Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Garden Design - Outbuildings - Storage Cellars for Vegetable Roots, Fruits, & Alcohol

Root Cellars in Early America

A root cellar (American English) or an earth cellar (British English) is a structure, usually underground or built into the side of a hill allowing them to be at least partially underground, used for storage of vegetables, fruits, nuts, alcoholic drinks or other foods. The traditional focus was on root crops stored in an underground cellar. References to storage cellars in the British American colonial period were often for storage areas for home-made alcohol.

Root cellars were intended to keep food supplies at a steady cool temperatures & fairly constant humidity. Root cellars kept food from freezing during the winter & cool during the summer to prevent the spoiling & rotting of the roots, such as potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, parsnips, turnips, etc. Typically vegetables were placed in the root cellar in the autumn after harvesting

There are several references to root cellars in early records in British colonial America. A cellar was a space used for storage, usually of roots as well as vegetables & fruits & drinks made from them over-winter, which could be located above ground, or partially submerged, or entirely submerged.  Most root cellars were part of a building, but some were constructed as detached storage areas sheltered with roofs.  These separate storage buildings were often called cellar houses. Sometimes spelled as celler, sellar, & seller in 17C & 18C references, they were also called storerooms and storehouses.

1643 in Surry County, Virginia a contract noted, "a framed house conteyning forty five foot in lengthy and twenty foot in breadth...and a cellar adjoining to it also of fifteen foot square."

1694 in York County, Virginia, an advertisement for "English framed dwelling house with a good cellar under it."

1708 The Boston News-Letter carried an ad for "a Convenient Dwelling House having a Cellar, Low Room, Chamber, and Garret."
1713 At St Peter's Parish in New Kent County, Virginia, the vestry ordered a new glebe house with "a seller three feet in the ground and three feet above."

May 30, 1715 In The Boston News-Letter, a Gentleman offered to sell "fine, bottl'd Sydar" (cider) from his "Sydar Cellar" for 3 pence per quart.
1718  Court records in Richmond County, Virginia, mentioned a plantation with "a cellar with a good roof over it."

1735 The South Carolina Gazette. January 11, 1735, advertised for sale, "good planting Land, containing 150 Acres...with a convenient Brick Dwelling-house 40 feet long & 30 wide, and good Cellars below."

1741 The South Carolina Gazette.  April 9, 1741, reported a storm during which, The Waters rose up to the Gate of Robert Lesly, Esq; and came into his Cellar and fill'd it, and carried the Liquors off their Stillings, and damnified all Things in it, and is still full of Water.

In 1743, Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard's Almanac about using cellars to store wine. "Begin to gather Grapes from the 10th of September (the ripest first) to the last of October, and having clear'd them of Spider webs, and dead Leaves, put them into a large Molosses- or Rum-Hogshead; after having washed it well, and knock'd one Head out, fix it upon the other Head, on a Stand, or Blocks in the Cellar."   

A description of the historic 3-acre serpentine, brick-walled gardens at Barboursville is provided in the book, Historic Gardens of Virginia, printed in 1923. Caroline Coleman Duke describes: The original garden covered nearly three acres, and was entirely surrounded by the serpentine wall of red brick…With Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other distinguished neighbors, the garden at Barboursville was not infrequently the scene of merriment; nor did they need the local moonshine to give snap and sparkle to these occasions, for the cellars near by were amply stocked with imported liquors, and mint flourished in every nook and cranny, so no guest ever left Barboursville without at least one sip of the favorite beverage of old Virginians.

1748 The South Carolina Gazette. July 25, 1748, noted, "A very good Shop on the Bay, a good Cellar , and a well furnish'd lodging Room, to be lett."

1763 The South Carolina Gazette. April 30, 1763, advertised for sale a "plantation on James-Island, lately belonging to William Henperson, situated on Wappoe-Creek, about four miles from Charles-Town, containing 263 acres...a good two story dwelling-house with piazzas and good dry cellars."

