Elliston, NL, goes back to the future by restoring its hillside pantries - keeping edibles cool in summer, safeguarding them from cold in winter.
From his open kitchen window, Bert Crewe smiles and nods in the direction of the Lilliputian wooden door in the hillside behind his house. It would be the first of many such doors I would enter in Elliston, a small former thriving fishing community at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, near the tip of Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula.
Unlatching the apse-the local term for a wooden latch-the door opens into a miniscule room, something like an oversized closet, with its own small door. The second door opens into a dark vault-like room, replete with slatted wooden bins that smell of damp earth and reveal a display of home-grown potatoes and carrots. The outer room helps to maintain a constant humidity in the cellar, and a frost-free environment.
The landscape of Elliston is riddled with these root cellars, primitive but effective storage places built into the sides of knolls or in the middle of old potato fields. They date back to an era when subsistence gardening and cellaring were an essential way of life in Newfoundland communities. Long before electricity and refrigeration came to outport homes, and when buying produce was difficult or impossible, nearly every family had a patch for potatoes, another for carrots, turnips, beets, and cabbage, and a cellar to store the food from harvest to harvest.
What makes Elliston unique is the number of cellars still in existence and their age-an opportunity seized upon by the town. In the late 1990s, with a declining population and stagnating economy, local folks were eager to revitalize their community.
"Tourism Elliston took stock of our resources, noticed we had a lot of root cellars, so they took that and ran with it," says Colleen Duffett, the town's heritage development co-ordinator. In a project that took several years to complete, and co-ordinated efforts with researchers from Memorial University of Newfoundland, the town documented 135 cellars. The inventory revealed 70 cellars built in the 19th century-the oldest dating back to 1839. Many were in good condition and several still in active use.
In 2001, the town hired crews to restore some of the cellars. To date, 40 cellars have been given a facelift or entirely rebuilt. One of the oldest cellars given new life belongs to Rex Chaulk.
"I used to help Father when I was big enough," says Rex, "He'd be at the potatoes in the summer, trenching them-that's when you form the beds-then putting on caplin [for fertilizer]." In time, Rex and his wife, Edith, had their own family. Each year, they grew and stored enough vegetables, including about 80 75-pound sacks of potatoes, to feed their 15 children.
Today, Rex still grows potatoes and stores them in his cellar, which has been given a new wooden ceiling courtesy of the town.
When they weren't planting potatoes in spring, fishing in summer or cutting wood in winter, fishermen built the cellars with the help of family or neighbours, usually over a period of time. While time was in short supply, materials were abundant: spruce logs traditionally formed the peaked ceiling in the cellars, flat rocks scavenged from cliffs along the shoreline shaped the walls and provided the huge lintel above the cellar door, stones and sod for the walls came from the potato gardens.
Resident Sid Chaulk, who helped his own father build a cellar years ago, was hired as one of the restoration workers. Typically, after cleaning out the site and taking measurements of the two compartments, the crews rebuilt the walls-about a foot thick and up to five feet high-of flat stone, backfilling them with stone, earth and sod. Maintaining the traditional peaked style, they framed the roofs with spruce logs attached to a central beam.
"The old fellas used tar paper [on top of the logs], which helped keep out both water and rodents," says Sid. The restoration crews also found remnants of floor canvas covering some logs and underneath the earth and sod, a testament to resourcefulness. But their most unusual find can be seen in the 1879 cellar constructed by Tom Porter in an area of Elliston known as The Point. "The old steel beam they put in to support the roof came from a shipwreck," says Sid. Salvaged from the shipwrecked Eric off nearby Maberly, the beam is said to have taken two days to transport by horse and cart to its final resting place.
In contrast, Bert Crewe's 1946 cellar typifies a newer type of construction-a mortar made of sand and lime was plastered over the flat rock face, which meant the cellar required little maintenance. Bert finds it the perfect environment to store his favoured 'Atlantic' potatoes.
Today, opening their doors to outport history-and to visitors who want to peek inside-Colleen Duffett says the cellars have literally put Elliston on the map. "In 2004 we saw 1,600 visitors. This year we saw almost 10,000. We're the Root Cellar Capital of the World," she says. "Everyone here is right proud of that."
More cellar dwellers
Cellars were more than a place to store root vegetables through the winter, or to keep butter and milk or set jelly in summer. The dark, cool space was ideal for storing alcoholic beverages such as blueberry wine.
"Most everybody did it," says Rex Chaulk recalling how his father made wine. "When the blueberries got ripe in September, they put them in the keg, then put that in the cellar. Christmas time they'd open it up."