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Root Cellars

OVERVIEW

Root Cellars have been used since the 18th century to store turnips, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, potatoes, and other crops through the cold winter months. These crops were used for human consumption but more importantly to feed dairy cows, beef cattle, and sheep. The vegetables provided critical vitamins and other nutrition necessary to keep up milk production, fatten cattle, and improve the live birth rate of sheep in the early spring. By the mid-1800’s, root cellars became a means to store crops destined for the markets until mid-winter or later when much higher prices could be commanded. Root cellars became largely obsolete with the introduction of modern refrigeration and switch to feeding livestock with corn and other grains along with silage stored in silos. In the past decade there has become renewed interest in root cellars. For more indepth information please consult the new book Root Cellars in America.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1918 Concrete Root Cellar

1843 Brick Arch Root Cellar, New London, CT

19th Century Root Cellar / House Foundation Combination

1911 Plans for Root Cellar, Town of Kent, Putnam County, New York

1913 Root Cellar Plan

Root Cellars You Can Visit

 

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1918 Concrete Root Cellar - Maudslay Estate, Newburyport, MA

1918 Concrete Root Cellar Entrance  Newburyport MA

The former Maudslay Estate, now a state park, contains a number of 19th and early 20th century buildings relating farming on the estate. Of particular interest is a well preserved root cellar. Root cellars were used to preserve farm crops for long periods of time. To preserves these crops it was necessary to maintain an internal temperature between 35 and 40 degrees and humidity level between 90 and 95%. This root cellar has a earthen floor to help maintain the high humidity level, ventilation shafts to regulate temperature and vent gases from the crops which could cause early spoilage, and light shafts which were later superceded by the installation of electric lighting.

In the early 20th century, reinforced concrete was the new “high-tech” building material of its time. It was quickly adapted for use in constructing farm buildings and work well for root cellar construction. Various cement companies encouraged this by provided booklets with detailed plans for constructing these buildings. This is the front entrance to root cellar. The horizontal blank boards used to make the forms are noticeable.
NOTE: You can walk around the outside of the root cellar but the inside is not open to the public. Researchers wishing go inside should contact park staff.

1918 Concrete Root Cellar Entrance - Maudslay State Park, Newburyport MA

A heavy mesh screen door was placed between the passage way and the storage room. It served to prevent rodents from entering. The root cellar was built of concrete poured over forms. Three concrete columns provide support for the roof. It had an arched (curved) roof to help drain water away from the roof area.

(Right) Interior view of the storage room. On the right side of the photo is some metal shelving. Originally, the root cellar probably used wooden bins raised off the earthen floor and set 6 to 8 inches away from the walls. The bins would have been slotted to allow air circulation to pass through the vegetables. the air circulation removed excess moisture and gases produced by the vegetables.

(Below) This shaft in the ceiling led to combination sky light and ventilation unit. the photo on the right shows the sky light with metal flaps on the sides. Just to the left of the sky light is a round ventilation shaft. This root cellar had two round ventilation units and two sky lights. The shaft inside has four metal loops around it. the purpose is not clear but they have held some type of cover to block light when not in use.

1918 Concrete Root Cellar Ventilation Shaft Newburyport MA
1918 Concrete Root Cellar Passage - Maudslay State Park, Newburyport MA

The root cellar was accessed through a heavy door which open inward into a long passage way. The electrical conduit was added at a later date. The date above the door is 1918.

1918 Concrete Root Cellar Inrterior Screen Door Newburyport MA
1918 Concrete Root Cellar Inrterior Newburyport MA
1918 Concrete Root Cellar Ventilation Shaft Newburyport MA

Circa 1843 Brick Arch Root Cellar, New London, CT

This root cellar is located behind the Shaws-Perkins Mansion, 11 Blinman St., New London, Connecticut. The property is currently owned by the New London Historical Society. According to a NEARA field trip (November 2007), it is dated to circa 1843. Arched roofs (whether stone or brick) are quite rare with root cellars, and this one clearly reflects the mansion owner’s wealth. The lower walls are vertical and built with faced off smaller field stone. This lower wall is capped by long granite slabs quarried using the commercial plug and feather method (i.e. round holes). The granite slabs serve as the footing for brick arch laid in (lime?) mortar. The rear wall of root cellar appears to have been recently restored. It measures 12 feet long by 8 feet wide inside. The door frame is 3 feet wide by 4 1/2 feet tall. There is slight step down from the outside to the inside floor level. The floor is paved with unmortared brick. The gaps between the bricks would have provided air circulation beneath the bins and barrels stored inside. A mortared patched in rear end of the arched roof may have once been a vertical roof vent but it remains unconfirmed.

1843 Brick Arched Root Cellar Entrance New London CT 1843 Brick Arched Root Cellar Exterior New London CT

Front and rear exterior views of the root cellar.

1843 Brick Arched Root Cellar Interior New London CT 1843 Brick Arched Root Cellar Interior New London CT

Front and rear interior views of the root cellars.

1843 Brick Arched Root Cellar Interior New London CT

Close-up of ceiling near the rear wall. There is large mortared patch which may have been originally a vertical roof vent.