1766 The Virginia Gazette. August 22, 1766, advertised for sale in "Cumberland, County...636 acres, with... a large dwelling-house, with...a good cellar, and underpinned; a large kitchen, with two rooms... a large garden, with sundry kinds of medicinal roots and plants."

The Virginia Gazette. November, 13 1766, noted, "A SPECIOUS BRICK HOUSE, upwards of 50 feet in length, with 4 rooms below and 3 above, and a good cellar under the same in 3 apartments, together with a storehouse and counting room under the same roof... in the town of Smithfield."

The specific term "root cellar" does not come into common use until about 1767, when an ad in the The New-York Journal, or General Advertiser in March offered for sale a house on Corlear's Hook which had a "root cellar 22 feet by 11 feet, stoned up all around."   

 1768 The Pennsylvania Gazette. January 21, 1768, advertised for sale in "Allentown...a large commodious well finished dwelling house, with a kitchen and store, having extraordinary good cellars under them, a garden adjoining, with a variety of roots and flowers."

1782 The Pennsylvania Gazette. October 9, 1782, advertised in "Hartford Town, Maryland, an excellent brick dwelling house, accommodated with...excellent garden, abounding with useful roots and flowers. The house is large, and every way convenient, with cellars under the whole."

In October 28, 1771, The New-York Gazette; and the Weekly Mercury advertised a farm for sale on York Island on the Hudson River with about 300 apple trees and a good "root cellar."

On April 6, 1784, the New Brunswick, New Jersey, Political Intelligencer offered a farm with "a very excellent garden, well paled in, with a root cellar at the bottom."  

In 1797 New York City, The Minerva, & Mercantile Evening Advertiser advertised for rent on Broadway, "A Room suitable for an office...with an excellent, dry root cellar."

Annapolis, Maryland, silversmith and avid gardener William Faris (1728-1804) used pots to store his fragile plants away from the Annapolis winters, dutifully recording in his diary each year, “I moved the Potts into the seller for the Winter.”  Sometimes he euphemistically referred to his cellar as “the greenhouse.”

In the 1790s, Samuel Deane wrote in his New England Farmer of his method of preserving Winter apples, "I gather them about noon on the day of the full of the moon which happens in the latter part of September, or beginning of October. Then spread them in a chamber, or garret, where they lie till about the last of November. Then, at a time when the weather is dry, remove them into casks, or boxes, in the cellar, out of the way of the frosts; but I prefer a cool part of the cellar. With this management, I find I can keep them till the last of May, so well that not one in fifty will rot...In the Autumn of 1793, I packed apples in the shavings of pine, so that they scarcely touched one another. They kept well till some time in May following; though they were a sort which are mellow for eating in December. Dry sawdust might perhaps answer the end as well. Some barrel them up, and keep them through the Winter in upper rooms, covering them with blankets or mats, to prevent freezing. Dry places are best for them."
Root cellars were also mentioned often in Bernard M'Mahon's 1806 American Gardener's Calendar. published B. Graves, no. 40, North Fourth-Street, Philadelphia.  Following are M'Mahon's observations on the use of root cellars in the New Republic.

Broccoli. In the middle and eastern states, where the frost is too powerful, for the standing out of these plants during winter, on its approach, they must be taken up, and planted in earth up to their leaves, either in CELLARS, or under sheds, where they can be protected from wet and very rigorous frosts, and they will continue to produce their fine heads, during all the winter months ; which are equal to any cauliflowers. On the opening of spring, plant out the stalks of the purple kind, and they will produce abundance of the most delicious sprouts; the white, do not answer for that purpose. These plants even if hung up in a CELLAR, would shoot forth their flowers or heads, pretty much about their usual time. 1806 American Gardener's Calendar. may, on the approach of severe frosts, take up a sufficient quantity with as little injury to the roots as possible, which may be planted in sand or dry earth in a warm CELLAR, in the same man-, ner as directed for planting them in the frame, covering their crowns about an inch, observing not to croud the plants for fear of their becoming mouldy; and in mild weather ventilate the CELLAR as often as possible, to prevent any bad effect to the roots from stagnant air: but when it can be done, it will be much better to take up the plants out of their beds according as you want them. 1806 American Gardener's Calendar.

