“Take this bag and run down to the root cellar. Bring it back full of potatoes.”
It’s a young boy’s favourite chore. He knows the cycle of the seasons and his role in providing for the family.
On a sunny autumn afternoon he will spend cool moments in the darkness filling the bins with thumping, dry potatoes.
On a blustery winter evening, the same place feels warm and the smells of the earth and the fruit, the abundance of the glass jars filled with summer’s variety gave him a sense of security and wealth.
“Here is a list for you to go shopping,” were the instructions for his older sister who could read the labels. And off they go together along the snowy path.
• 2 cans of tomato soup
• 1 can of evaporated milk
• 1 jar of pickles
• 2 jars of peaches
• your choice of jam – rhubarb, strawberry, saskatoon, blue berry, raspberry, black berry, crab apple, plum, pin cherry, mint, red currant, elderberry … all from the garden or the woods nearby. Their colours like jewels, jams added so much variety of flavour to the homesteader’s meals.
Root cellars were a very important part of homesteading life and many of our local Back-to-Basics gardeners still have a root cellar or a cold room today. (A “cold room” is a place in the basement of the house which is insulated to keep out the warmth of the house. A “root cellar” is a separate building away from the house insulated to keep out the cold.)
Before the coming of electricity, food storage methods included: hanging (onions, peppers, garlic), drying (fruits, beans, squash), brine crocks (cabbage, pickles), salting (meat, fish), freezing (in a bear-proof meat locker out on the porch) and canning (vegetables, fruit, jam, meat, fish).
None of these methods, however, are useful for potatoes.
And potatoes are easy to grow, nourishing, abundant and a dependable homesteader’s crop which will last until planting time if they’re stored in a root cellar.
Foods in cans and glass jars cannot freeze and also need protection from the bitter cold. The root cellar usually has shelves along the walls for these home-made and store-bought goods.
“Almost everyone had a root cellar,” explains Bob Jensen, who grew up on a homestead near McMurphy Station Road. “And they were always away from the house. In case of a house fire when so much would be destroyed, the year’s supply of food would still be intact.”
Often dug into a hillside and needing to be well drained, homesteaders first had to be very observant before finding the “just right” location. The narrow entry way usually had a double “airlock” door. This allowed the person entering to close the outer door before opening the inner door to prevent the freezing temperature from chilling the storage area. The small entryway would also be lined with shelves as a place to store empty jars.
The underground room, about eight feet by eight feet held at a steady temperature all year, sheltered and moderated by the earth. Heavy cedar beams held up the pile of earth, sawdust or shavings which in our climate needed to be about six feet deep.
Above all of this, a steeply sloped roof was needed to drain away rain and melting snow.
Although the earth floor kept a constant humidity which the vegetables needed, too much moisture would cause rot in the foods and the wooden structure.
Dorothy Schulte of Vavenby emphasizes another structural detail: “A vent to the outside will keep the air from sealing in the moisture and allow the cold room or root cellar to breathe. But, during a cold snap, the vent will have to be plugged with a cloth or bale of straw, preventing the frigid cold from seeping in and destroying the ideal climate.”
Shelves hold rows of jars. Crates, baskets and bins are along the floor for the large crop of root vegetables. A hook in the ceiling is handy to hang the lantern. With just enough space to turn around, the entire family’s food stash is safe from damage.
Anne Baker, a well known vendor at Clearwater’s Farmer’s Market, shares tips from her many years of experience with food storage.
Boxes of carrots are layered, after their tops are trimmed off, so that they don’t touch each other in sand or sawdust or soft, dry peat moss.
Turnips need a little air circulation in a loosely woven sack. Beets keep the right humidity in a bucket with a tight lid. Potatoes keep well in open baskets with a tarp or sack loosely covering them. Cabbages hang by their roots from the ceiling.
Grain, flour, sugar and dried and ground spices need to be kept dry and won’t be ruined if they go below freezing. Pumpkins and squash, onions and garlic need to be a little cool, but don’t like the damp of the root cellar.
“Upstairs, under the children’s beds,” Dorothy Schulte remembers, “that’s where all the pumpkins and squash were kept when I was a child in Saskatchewan. Onions and garlic hung in braids.
And the root cellar was under the house on the farms in the prairies.
There was a trap door which was handy to get the food in the winter, but there was also a cellar door to the outside so the dirt wasn’t tracked through the house when the food was being brought in from the garden.”
“If the temperature outside goes way down, say -30 to -40 degrees, then the temperature in the root cellar could drop too low. We used to light a kerosene lamp and leave it burning all day and all night to keep the root cellar that little bit warmer.” Jensen recalls.
“One rotten apple spoils the barrel” is a true saying.
All of these fresh foods need to be looked at, sorted through and any which begin to spoil should be removed, trimmed and used or discarded.
Too warm, too cold. Too wet, too dry. Slugs, mice, mold. Separating the perfect pieces and using up the scarred or bruised pieces first.
These are all threats to keep aware of while tending the storage of these valuable resources through the long, cold half of the year.
If you take care of your root cellar, it will take care of you. It’s a win-win situation.