the house and its walls were shored up with rocks and the roof was created by the wood of the floor of the part of the house above it. You had to walk down a couple of steps, as if entering the bowels of the earth through a short doorway, but those steps were still in daylight. It was the place where you found yourself after the short door closed behind you that was scary.
Another method was to again dig the root cellar beneath the house but the door was not flush against the house. Instead, the door was at a slant and covered not only the entrance but the steps as well. Entering those root cellars was even more like entering the bowels of the earth. I was always afraid I’d never be able to push the doors open to get out.
Others built root cellars by digging a hole directly into a hillside, much like a cave, lining it with rocks and mounding the earth on top of it. Sometimes even now when exploring woods in my area, I find evidence of root cellars that were left behind long ago. You’ll see growth of many things sprouting from a slight mound in the earth: apple and pear and walnut trees side by side, crowding each other and fighting for space. Daffodils might still be blooming in the midst of the crowded trees; sometimes you’ll find summer blooms from bulbs and often a few old ditch lilies. Scenes like that can still be found here in the Land Between the Lakes where homes with root cellars used to be.
Back in the early 50s I got a little tired of life in the root cellar and became more interested in the new world found on the little black and white screen of our first television. My parents bought a freezer but they still stored a few root vegetables in the more modernized basement of our home. Gramma Ella had moved out of her house on the hillside and by then also had a freezer and her own basement. There were no more root cellars in my family.
By the mid 60s I had moved from the mountains of Southeast Kentucky to the bright city lights of Louisville and root cellars could never compete with city lights. I forgot all about them. In the early 70s we purchased the house here in West Kentucky where I still live. I had a freezer, I had a grocery store nearby, I had a cupboard, I needed nothing more. I had traded root cellars for city lights. I never looked back.
Until one summer in the early 80s when my long hidden gardening genes kicked in and I couldn’t control myself. I planted a little patch of potatoes from a couple that had sprouted in the bottom shelf of my kitchen cupboard. I had no earthly idea what to do with all of them when I started digging them up at the end of summer. Have you noticed how rapidly potatoes can multiply? And onions, and my dahlia bulbs. And my gladiolas. Then I received my first amaryllis, and there was hardly any place out of the heat where I could hide it during summer dormancy if I wanted it to bloom for Christmas. The image of Gramma’s root cellar took center stage in my mind.
I eyed the little crawl space that led beneath our house, the one that I’d climbed into a few times to repair a dryer vent and once to rescue a kitten. It wasn’t very big, but it was the closest thing I had to the possibility of a cellar in this flat land. I believed with a little downward digging and a few rocks . . .
I said to my husband:
If we dug a little deeper where the crawl space is, I could have a little cellar and store vegetables and my flower bulbs for winter. We’d just need a few rocks to line it and a slanted door to cover it.
As he looked down at me, he responded:
You’ve lost your mind. Again. There’s a natural underground spring on this property. It would flood if you make the crawl space deeper. You don’t need a cellar. Why do you think we have a freezer? And why do you think we moved into a town with a nearby grocery that’s open early and closes late?
We should have bought a house with a root cellar.
They don’t build houses with root cellars anymore.
I was shattered. I’d traded my old root cellar for bright city lights and now it was too late.
I reckon the moral of this story is that my Gramma Ella knew a lot more about living on a dime than I do. And she could feed an entire family of five children, their spouses, her nine grandchildren and visitors after church on Sunday from her root cellar all winter long on not much more than a dollar or two, the cost of electricity for that low light bulb in the cellar.
How did we lose sight of that kind of common sense? Truth is we might have traded it for bright city lights, but the truth also is that those bright city lights can get terribly dim in the wake of some of the recent storms we’ve been having. Before we know it we’ve lost all our well frozen food.
I’ll tell you a secret right now. I’ve been reading up on such things and I have found that root cellars are making a comeback. Homes are being built with the option of root cellars provided in the plans. Seems that our ancestors had the right idea and we should have learned from them. Maybe we did learn. It just took us awhile to remember that root cellars provide an inexpensive and safe way to preserve food year round because the earth itself protects all that it shelters.
I’m still thinking seriously about my crawl space.
Sharon Brown, native of the Appalachians of East Kentucky, is known for her articles about wildflowers, plants, and Kentucky culture and history. Enjoy Sharon’s other articles HERE.
Credits: In-text images of all but the crawl space are courtesy of Larry Rettig. Thumbnail image: Emil Carlsen, Creative Commons; above right: Sharon Mollerus, Creative Commons.