The different pressings being mixed as you think proper, should be immediately put into clean casks or hogsheads, placed in a warm room or dry CELLAR, and filled to within two inches of the bungholes, which should be covered with pieces of cloth, laid loosely on, to prevent dirt from falling into the liquor.
When the 1iquor is drawn into clean sweet casks, place them in the CELLAR, fill them up within an inch or two of the top, and lay a piece of leather with a small weight on it over each bung-hole that may yield to a second fermentation, which generally takes place. When the wine has sealed or ceased to ferment, bung the casks as close as possible, and the subsequent treatment is exactly the same as directed for white wines. A wine CELLAR should be dry, so deep under ground as that the temperature of it heat, may be nearly the same winter and summer: it should be at a distance from streets, highways, workshops, sewers and necessaries; if arched over, the better. 1806 American Gardener's Calendar.

According as the fruits are gathered, carry them into the fruitery, or into some convenient dry, clean, apartment, and lay them carefully in heaps, each sort separate, for about ten days, or two weeks, in order that the watery juices may transpire; which will make them keep longer, and render them much better for eating, than if put up finally as soon as pulled.

When they have lain in heaps that time, wipe each fruit, one after another, with a clean, dry cloth, and if you have a very warm dry CELLAR, where frost is by no means likely to enter, nor the place subject to much dampness; lay them singly, upon shelves, coated with dry straw, and cover them with a layer'of the same.

Another method, and a very good one, is to be provided with a number of large earthen jars, and a quantity of moss, in a perfectly dry state; and when the fruits are wiped dry as befort directed, your jars being also dry, lay therein layer about of fruit and moss, till the jars are near full, then cover with a layer of moss.

Suffer them to remain in this state for eight or ten days, then examine a stratum or two at the top to sec if the moss and fruits are perfectly dry; and if you find them in a good condition, stop the jars up with good cork plugs, and cover them with some melted rosin to keep out air. The pears and apples to be used this way should be of the latest and best keeping kinds, and such as are not, generally, fit for use till February, March, or April.

After the jars are sealed as above, place them in a warm dry CELLAR or room on a bed of perfectly dry sand, at least one foot thick ; and about the middle of November, or sooner if there is any danger to be apprehended from frost, fill up between the jars with very dry sand, until it is a foot thick round and over them. Thus you may preserve pears in the greatest perfection, for eight, or nine months, and apples twelve.

Be particularly careful to examine every fruit as you wipe it, lest it is bruised, which would cause it soon to rot and communicate the infection, so that in a little time much injury might be sustained, in consequence of a trifling neglect in the first instance: but above all things, place your fruit whatever way they are put up, completely out of the reach of frost. 1806 American Gardener's Calendar.

Preserving Cabbages and Borecole, for Winter and Spring use.
Immediately previous to the setting in of hard frost, take up your cabbages and savoys, observing to do it in a dry day; turn their tops downward and let them remain so for a few hours, to drain off any water that may be lodged between the leaves; then make choice of a ridge of dry earth in a well sheltered warm exposure, and plant them down to their heads therein, close to one another, having previously taken off some of their loose hanging leaves. Immediately erect over them a low temporary shed, of any kind that will keep them perfectly free from wet, which is to be open at both ends, to admit a current of air in mild dry weather. These ends are to be closed with straw when the weather is very severe. In this situation your cabbages will keep in a high state of preservation till spring, for being kept perfectly free from wet as well as from the action of the sun, the frost will have little or no effect upon them. In such a place the heads may be cut off as wanted, and if frozen, soak them in spring, well, or pump water, for a few hours previous to their being cooked, which will dissolve the frost and extract any disagreeable taste occasioned thereby. 1806 American Gardener's Calendar.
Some plant their cabbages, after being taken up and drained as above, in airy or well ventillated CELLARS, in earth or sand up to their heads, where they will keep tolerably well, but in close, warm, or damp CELLARS, they soon decay.

