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Root Cellars

In order to differentiate between root cellars and Native stone temples, it is necessary to first understand the former.  Two good introductions to the factors which need to be considered in the design and operation of root cellars are HERE and HERE.

The factors influencing design of root cellars include:

  • temperature: around 35°F is optimal for most produce, depending on the crop

  • humidity: high humidity is required to prevent desiccation

  • ventilation: ethylene gas will build up unless vented

  • ease of entry: proximity to the house & a standard size door (36"x84" or 36"x81")

  • orientation/location: shading to prevent heating is often provided by a north entrance or shade trees

  • floor layout: must accommodate produce bins or shelves

The Root Cellar Capitol of the World is the small community of Elliston, Newfoundland.  Elliston is home to 133 extant root cellars (many more have been destroyed), built during a period of a little over a century from 1839 until the 1950s.  While these root cellars may superficially resemble the Native American stone chambers of New England, close examination reveals distinct differences.  One such difference is the treatment of the doors.  The Elliston cellars generally have rectangular entrances designed to frame doors of standard width and below-average height.  Native stone chambers do not.  Chamber entrances include examples which must be crawled into, as well as doors which are far too wide (spanning the entire width of the front wall) or high (up to 99 inches - 8.25 feet). 

The Elliston root cellars apparently represent the importation into North America of traditional root cellaring techniques brought over by European immigrants (in this case from England).  Occasionally, other regional European styles of root or wine cellars are encountered.  Italians, for example, have traditionally constructed the roof of their cellars with clay bricks configured into an arch, with or without iron reinforcing bands.  Italian immigrants to America brought this style with them and their handiwork is sometimes encountered in areas where they settled.  The region around Greenwich, Connecticut has several such examples, apparently created by Italian immigrants who arrived in the latter part of the 19th Century. 

Thanks to the thorough study of their root cellars by Elliston residents, a great deal of information on these structures has been compiled.  Elliston boasts 133 extant documented root cellars among their approximately 400 residents.  The average dimensions:

  • width: 242cm (95")

  • depth: 397cm (156")

  • height: 176cm (69")

  • distance between outer and inner door:160cm (63")

  • height of outside door: 134cm (53")

These figures show an average square footage of the floor space of 103 square feet.  This contrasts with the floor space of the New England chambers which ranges from around 350 down to 1 square feet.  A diagram of a typical Elliston root cellar shows a double set of doors, board roof (covered with soil), longitudinal ventilation and mortared stone walls. Contrast that with the New England stone chambers: stone slabs for the roof (uniformly quarried without metal drills), drystone walls, no provision for ventilation and entrances which are often difficult, if not impossible to fit one door on to, let alone a double set.  Setting aside the small percentage of New England chambers partially or fully out of the ground -precluding their use for food storage- or the early references to Indian stone house or forts by the early settlers, why would New England builders of alleged root cellars have gone out of their way to make their job much more difficult?  New England buildings supposedly contemporaneous with the stone chambers begin to exhibit drill marks on their quarried stones c. 1750, and mortar was certainly common far back into the 17th Century.  A similar type of construction was the mortuary houses often found in New England cemeteries.  These were built into the early part of the 20th Century, when refrigeration made them obsolete.  Constructed supposedly contemporaneously with the stone chambers, their method of construction is entirely different.  They do exhibit the more reasonable construction techniques in evidence in the Elliston root cellars.  The lack of a continuing tradition of root cellar construction in New England is also problematic.  Elliston (where electrification which led to refrigeration probably lagged behind New England) continued to build many root cellars into the middle of the 20th Century. 

There is data on the construction dates for 121 of the Elliston chambers (rounded to the nearest percent):

  • pre-1850:     4%

  • 1850-1900: 58%

  • 1900-1950: 36%

  • post-1950:   2%

Why is there no similar surge in construction of New England external root cellars during this period?  While there are unquestionably a small number of such structures in New England which date from the 19th and early 20th Centuries, this is a question requiring an answer.  The most likely answer is that Colonial (and more recent) New England root cellars were almost always in the cellar of the house. Link   Nor was this practice confined to New England, as this Canadian report makes clear.

One source notes that "Root cellars were a storage place, usually under the house but could be dug out of a hillside, where vegetables such as potatoes, onions, squash, carrots, cabbage and turnips could be kept through the winter. Fruits and some vegetables could be sliced, threaded on strings and then hung to dry. Link

Another source states that:

"Many plants can be stored in a cool cellar for several months. 'Root cellars' refer to basement storage places for root vegetable: potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, and cabbage can all be stored for several months in a cool cellar. Common storage is usually a northern climes activity. In southern climes, higher water tables, humidity, and lack of suitable basements make this activity difficult. Common storage techniques include "barrel storage" where vegetable are put into a hay fill barrel and then buried in a shallow trench, Bin storage, where a bin pierced by holes keeps animals out of the food but allows cold to preserve them, and garden storage, were cold hardy plants are mulched with hay and allowed to stay in the garden until needed. Link

A brief review of early Midwestern food preservation practices notes that:

"Cabbages put into a hole in the ground will keep well during the winter ....Many farmers keep potatoes in the same way. Squashes should never be kept down cellar when it is possible to prevent it. Dampness injures them."  Link

Virginia- Archaeology at Jamestown has revealed that region's food storage practices:

"In the workers' house, they found what's become a classic sign of slave living. It's called a sub-floor pit - a kind of storage area discovered in slave housing excavations all over Virginia. Inside this one there were unmistakable signs of African occupants - beads of a type and color favored by West Africans, and pipes made of local clay, but with West African decorations. The planter's house also had a sub-floor pit. The English custom was to construct root cellars this way, but Africans had no such tradition. A century later, the slaves at Carter's Grove were still building root cellars under their floors -- perhaps to acquire some at least semi-private space to store food or valuables. . . . some of these get very deep. We have root cellars that were actually over three feet deep, some as large as nine feet square. Link

W. Virginia- Excavations revealed that: "Three of the five cellars were about two meters (roughly 6 ft) long and covered the entire backhoe trench width (60 cm or 3 ft). These small cellars fit the size of typical. . . underground root cellars which were used to store food products and were usually, but not always, under buildings... Link

Deleware- Excavation of an 18th Century house revealed: "The hall contained nine small root cellars clustered around the fireplace, and the smaller parlor fireplace had two brick-lined cellars near it. Link

Deleware- Another report of the excavation of 18th Century houses: "Feature 28 was a small circular pit in the floor of the cellar (see Figures 34 and 35). It was 21 inches in diameter and 17 inches deep. The bottom of the pit was lined with oyster shell. The shell was presumably intended to provide drainage, suggesting that the pit was a storage cellar for roots. Link

Virginia- Excavation report: "Nearly all of the major features associated with the site consisted of sub-floor pits, or 'root cellars', within the confines of the dwelling. The archaeological and historical evidence indicated that the residence once housed members of the enslaved community who worked as field hands on the Ludwell plantation from c. 1740s to 1778. Link

Virginia- Excavations at a 17th Century plantation west of Williamsburg produced the information that:  "a large root cellar located in front of the hearth. . . .   Each cellar was subdivided into three rooms—a large room used for storage, a smaller dairy, and a landing for stairs connected to the first floor. The cellars employed their own waterproofing/drainage system, with the eastern cellar containing two small brick-lined, tile-floored coolers. . . .  two brick cellars associated with a large brick kitchen/quarter and a series of root cellars located in front of the hearth"  Link

Michigan- Excavations confirm the practice of incorporating root cellars into basement floors:  Link


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