Features & Stories
No Hobbits Live Here

Story and photos by Trudy Frisk

The Magic Door
Many first time visitors to the home of Brian and Carolyn Lefferson are puzzled by a structure in their back yard. Beyond the garden shed and trampoline a thick wooden door with a brass knob is set into the base of a grassy hill.  It’s dug down into the ground and surmounted by heavy wooden beams.  People who approach it along the red rock path wonder what’s behind it. A family of hobbits?  The hollow hills of fairy land?

Other guests recognize the structure at once. “Oh, you have a root cellar!” they exclaim.
It’s not the only one.  The façade of modern houses along the Lefferson’s street in a growing Kamloops suburb conceals many such cellars dug into the steep, fir covered slope behind. 

The Cellar Next Door
The one just next door is an original, tucked in, as they all were, neatly and tidily beneath the hill, seemingly a natural part of the surroundings.  When the Leffersons bought their property they renovated the cellar, pulled weeds, put down rock pathways and planted shrubs. The old cellar gives an historical focal point to their yard.

What’s stored in it now?  “Only shelves and spiders.” says Carolyn.  Spiders, eh? Troublesome arachnids in Kamloops, home of the black widow and brown recluse.

Spiders or no spiders, thrifty early settlers saw no point in wasting potential storage places for their root crops and canning. Before refrigeration a root cellar was the only
place to keep carrots, potatoes, turnips, and parsnips over the winter.  They were placed in bins, sometimes with layers of dirt over them.  Onions hung from the ceiling and wooden shelves held the housewife’s jars of canned meat and fruit

Constructing a root cellar sounds simple. After all, it’s just a hole in the ground and, if there’s anything the settlers had in abundance, it was dirt.

Original Cellar
It’s not that easy.  There had to be sufficient earth around it to provide insulation so that a fairly stable temperature was maintained all year.  The ideal depth was ten feet but not everyone dug that far down. Families whose cellar didn’t properly insulate the crops within were families who ate frozen potatoes, not the tastiest food, all winter.  Humidity was essential to keep vegetables from softening and shriveling.  Dirt floors, ideal in dry climates, took less time and material and provided natural humidity control

Ventilation wasn’t usually included in early, basic cellars, but inlet and outlet vents allowed for air circulation and prevented spoilage caused by too much humidity.

Flat or hilly ground; pioneers worked with what they had. Each had its advantages.  There was less chance of flooding in a cellar built into a hill, but it was harder to excavate and needed more bracing.  Flat ground was more readily available to the average settler and was cheaper and easier to work with.  Most people who built their cellars on flat land  dug them deep enough that they also made staircases down to the doors.  There may have been some who had their cellar doors flush with the top ground, but, after the first winter of shoveling snow off to find the cellar door before they could get food, they changed.

Considering the subtleties of temperature control and access, spiders seem the least of the pioneer’s problems in constructing and maintaining a root cellar.  Mostly they worked well, preserving the family ‘s food stocks over the long winter.  Usually by the time spring came, the remaining potatoes had sprouted and were ready to be used as seed for the new crop.

Food wasn’t the only thing stored in some cellars.  There are stories of carefully brewed or distilled spirits secreted in the cellar.  In our own cellar the home brewed root beer bin was adjacent to the home brewed real beer bin.  They were bottled in identical bottles.  Now and then we children would abstract a bottle of real beer, thoughtfully replacing it with a bottle of root beer so no shortage would be noticed. After a hot day’s work, when Father brought in what he assumed was a cool bottle of beer, he’d be surprised to find it was root beer and give it to us, going back to the cellar for a real beer.  We were puzzled that he never realized there’d been a substitution.  Or, did he?

Back Yard Focus
With the coming of modern refrigeration and the spread of electricity to outlying areas, root cellars fell into disuse.  The back-to-the-land movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s revived the concept.  The B.C. Access Catalogue from 1970 has two long pages of details on constructing root cellars complete with diagrams and details of specific crop storage.
There’s little information about the success of those root cellars forty years ago.

Enough of the original cellars remain, though, to remind us of our rural heritage in an increasingly urbanized world.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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