Others make a trench in dry sandy ground, and place the cabbages therein, after being well drained and dry, and most of their outside loose green leaves pulled off, roots upward, the heads contiguous to, but not touching each other; they then cover them with the dryest earth or sand that can be conveniently procured, and form a ridge of earth over them like the roof of a house; some apply dry straw immediately'round the heads, but this is a bad practice, as the straw will soon become damp and mouldy, and will of course communicate the disorder to the cabbages.

Upon the whole the first-method is in my opinion the most preferable, as there is no way in which cabbages will keep better, if preserved from wet; and besides, they can be conveniently obtained, whenever they are wanted for use

The green and brown curled borecole being very hardy, will require but little protection; they may now be taken up and planted in a ridge tolerably close together, and during severe frost covered lightly with straw, this will preserve them sufficiently, and during winter the heads may be cut off as they are wanted for use; the stems if taken up and planted in rows, as early in March as the weather will admit, will produce abundance of the most delicious sprouts. In the southern states, and even in warm, soils and exposures in the middle states, borecole will stand the winter in open beds without any covering whatever.  1806 American Gardener's Calendar.

Cauliflowers and Broccoli
Your late cauliflowers, and broccoli, will now be producing their heads; therefore it will be necessary to break down some of the largest leaves over the flowers, to preserve them from the effects of sun, rain, and frost.
Italian Botanical Print

Such plants of either sort as are not likely to flower before the commencement of severe frost, should be taken up and planted as recommended in the first instance for cabbages, where if roellprotected from wet and frost, they will continue to produce fine flowers all winter. Or they may be planted in a dry warm CELLAR in the same manner as directed for cabbages, where they will also flower in winter; indeed I have had tolerable good flowers from strong plants. 1806 American Gardener's Calendar.

Preserving Turnips, Carrots, Parsneps, Beets, and Salsafy.
Previous to the commencement of severe frost, you should take up with as little injury as possible, the roots of your turneps, carrots, parsneps, beets, salsafy, scorzonera, Hamburg or large rooted parsley, skirrets, Jerusalem artichokes, lurnep-rooted celery, and a sufficiency of horse-radish for the winter consumption; cut off their tops and expose the roots for a few hours till sufficiently dry. On the surface of a very dry spot of ground in a well sheltered situation, lay a stratum of sand two inches thick, and on this a layer of roots of either sort, covering them with another layer of sand (the drier the better) and so continue layer about of sand and roots till all are laid in, giving the whole on every side a roof-like slope; then cover this heap or ridge all over with about two inches of sand, over which lay a good coat of drawn straw up and down as if thatching a house, in order to carry off wet and prevent its entering to the roots; then dig a wide trench round the heap and cover the straw with the earth so dug up, to a depth sufficient to preserve the roots effectually from frost. An opening may be made on the south side of this heap, and completely covered with bundles of straw so as to have access to the roots at all times, when wanted either for sale or use...All these roots may be preserved in like manner in a CELLAR; but in such a place they are subject to vegetate and become stringey earlier in spring. The only advantage of this method is, that in the CELLAR they may be had when wanted, more conveniently during winter, than out of the field or garden heaps. Note. All the above roots will preserve better in sand than in common earth, but when the former cannot be bad, the sandiest earth you can procure must be dispensed with.  1806 American Gardener's Calendar.
Celery, Endive, and Cardcons
Continue during the early part of this month to blanch your Celery, endive and cardoons, as directed in the preceding months; but when the severe frosts approach, they must be preserved therefrom, either in the following or some other more convenient and effectual manner.

