In the beginning we dried fruit and vegetables, eventually we canned them for winter storage, then we froze them so that they could be enjoyed throughout several seasons. "Putting up" food was another term for winter storage, and for me it was the most troublesome of all the processes. I was the one who had to put all the food in the smelly, dark root cellar.
I wasn't afraid of very many things when I was growing up, just the usual monsters that hid under my bed, witches who could turn me into a stinkbug, and my Gramma Ell's root cellar. There was something about the root cellar that told me I did not belong there. Her house was built on the side of a mountain which meant that I had to climb 18 steps to reach her front porch, but I had to climb the hillside to reach her back porch. From the back the house looked as if it were only one story, but from the front there was plenty of room for a first floor.
As I faced the house from the front yard, the root cellar had been built beneath the house on the left side. As was common in those days, the late 40's and early 50's, cellars had stone walls, a clay/dirt floor that was usually covered loosely with gravel, and overhead cross beams that were a part of the floor of the main house. The kitchen was directly above the root cellar. The door to the root cellar was made of rough planks that were painted brownish gray so that the door blended into the rock underpinning. It was a small door with open spaces between the planks for air circulation, and when I was about 3 feet tall I could reach the top of the door frame. Gramma Ell and my mother had to stoop to walk inside the cellar, but since I didn't, a lot of the "putting up" fell to me.
The cellar had shelves, a few inches out from, and lining, the walls. Beneath the shelves were bins that held the heavier vegetables and fruit such as potatoes and apples. There were large wooden barrels and bushel baskets on one side as well, and they held seed potatoes and other things that were saved for the next gardening season. The cellar was poorly lit, the only natural light came between the planks of the door. There was also one bare naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling beam, but I was not tall enough to reach it. They must have thought I could see in the dark.
Root cellars have been found in the remains of ancient civilizations, beginning in prehistoric times. Even now driving through areas where old homes are no longer standing, occasionally we can spot the remains of a root cellar because quite often potato vines will be visible. They might be growing from the sunken area that had been a root cellar, or they could be growing on the surface of a mound of earth, also formerly a root cellar. In those days without supermarkets, fresh vegetables were not available, so a root cellar, a cool place to "put up" food for the winter, was a necessity.
When I studied lost cultures for a degree in ancient history, I found that the remains of root cellars of one type or another were found in various places throughout the world. It is one of the ways we can learn a great deal about those who came before us. They used them in Europe extensively, so it is not unusual that our pioneers brought the idea of root cellars over the waters into our country. They were a way of life that we can count among the lost now, but they were once a crucial link in the subsistence chain. It wouldn't hurt us a bit if we took a serious look at them now.
The root cellar kept apples, carrots, turnips, potatoes and squash through the winter, sustaining a family through those cold winter months. Salt pork and smoked meats were also kept in the root cellar if they did not have a smoke house. As it happened, I grew up in a family that had both. The best thing about that is that I did not have to walk face first into a hanging hank of ham when I walked into the cellar. It was bad enough just knowing monsters lived there and that with every breath, I would inhale a spider web complete with its attending spider. I had been told of a root cellar's importance, though, so I was willing to take a bag of apples down to the cellar whenever the grownups told me to do so. I took other things too, but I will always remember trying to find spilled apples or spilled potatoes, or the worst was spilled garlic or onions, on that dark floor of the root cellar. The scent of garlic and onions stayed in my nose for days it seemed.
According to most sources that I found, an 8'x10' root cellar will accommodate 60 bushels of produce. Because of the mountainous area of southeast KY, most of the cellars were built in the hillside underneath the main floor of the house. On the north side you would find the root cellar and on the south side, there would be the coal cellar, both necessary for survival. Though it has been many years, I can remember both very well. I found a book recently, "Root Cellaring" by Mike and Nancy Bubel, my friend had loaned it to me, so it had to be returned, but it helped me remember most of the foods that we stored in the root cellar.
***Whole grains will remain in good condition for two or three years if kept cool, dry, and insect free. A tightly closed dark container will make this possible. Grains do not belong in a damp root cellar.
***Cured meats, especially ham and bacon, can be kept in a root cellar that is 40 degrees F, or below.
***Root vegetables can be left in the ground until hard frost, and that way the temperature in your root cellar is more likely to be at an optimal level.
***You do not have to clean most vegetables, that could possibly do more harm than good, but be sure to store only your best.
***Keeping the temperature around 32 degrees at all times, is the single most important thing to remember.
***Store vegetables after the first frost, when the outside temperature closely matches the root cellar temperature.
***Inspect your stored foods weekly.
***If your winters are mild, it might be better to store your root vegetables in a heavily mulched area underground.
***Some humidity will keep your stored vegetables from shriveling. If the cellar has a natural dirt floor it will provide its own humidity, but the containers should not be placed directly on the floor. We had loosely strewn gravels on our dirt floor. Sand or sawdust will also help because they absorb excessive surface humidity from the dirt floor.
***It is important that the cellar be kept dark.
***Canned goods can be stored but it is best to use them within a year, since humidity over a period of time can damage them.
***If the temperature gets below 32 degrees inside the root cellar, hot coals can provide some heat.
Here is a short list of foods that can be kept for several months in a root cellar:
Apples, beets, brussels sprouts, chinese cabbage, carrots, horseradish, onions, parsnips, sweet potatoes (cured), white potatoes, pumpkins (with stems), rutabagas, squash, turnips, and possibly late planted tomatoes for a short time.
If you have access to a root cellar, of if you plan to make one for your winter food storage, it would be best if you familiarized yourself with the longevity of each vegetable's storage. Those with high water content, particularly the green leafed vegetables, have shorter life spans.
There are many ways to make a root cellar, and the internet is full of possibilities that are sure to fit your needs. I have listed several sites that will direct you to more information for building, creating, and even for using an old refrigerator or a couple of barrels as root cellars. Considering that many of us like to store our food, and many of us feel a need to do so, root cellars of any sort have an appeal. The low tech, low maintenance root cellar is a natural choice. It keeps your food safely for months, without refrigeration or electricity. If you can dig a hole, you can have a root cellar.
My experiences with root cellars were quite varied, and were the subjects of stories told around the dinner table for many family gatherings. There was the time my cousin Ronald, 4 years older than me, thought it would be really fine to lock me in the root cellar for an afternoon, while the rest of the family had a picnic under the old oak trees in the large front yard. They either did not miss me or perhaps they welcomed a respite from my usual shenanigans, so I remained in the dark of the root cellar for such a long time I was beginning to think I was going to have to set up housekeeping there. I was perhaps 5 at that time.
And there was also the time when I carried a small basket of onions that were to be dumped into a larger basket in the cellar. I tripped on an invisible monster's foot and went sprawling, but I had to stay there long enough to pick up all those onions off the dirt/gravel floor. I saved my tears till I got back in the kitchen, but they did not get me one bit of sympathy.
I am seriously thinking of creating a root cellar for myself, and when I do, I will invite my cousin Ronald for a visit.
Thank you Melody for help with the photos. And thanks, GrannyLois for your contribution.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.