Mountain Memories: Root Cellars

Photo: Root cellar, courtesy of "Beyond My Ken"
Photo: Root cellar, courtesy of “Beyond My Ken”

Long before the invention of packaged preservatives and chain grocery stores, the people of America’s Appalachian Mountains were forced to rely on their own creative geniuses to ensure their food stores kept through the blazing summer heat, frosty autumn mornings, and frigid winter nights.

Long before the existence of canning jars, such a task often proved difficult for vegetables and fruits.

Fortunately, salvation came in the form of buildings dug into nearby hillsides.  These cramped and dark spaces became known as root cellars and are responsible for saving a countless number of mountain families from starvation.

In 1911 a leading agriculture construction expert wrote about root cellars, stating, “The leading features of a good root cellar are cheapness, nearness to the place where the roots are consumed, dryness, ventilation and above all it should be frostproof. If a hillside is handy it can aid much in securing all of these important points. First make an excavation in the hillside in size according to the desired capacity of the cellar… A door should be provided upon the exposed side or end. This door may be large enough to enter without stooping. Or it may be simply a manhole which is better than a regular door so far as protection from frost is concerned, but not so convenient for putting in and taking out roots.”

Root cellars were primarily used to keep food supplies at controlled temperatures and steady humidity.  The goal of good root cellars was to keep the food as dry and cold as possible without allowing it to drop below the freezing point.

Vegetables stored in the root cellar primarily consisted of potatoes, turnips, and carrots, while other foods were often placed in the root cellar over the winter months, including beets, onions, jarred preserves and jams, salt meat, salt turbot, salt herring, winter squash, and cabbage. A potato cellar is sometimes called a potato barn or potato house.

Often, old timers built two separate root cellars, one for their vegetables and another for fruits.  This is because long before scientific studies, our Appalachian ancestors realized that Apples and other fruits give off gas which hasten the overripening or spoilage of other crops stored nearby, although this effect is variable and many farms successfully store vegetables without segregating their apples.

In addition to vegetables and fruit being kept safely for months in root cellars, the underground buildings often served as a storage place for water, bread, butter, milk and even alcohol, as well as greens and fresh meat.

In some cases plants were transplanted from the field to the dirt floor of a cellar in autumn, where they would continue living in the cellar for months in the above freezing dark room.

Root cellars are an important piece of Appalachian culture and if you’re above a certain age, you probably have several memories which revolve around one!

Do you like Appalachian History? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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