Historic Root Cellar Restoration Project
Root cellars were an integral component to agriculture, one that those who were born after the invention of the refrigerator know little about. Right now, if you did not know what you were looking at, the root cellar would seem to be nothing more than a pile of stones set up against a hillside. Walk closer, through overgrown bushes, and you will see a hole in the hill with a stone staircase leading down. If you are brave enough, and have a flashlight at the ready, what you will find at the end of the staircase is a stone room with a clay floor measuring approximately 20 feet by 20 feet by 10 feet. This is the root cellar.
Root cellars literally fueled the growth of the U.S. They fed people, livestock and the economy. Elizabeth Cromley, a professor of architectural history at Northeastern University, said that at one time, “just about every house had special facilities for preserving food.” She said that understanding food preservation is not a frivolous pursuit. More than 400 books instructed 19th-century Americans on how to plan a functional house, with a practical larder, basement and outbuildings, she said. “You’re not going to die if you don’t get a new dress,” she said, “but if you don’t know this, it will kill you.”
In the 17th and 18th centuries, every farmstead had a root cellar. They were the first refrigerators. Using the insulating properties of the soil, food stored in a root cellar stayed cool in the summer, reducing spoilage, and kept above freezing in the winter, again preserving the food. Typically, a variety of vegetables are placed in the root cellar in the autumn, after harvesting. Vegetables stored in the root cellar primarily consist of potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Other food supplies placed in the root cellar over the winter months include beets, onions, preserves/jams, salt meat, salt and salt fish. In addition to feeding humans, farmers used the preserved vegetables to feed their livestock through the winter. By the middle of the 19th century, people were also using root cellars to store crops for market until the middle of winter when they would bring higher prices. And some root cellars were used to hide fugitive slaves as stops on the Underground Railroad.
A civil engineer has done a cursory visual inspection and has found the root cellar to be structurally sound. However, over time, there is a drainage problem. Water finding its way through the soil above, or rain, is not draining from the cellar’s floor. The engineer has recommended that a drain be installed under the floor which would carry water away to be deposited into a small wetland area at the base of the hill. In addition to alleviating the drainage issue, MARC is seeking funding to construct and install a new wooden entrance door, and repair to the stone staircase as well as for the purchase of solar-powered lighting for the cellar’s interior, the design and manufacture of interpretive signs, construction of storage shelves, and cutting a trail spur to the site.
This restoration project will not only allow visitors to the park to take a peek back in time – for some it will be a glimpse into the future. There is a modern root cellar resurgence happening throughout the U.S. Tough economic times have inspired many families to plant gardens, to can their own vegetables and preserves. Many are building root cellars to store their harvests. Others – are doing the same thing as a way to go “green” – use less electricity – to become more sustainable. Still others, are building root cellars to prep for what they feel may be impending disaster.