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The humble root cellar wins new friends

 

Walking around Elliston, at the northern tip of Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula, is like tiptoeing through fields of dosing giants. Enormous, half-closed eyes rise from the landscape and peer at passersby. While there is something of the supernatural about them, these structures serve a practical purpose. They are the entrances to more than 130 food storage rooms or root cellars scattered around Elliston, population 315. Designed to keep potatoes, carrots, apples and other foods fresh, these grassy, stone-faced mounds also store memories, legends and lore. 

Certain construction elements are common. A stone wall is built around a central, wooden door. Behind and above the wall, a mound of grassy earth covers a cozy space to protect a season’s hard-won crop from summer heat and winter freeze-up. Some were built as early as 1839. Many of these natural refrigerators are still in use today. Around the turn of this century, when the town was looking for ways to develop tourism, volunteers restored more than 40 cellars that had fallen into disrepair.

Volunteer Don Johnson, says, “The root cellar is built heritage. A source of bounty. This is where your food came from. You went to the cellar and brought out good things to eat.”

In 2000, Elliston declared itself the “Root Cellar Capital of the World” and created one of the province’s favourite festivals. Roots, Rants and Roars takes place every year during the third weekend of September.

“Chefs from all over North America stand at the edge of a cliff or next to a root cellar and cook food for 800 people,” says Chris Sheppard, events manager with the festival. “The ‘roots’ part of the name is representative of both the root vegetables in those cellars and the roots of our culture. ‘Rants’ is about our storytelling culture, and ‘roars’ is about the music. There’s live, local entertainment all the time.” When musicians take the stage, the crowd roars back in appreciation and dances the night away, all in celebration of the humble root cellar. 


Elliston, Newfoundland and Labrador, is the self-proclaimed root cellar capital of the world, with more than 130 of the underground cold storage structures throughout the community.

 

Buried in history and myth

No one really knows when we first got the idea to store food underground. Perhaps pre-historic humans simply hid hard-won edibles in caves, thus discovering the preservative properties of consistently cool, humid conditions. Some claim that aboriginal Australians were storing food underground 40,000 years ago. During the Iron Age 3,000 years ago, European peoples buried certain foods, but they may have been aging them rather than keeping them fresh.

Root cellars as we know them today only came into use in 17th-century Britain, where all the right conditions converged: a cool and humid climate, plentiful building supplies, hardy crops and hungry people. In the four centuries since, root cellars have spread to North America, including Elliston.

“If anyone wants to build one, we’re the come-to people,” Johnson told researchers from Newfoundland’s Memorial University. “They’re built to take advantage of natural features in the landscape, and their modest construction using local materials has changed little over time.”

The ground-up style is common. “You dig a hole into the ground and build up turf and rock around it,” says Johnson. Others are built against a cliff face or dug into a hillside. “The doors usually face east. The only entrance to the cellar is an airlock. You open the outer door, come in, close it, then open the inner door.” The space between the doors is called the porch.

Any structure that leads underground—especially one designed to keep the hounds of hunger at bay—is bound to become tied in our imaginations with life and death. Over the centuries, legends, myths and fairytales arose from root cellars like ghosts from graves, perhaps because of their tomb-like look and feel. Johnson’s grandmother used to say that babies came from root cellars. This myth is much older than Elliston. In the UK, leprechauns are said to live in root cellars, sometimes whisking pregnant women away to deliver their babies.

Some root cellar legends are based on colourful characters. When Johnson points out the porch stone—a flat stone that serves as the lintel over the doorway—he tells the story of local strongman, Jimmy Chant, who lifted these extra-large stones into place.    

“[Jimmy Chant was] built like a motorboat,” says Johnson. “Great arms on him, all upper body strength. He’s legendary in this area, like a Paul Bunyan of Newfoundland.

“The old stories say he did himself in, lugging a cast iron stove from Bonavista to Elliston.”

Root cellars today

Johanne Amyotte and John McEachreon of Fords Mills, New Brunswick built their root cellar in 1992 using salvaged concrete blocks, bricks and old foundations stones.

“We did all the labour ourselves,” says Amyotte. “It was quite a project.” Because the cellar sits on a rock ledge, theirs is the ground-up style. When a nearby church was lifted to put a foundation under it, McEachreon had the dirt trucked in and heaped over their root cellar. About five years ago, the original wood and metal roof deteriorated, so they rebuilt it, this time using concrete.

A wooden door leads through the brick front wall to a second, inner door, creating the porch. Explaining the importance of the airlock, Amyotte says because apples give off ethylene gas that can rot other fruits and vegetables, they stored theirs in the porch. Last winter when temperatures dropped to -30°C, the apples froze. Everything behind the porch remained in good shape.

Temperatures under 10°C and humidity around 90 per cent remain relatively constant year round, keeping vegetables from getting mouldy or shriveling. Vents provide fresh air. “There’s lots of room for everybody because there’s only two of us,” says Amyotte, who shares the cellar with half a dozen neighbours and family members. Inside the 12-square-metre space, they store potatoes in cedar bins, carrots and beets in plastic buckets, while cabbages and turnips go into plastic bags with holes. 

“We have potatoes until the new ones come in August,” says Amoyette, adding that carrots last until June. “We hold it in high regard because it works so well. Plus it’s a beautiful building. It’s our temple.”

 

New designs

While Amyotte and McEachreon built root cellar using traditional, low-tech materials, styles are changing. One modern example hides beneath a hillside about 20 kilometres from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.

“It was the second concrete dome I built,” says Quin Nilsson, who stands before a pair of wooden doors held in place with four long, iron hinges he made in his blacksmith shop. “The house was my third.” He indicates the rounded structure at the top of the hill where he and his family live.

Originally from Alberta, they moved to Nova Scotia following a family holiday. “I wanted someplace I could raise my kids that wasn’t city-ish.”

To learn how to build these strange structures, Nilsson travelled to Texas. Returning to Nova Scotia, he built a couple practice domes. At the same time, he was growing his own vegetables and got interested in root cellars, so he added a rectangular room to his second dome.

After pouring a round, concrete pad, he placed an air form or construction balloon over it. “You fasten it to your foundation and turn a fan on to blow up the balloon,” says Nilsson. Rather than rebar, he used an experimental rope made of basalt rock fibres, then sprayed concrete onto the balloon. Once it hardened into a free-standing dome, he deflated the balloon. It’s off the back of this dome that he built his root cellar with a door, dirt floor and ventilation. Then he buried the entire structure beneath a metre of earth. While the outer dome with the concrete floor and sun tunnel stays dry and relatively warm, the root cellar maintains a low temperature and high humidity. From the outside, Nilsson’s storage dome and root cellar looks like nothing more than a bump in the hillside, but together with his solar panels and revived garden, the root cellar could bring him close to self-sufficiency.

 

The future is in the past

“No one around here can remember a time when we didn’t have endless and affordable energy,” says Don Johnson. He says refrigerators and well-stocked grocery stores have reduced the popularity of root cellars, and yet, they persist. Older ones are still in use and people are building new ones.

“If we ever find ourselves in an energy-poor future where we can’t have bananas from South America in Elliston within two weeks, we’re gonna have to go back to storing food long-term. The gardens that are disappearing might expand again, and people are going to be looking for this intangible cultural heritage that is the keeping of the root cellar.”

Perhaps they are that rare cultural artefact, showing us how we have and can again live within the Earth’s means. As Johnson puts it, “It’s something from the past, but it could be something from the future.”  

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