Root Cellar Revival
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With the help of Brad Martin, Dean Thetford stacked cinder blocks and filled them with concrete to form up the walls of his 10 x 10-foot root cellar.
100 years ago, virtually every homestead in the Methow had a root cellar. Today in the valley there is new interest in the old practice of growing and storing food using the steady temperature of the earth.
“It seems like everyone wants one these days – there is a real root cellar resurgence,” said Brad Martin, 58, who was born and raised in the Methow. “It’s interesting because most all the old homes and homesteads here in the valley have a root cellar of some sort.”
A builder by trade, Martin has helped construct more than a half-dozen root cellars in the valley, including a 13 x 13-foot space under his own barn.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily fear-driven, but maybe more just a natural consequence of more people gardening and wanting to grow their own food,” said Martin. “Then the obvious question is ‘how do I preserve it?’”
Root cellars are nothing new. For thousands of years, people around the world have utilized the natural coolness and humidity of the earth to extend the bounty of their harvest. Prior to World War II, most families in the Methow depended on their root cellar for fresh fruit and vegetables through the winter.
Thetford’s cellar roof was a six-inch-thick poured concrete slab that was hoisted into place with a crane. Later, the walls and roof were waterproofed and a porch roof was added to shade the south-facing wall.
The beauty of root cellars is that they need not be complicated to work. In a 1977 interview with the Methow Valley News (as cited in Sally Portman’s The Smiling Country), the late Pearl Rader Risley described the simple, but effective method her family used to store crops on their homestead near Patterson Lake:
“For the apples and potatoes we’d dig a pit in the earth, layer it with hay, put in some apples then some spuds, and more hay and so on,” said Pearl, who was born in 1901 as one of fifteen children in the family. “Then we’d cover it over with dirt and in the winter dig a small hole down through the snow and earth and bring out as much as we needed. We’d have fresh stuff ‘til heaven knows when.”
The widespread adoption of electrical refrigeration in the Methow in the 1930s and 40s coupled with a wider selection of fruits and vegetables available at local supermarkets, began to render root cellars obsolete. Now, that trend seems to be reversing. In the last decade, dozens of homeowners in the valley are rediscovering the benefits of the ancient practice.
“We wanted to eat local and organic and grow and preserve as much of our own fruit and veggies as possible,” said Dean Thetford, 69, who lives off the East Country Road between Winthrop and Twisp. “It just made simple sense.”
Thetford designed a root cellar that was divided into two separate chambers: One for vegetables and one for fruit such as apples, which can off-gas and cause root crops to spoil. Note the separate air vents for each space. A single 6-inch thick insulated door was installed over the opening and the structure was eventually mostly covered with dirt left over from the excavation.
Thetford bought books, did research online and visited other root cellars in the valley before starting work this fall on a 10 x 10 foot concrete block structure buried five feet into the ground. The structure has a partition in the middle to keep root crops separate from fruits such as apples, which emit a gas that causes root crops to sprout early.
“There’s a lot of different ways to do it, but the goal is to create a space that stays between 33 and 40 degrees with 90 to 95 percent humidity,” said Thetford. Like many root cellars, Thetford’s has a dirt floor that is covered with sand and pea gravel. To maintain the humidity, he simply tosses a bucket of water on the floor. “So far, it’s working perfectly.”
The concept of root cellars is basic: Dig down a few feet and the natural coolness and humidity of the earth can provide a perfect environment for extending the edible life of many fruit and vegetable crops. One of the big challenges here in the valley is getting a root cellar cold enough in the fall, which can sometimes be mild in the Methow. To get the temperature down to the desired level, most root cellars have vents that can be opened to draw in the cold night air. Some folks open the door at night to trap cold air or use mechanical fans to speed the cooling process.
“October can be kind of an awkward transition month,” said Tess Hoke, who has taught classes on the subject at Local 98856. “The food is ready for the cellar, but the cellar isn’t ready for the food.”
Once cooled, a well-insulated root cellar can stay between 33 and 40 degrees until the snow comes off the ground and the earth begins warming in the spring. Some, like Shane Ruoss of West Chewuch, will even shovel snow into the root cellar to bump up the humidity and keep things cool well into April.
“The sun is your foe. Anything you can do, like a double door or a shaded porch helps a lot. All in all, it’s really ridiculously simple,” said Ruoss, whose home has a simple 6 x 6 foot cellar that dates to the 1980s. “We usually have apples through March and carrots and potatoes into April. It’s also great for preserving greens in the fall.”
The best root cellar depends on the particulars of a home site. In the old days, most root cellars were pits lined with rocks and covered with timbers and dirt. Then and now, some also use a cold, damp corner of the basement or a portion of the crawlspace under a home or porch.
Where the topography is flat, a common approach is to dig a hole in the ground and then use the excavated dirt to cover over the top of a structure. Those living on a slope can tunnel directly into the hillside and avoid building stairs down to the cellar. Today, cinder block filled with concrete, solid poured concrete or insulated concrete form blocks are popular options.
“We have an 8 x 10 foot poured concrete box that is totally buried and it is large enough for three families,” said Laura Gunnip of Twisp River. “We rent out space or trade for food. There’s a lot of demand for food storage space.”
According to several who have built them, labor and materials for a simple 10 x 10 root cellar might run around $3000 to $4000, excluding excavation costs. Not cheap, but considering the cost required to buy the equivalent amount of freezer or refrigerator space – and pay the electric bill year after year, root cellars are a relative bargain say those who have them.
One of the more unique root cellars in the valley is that shared by Anaka Mines, Chris Doree, Lexi Koch and Dierdre and Blake Luvon on the Twisp flats. They noticed a few huge steel culverts sitting around on the Lloyd Logging property and struck a deal with Bob Lloyd to purchase a 23-foot long piece of the 12-feet diameter culvert, which has a flat bottom and is seven feet tall. The culverts were left over from when the Forest Service upgraded culverts for streams that passed beneath roads around the Methow.
The three families buried the culvert, plugged one end, built a door in the other, installed vents and constructed a staircase down to the cellar.
“It’s gigantic, like a bomb shelter – literally,” said Koch. “But we don’t do it because we are afraid; we do it because we have a passion for growing our food and it just makes good sense. It’s nice to know that the food that we worked hard to grow is right there and will be safe with or without electricity.”
Recently, they added electricity, which was a nice upgrade that eliminated the need to bring flashlights and headlamps to find their way around in the cavernous culvert. They also rent or trade for space in the cellar with many other families.
“I think more and more people are thinking about food security these days,” said Koch.
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