Historical Report #19
WINTER STORAGE OF VEGETABLES
The A.J.Hill residence as shown in an Inter-Mountain Realty Company advertisement of 1914. Note the masonry root cellar on the left, accessible from the house. The property was "north of Trenton Town" and was offered for sale at $5,000
Some thirty years ago, an international student from eastern Europe remarked to me that what she found most intriguing upon her first trip to the supermarket in the United States was the sight of bins upon bins of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are times when I enter our local markets that I feel equally intrigued, at times near paralyzed, by the choices in the fresh food sections today. Grapefruit from Florida, apples from Australia, blueberries, grapes, peaches, and nectarines from Chile, fresh pineapple from Hawaii, bananas from Central America, kiwi fruit, mangoes – and that’s just some of the fruit available.
And vegetables? There are sealed bags of scrubbed baby carrots, lettuces of all types, celery, cilantro, and parsley, cucumbers and jalapeno peppers, hot house tomatoes, kale, and turnip greens, broccoli and cauliflower cut up into crowns, bean sprouts, snow peas, green beans, eggplant.
Do I need potatoes, and what type shall I try this week – Yukon Gold? New red? Idaho Russet? How about cabbage for Saturday night? Should it be winter squash or sweet potatoes or yams on Sunday? They’re all there, I just have to make up my mind. It’s enough to wish myself back into the 1890s.
Okay, so let’s consider the cook at the turn of the century. Winter fare in the fresh vegetable line would not pose too much of a problem because she’s restricted to what can be stored underground, and it was mostly potatoes. Well, she’s out of potatoes, but no problem! She has a pit at the foot of last year’s garden, full of her own crop. It would be a cone-shaped spot perhaps five to six feet in diameter, covered with straw and soil and with a vent in the top. The vent would have had to be kept free to guard against mold. A wary lookout for rodents would also be prudent, since they could decimate the entire pile in short order.
Lloyd R. Jorgensen explains in his memoirs, Growing up in Lewiston, the process our pioneer woman’s husband or sons would go through to get a basket of potatoes from this structure– aside, I would think, from getting out to it through anywhere from a foot to three feet of snow. First they would clear away the soil from the pile, then dig through the straw to get at the potatoes, select enough potatoes to last for a good while – because they wouldn’t want to go through this process too often – then carefully replace the straw, cover the straw with the displaced soil, being careful to keep the vent in place, and plow back through the snow to the kitchen.
Long time Lewiston resident, Dave Roberts, who was also a boy in the 1920s, remembers that an ax had to be used occasionally to get through the frozen ground. “But you’d wait until the sun came out, and most of the time you could break out a chunk of frozen dirt with just the shovel. When you got to the straw,” he adds, “you’d be all set.” Dave’s family dispensed with the vent, and he didn’t remember any real problems with mold.
“Apples were pitted by some people around here,” Dave says. “And they kept pretty well, too, although once they came out of the pit, they’d get soft pretty fast.”
When our family first moved into this place in southwest Lewiston, there was a root cellar located east of the house, under the Boxelder tree. Ethy was twelve or thirteen at the time, Jonathan was around eight, Melanie was around ten. Melanie tells me that Ethy and Jonathan often poked around inside it – it was fairly small, and empty of everything except some derelict potatoes and a lot of leaves. They couldn’t entice her, she tells me now, to set foot on the cobwebby steps since she feared the area down there would be infested with spiders. And it probably was. I imagine this would be a routine problem – the spiders, that is – with any root cellar, even those with cement floors and walls.
I’d been taking photographs of the sheep during one of their many escapes from the fenced-in pasture, and so hadn’t been concerned with documenting the root cellar (above), much to my chagrin when starting this piece; so the photos had only tantalizing pieces of the root cellar in the background. But Melanie was able to consolidate two of them to show the entire cellar. You can see now the slightly inclined door into the cellar, the mound above, and the vent on the top. This and other root cellars like it were some of the more primitive types, but were extremely important structures at the turn of the century. The Bergeson’s cellar, situated on the edge of the hill, would also keep fairly dry.
Built partly underground, root cellar walls were usually of wood, or at times of simply the earth itself. The walls extended to a point just above the surface of the ground. The roof in the colder areas would be covered with straw and soil, and a vent built into the top, right next to the center ridge pole. Unless this structure were built into the side of a hill, steps would be needed to get down inside. Dave remembered having to crawl down into the root cellar in Malad, which would have been in the early 1900s.
Lloyd Jorgensen writes that their Lewiston root cellar held bottled vegetables and fruits put up during the summer and fall before. Winter squash was sometimes stored in the barn under a pile of straw. “Those old Hubbard squash were so hard,” Lloyd writes, “that they had to be broken with an ax, but they were surely good when they were baked.”
Root cellars could also hold rows of cabbages, and keep carrots and beets fairly well if the humidity were high enough to guard against the vegetables’ drying out. The floors of these structures were often of earth, though the Jorgensen family’s cellar had a cement floor. The entrance of this cellar stood at ground level, however, with the addition of a gable over the door. There were four or five steps down into the cellar itself.
There might be barrels in root cellars filled with salt brine to store bacon and hams. In the more swampy areas of Lewiston, food stored in these cellars was kept up off the floor in order to keep it safe from spring melt water which would invariably creep over the floor in some areas.
Lewiston’s Renee Karren remembers her own root cellar when living on 1600 South where her son, Greg, lives now with his family. It, too, had a cement floor, and though it wasn’t dug deeply into the ground, every February the cellar would be sloshing with water. It was the source of perennial spring exasperation with ground water. “We’d no sooner pump it out,” she reports, “than it would be back in again,” The answer? “We stored everything two feet off the floor!” – two feet being the high water mark of the February thaw.
The Cadillac of root cellars in Lewiston was built above ground, with thick masonry walls. Dave Roberts remembers seeing as a young man the root cellar attached to Delecta Karren’s house on 1421 South Main, now owned by the Troy Karren family. This cellar can be accessed from inside the house, is made of cement, is still used for storage, and unlike the Karren root cellar less than a mile away, remains dry during our soggy Lewiston springs.
Masonry root cellars are still being used elsewhere in the valley. Niels Bergeson built a root cellar under the oldest part of our house here, and although it was from the beginning underground, a true cellar, the fact it was built on the edge of the hill seems to have eliminated the ground water problem. The walls are of huge rocks, plastered in between. It’s an indispensable storage area for us; I don’t know what we’d do without it. However, the freezer’s down there, and much of our food storage ends up in the freezer, as is true with most families today.
Memories of storage pits and root cellars, then, join the other memories of life 75 to 100 years ago. Nostalgic and fascinating for us to read about as they all are, they find us not too eager to go back to experiencing them as a way of life. Things like the one- or two-room schoolhouse with the privies outside, for instance, the frigid sleigh and wagon rides to church and work, the endless spinning and weaving in order to make a shirt, and the home-made herbal remedies for truly life threatening diseases, these are the things that serve as reminders of the toughness and ingenuity bred into the women and men who settled and made their homes in the American West.
Georgia Jorgensen, Lloyd’s wife, has agreed to having
copies made of this book to place in the Lewiston Library and in USU’s
Special Collections, and we’ll follow up on this task right away.
Realty Company advertisement of the A.J.Hill residence, courtesy of USU
Photos of the storage pit cross section and the root cellar cross section, USDA Bulletin #879, 1917, couresty of USU Special Collections
Photo of the Bergeson root cellar, Joan and Melanie Shaw