Every third row of the celery may be suffered to stand where growing, opening a trench on each side of every standing row, within six or eight inches thereof, for the reception of the plants of the other two rows, which are to be carefully taken up with as little injury as possible either to their tops or roots, and planted in those new trenches, in the same order as they formerly stood. The whole being thus planted, three rows together, they are to be earthed up near the extremities of their leaves, and as soon as the frost becomes pretty keen, in a very dry day cover the whole with straw, and over this a good coat of earth.

When this plan is intended, the celery should in the first instance be planted in rows, east and west, so that when the whole is covered for winter use as above, the south side, especially if protected a little with straw, &c. may be easily opened to take out the plants when wanted for use.

Or if you have the convenience of a deep garden-frame, you may almost fill it with fresh sand, and then take up and plant therein, so close as nearly to touch one another, a quantity of your best and largest celery, and so deep as to be covered within five or six inches of their tops; place on yeur glasses, immediately, and suffer neither rain or water to reach the plants, except a very gentle shower, occasionally, in warm weather.

When severe frosts set in, lay dung, tan, leaves of trees, or other litter round the sides and ends of the frame, and cover the glasses with mats, be. sp as to keep out the frost. By this means you can have celery during winter in the greatest perfection and as convenient as you could desire.

Or celery may now be taken up when dry, well aired, and planted in sand in a dry CELLAR, in the same manner as directed for planting it in the frame; observing, in either case, to lay up the stalks and leave neat and close, and to do as little injury to either as possible.

The beds of celery which were planted as directed in page 433, should, in the early part of this month, be earthed up to within six or eight inches of the tops of the plants, tnd on the approach of hard frost, additionally earthed to the very extremities of their leaves; then lay a covering of dry sandy earth on the top of each bed, the whole iength, so as to give it a rounding; on this, place a coat of dry straw, drawn and laid on advantageously to cast off the wet, and of a sufficient thickness to effectually resist the frost; after which cut a trench round the bed to carry off and prevent any lodgement of water. Here you can have access to your celery, and it will continue in a high state of preservation during the whole winter and early spring months.

Endive may be preserved in a frame, or CELLAR, as directed for celery.

Cardoons may be preserved either in sand in a CELLAR, or by banking up a sufficiency of earth to them where they grow, and covering the tops, &c. with straw or long litter.

N. B. All the above work must be performed in dry weather and when the plants are perfectly free from wet, otherwise they will be very subject to rot.  1806 American Gardener's Calendar.

Other food supplies placed in the root cellar during winter included beets, jarred preserves & jams, winter squash, & cabbage. A cellar intended for potatoes was sometimes called a potato house.

Water, bread, butter, milk, & cream were sometimes stored in the root cellar. Before refrigeration, other items such as salad greens, fresh meat, & jam pies were sometimes placed in the root cellar early in the day to keep cool until they were needed for supper.

It is reported that crawlspaces, sheds, & attics have all been used successfully over the centuries for storage of certain crops. Even the space under a bed could store some crops (such as pumpkins) for several weeks. 

Author's Notes - At a Virginia apple orchard that we owned in the 1960-70s; we encountered separate cellars used for storing fruits, such as apples which can hasten the aging of other items stored in the same root cellar. Apparently Ben Franklin craved American apples while living in London. As well coining the phrase “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away,” Franklin consistently asked his wife Deborah to ship him barrels of apples while he lived abroad. In a letter from Franklin in London, to Deborah in Philadelphia he wrote: “Goodeys I now & then get a few; but roasting Apples seldom, I wish you had sent me some; & I wonder how you, that used to think of everything, came to forget it.  Newton Pippins would have been the most acceptable.” 
When we moved into an early 19C home with a springhouse in the Chesapeake, we learned that some dwellings with springhouses often used them for root cellar storage (as well as milk-house duty).