When we bought Walnut Hill from Morton and Bessie Lawrence, I was determined to do what Bessie had done even well into her seventies–can and preserve fruits and vegetables and store them in the root cellar dug into the slope 30 yards above the house. It was a small shingled building with an upper story that was immediately dubbed “the bunk house” by our children, a perfect wood floored place to play and pretend. The thick walled root cellar below was entirely underground, entered only by lifting up a “trap door” like Auntie Em’s cyclone cellar in “The Wizard of Oz” movie. Then there were several descending steps to a double door –one that opened out and another thicker heavy door that pushed in. Entering that dark place was mixed with apprehension as well as anticipation. I was uncertain what critter may unexpectedly surprise me on the inside–bullfrog? snake? but the blast of cool air on a hot summer day was always a welcome relief. There was one hanging light bulb in the middle with a pull chain, and once the insides of the cellar were illuminated, a colorful trove appeared from the shadows, lined up on shelves like the ghostly discoveries in King Tut’s tomb.
These were not gilded treasures, but the kind that were lovingly and carefully harvested, washed, boiled and preserved in the midst of a sweaty summer, to be savored during dinners served on the coldest of winter days. The potatoes lay in the cool darkness, not tempted to turn green or sprout, and the “keeper” apples and pears remained firm and tasty. Even in the coldest of winter blasts, the root cellar contents never froze or rotted. It was the best refrigeration system imaginable and didn’t cost a thing to maintain.
Over the years my commitment to the huge job of canning waned as my work schedule got tighter and the price of fresh apricots, cherries and peaches rose. I found excellent already canned fruit wholesale for less than the price it would cost to purchase and can it myself. I discovered dehydrating for our orchard apples and pears and garden vegetables so I stopped using the root cellar for food storage a few years ago. The upper bunk house had filled with boxes and old furniture, the roof began to leak and recently the wood floor rotted and collapsed into the cellar. It was time to put our efforts into preserving the building itself.
The roof has been replaced and we have two strong young men working on restoring the floor, and instead of the four inches of shaving that was used as insulation between the floor and the ceiling of the cellar a century ago, we’ll use modern insulation to protect that underground coolness. We’ll build sturdy new shelves and bins, and it will be time to fill the many empty canning jars that have stood unused for too many years.
Root cellars have now been discovered as the new “green” way–no electricity needed to preserve foods for months at a time. The old timers like the Lawrences knew a thing or two about how to bring summer to the table in the dead of winter and it is our privilege to preserve that way of life for the next generation.