A refrigerator in spring and summer, a safe-from-freezing pantry in fall and winter, and a man-made cave dug into a hillside and sealed shut with thick double doors ... root cellars were all of those things.
Not long ago, just about every family living in the world's colder climes had one of the harvest keepers. Nestled in the earth—and away from the heat of the kitchen—a root cellar maintained a temperature just above freezing and provided a practical storage bin for root crops, apples, meats, cabbages, and other goods ... throughout a long winter.
Of course, the heyday of the homestead food storer ended a good while ago. When folks gained access to refrigerators and supermarkets, the root cellar was pretty much forgotten. In fact, by the time I was a lad, all the food houses in our area had long since been abandoned. The deteriorating structures were used only by us youngsters ... as "secret" forts.
Nowadays, though, there's been a revival of interest in practical, inexpensive ways of putting up food. More and more people are rediscovering the wisdom of constructing a place to store unprocessed, homegrown edibles. And, even though building a cellar requires a fair investment in labor and materials, the finished shelter uses absolutely no operating energy and demands no maintenance or upkeep.
My father, Ted Roberts, recently built a root cellar in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Dad started the project by excavating an 8' X 8' X 20' cavern using a backhoe.
The bottom of the cellar was lined with sand for drainage purposes. When building the walls, though, father laid a concrete base that had an upwardly protruding inner lip. The L-shaped foundation would both support the weight of the cedar log walls and brace the base of those rounds against the tons of sideways "cavein" pressure the earth-banked structure would be exposed to.
Every cedar log was peeled, and then cut square (on each of two opposing sides) in order to make sure that the vertically stacked timbers would all fit snugly in place. The ceiling cedars were notched where they rested atop the wall logs so that—like the concrete base lip—the horizontal beams could help brace the cellar's sides.
Father outfitted the front of the root cellar with double doors, which were separated by an air space to keep out the cold. The storage house is also wired for electricity. When especially cold nights bring temperatures as low as 40° below zero, the cellar's incandescent light warms up the inside temperature a few degrees ... to make absolutely sure that the put-back food doesn't freeze.
With the assistance of Dad's "emergency" heater, the finished cave stays a few degrees above the ice-up point throughout the entire Wisconsin winter. And it holds its even coolness during warm March thaws—when mourning cloak butterflies migrate over gray snow—and through surprising and stark May blizzards. Around midsummer the earth-sheltered space warms up to about 55° ... but winter-stored crops are gone by then, and there are fresh vegetables in the garden.
A root cellar will eventually pay for itself by allowing its owner to store up food that is either homegrown or practically free for the picking at harvest time. For just one example of economical food hoarding, let's consider apples. If you gather five or ten bushels of unblemished red fruits late in the growing season (when they'd otherwise only fall and rot on the ground), the inexpensive edibles will keep for months in the cellar and provide you with a winter's worth of fresh fruit for juices, eating, and cooking.
A root cellar is also a good place for storing your game, smoked meats, and cheeses. Such food shelters offer complete protection from basement mice, marauding raccoons, and other pests. (I know of Alaskan homesteaders who find root cellars to be their only sure protection against food-stealing brown bears!) My mother even uses her cellar to store the huge potted ivies which decorate her patio in warmer months but cannot live through Wisconsin winters. The plants survive the cold season in the root cellar ... in a naturally dormant state. The crop holders are useful in summer, too ... for storing wine, live fish bait, and other products that profit from a cool, protected environment.
All in all, it's plain to see that folks who want the independence of being able to eat their own fresh, home-stored food will find that the notion of building a root cellar is an idea whose time has come ... back.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Additional information about root cellaring can be found in Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel (Rodale Press). This comprehensive, 297-page hardbound book covers all aspects of storing unprocessed foods.