1843 Brick Arched Root Cellar Interior New London CT

Close-up of quarried granite slabs. The drill holes are about 1 1/4 inches deep and spaced 7 inches apart

19th Century Root Cellar (House Foundation) Newbury, MA

Beginning in the early 1600’s in New England, house cellars were used amongst other things to store root crops during the winter. House cellars, however, proved to be less than ideal root cellars because of too much warm radiating from the fireplaces on the 1st floor. The house cellar was largely abandoned for root crop storage in favor of root pits, root cellars built into barn foundations, and separate free-standing root cellar structures.

This 19th century root cellar house foundation, therefore, it a rather unusual find. This foundation was specifically built as a root cellar rather than just a general purpose cellar. It is built into the top edge of a small knoll. Two walls were built against the hill and the other two required additional insulation to create the root cellar. The southwest wall has a 4+ foot wide earthen berm built against the outside. The southeast wall is composed of two dry laid stone masonry walls built 4 feet part with the space inbetween filled with earth. This cellar was built only under a portion of the house. The house was much larger than the foundation shown in these photos. The chimney as evidenced by small pile of bricks was located at the opposite end of the house away from the cellar. This resolved the problem of excess heat. It measures approximately 12 x 12 feet inside with a depth of about 6 feet.The southwest wall has an opening possibly an original outside entrance into the root cellar. There is clear traces of a tar-paper roof covering the foundation at one point. The cellar may have been utilized as a squatters shack possible during the 1930’s.

19th Century Root Cellar House Foundation Combination  Newbury MA

Exterior view of southeast double wall with earth fill

Root Cellar-Newbury-3

Overall view looking to the west

19th Century Root Cellar House Foundation Combination  Newbury MA

Close-up of southeast double wall with earth fill

Root Cellar-Newbury-4

4+ Foot wide earthen berm outside of the southwest wall

1911 Root Cellar Plan - Kent, Putnam County, New York

1911 Root Cellar Plan Kent, Putnam County, NY

Town of Kent, Putnam County, New York
1911 Book D-1, Map 46B, Serial No. 159, P. 125. Putnam County Clerk’s Office in Carmel, New York. Quoted in “Some Comments on Slab-Roofed Stone Chambers and Root Cellars” by Salvatore M. Trento. NEARA Journal vol. 13 no. 4 (Spring 1979) pp. 81-84. [Note: Plan redrawn by S. M. Trento]

“SPECIFICATIONS FOR ROOT CELLAR AT PUTNAM COUNTY FARM EXCAVATION – Excavation shall include removing earth from a space 28 feet in width and 40 feet in length, and to the depth as shown in the plans and marked upon grade stakes; also for the construction of chute and underdrain, and placing the earth removed convenient for replacing upon the top of the cellar when completed, the surplus to be placed where convenient to be removed. All boulders containing 12 cubic feet or rock ledge shall be paid for as rock excavation at a price per cubic yard agreed upon by the contractor and the Committee in charge.

UNDERDRAIN – An under-drain shall be constructed 18 inches in depth at the beginning and 2 feet 6 inches at the outlet, a 4-inch vitrified tile to be laid in the bottom of said drain and the drain filled with broken stone of about 3 inches in diameter of surface. A 4-inch cast iron sewer ball trap to connect with said drain near center of same.

FLOOR – The floor inside the walls shall be constructed of 9 inches of broken stone thoroughly rammed to compact the material and form an even surface, upon this to be placed a cement mortar of one part cement and 4 parts of sand brought to a smooth surface and finished with a neat cement grouted, trowelled and rubbed smooth.

SIDE WALLS – To being at the bottom of floor and carried up 6 or 7 inches above floor 3 feet wide at the bottom and battered to 15 inches at top, to be built of field stone thoroughly bedded in cement mortar of one part cement to five parts of sand, the inside surface to be free from projections and smoothly finished.

FRONT WALL – To be 28 feet wide and two feet thick, with opening for window and door, of field stone thoroughly bedded in cement mortar one part cement to five parts of sand and finished smooth upon both inside and outside.

BACK WALL – To be 18 inches thick and to conform with outside of side walls and roof as shown in plan, with opening for chute, to be of same construction as front wall, finished smooth upon the inside.

ROOF – The roof to be constructed upon forms, of flat field stone of about 12 inches in width, laid in cement mortar of 1 part cement to 3 of sand, with the edges to the form, the inside surface to be trowelled smooth, Upon this to be laid 3 inches of cement mortar, trowelled smooth, and waterproofed with asphalt or such other waterproofing materials as shall be selected by the committee in charge.

VENTILATORS – Two 8-inch vitrified pipes shall be placed in roof as shown in plan to receive an 80inch galvanized iron pipe with globe ventilators, and extending within the cellar with a valve or shutter to exclude frost in cold weather.

CHUTE – To be constructed of concrete with 8-inch side walls, and six-inch concrete top and bottom, expanding metal reinforced to be placed on the top and constructed as shown in plan.

DOORS AND WINDOWS – The door frames shall be rabbeted to receive a 4-inch outside door with 2-inch air space, inside door with 1-inch battened door with necessary hinges and catches. The front window frame to be rabbeted to receive an outside 1-inch battened shutter and inside 6-light window. The chute to be furnished with inside window and two 1-inch battened folding doors with frames as shown in plan. A dry laid retaining wall pointed with cement, and steps of cement to be built as shown in plan, and to be included in the bid price of contract.

CEMENT – To be Portland Cement of standard quality and accepted by Committee in charge.

SAND – Good sharp building sand, or crusher dust, shall be acceptable to the Committee in charge.

Any error or omission in above specifications shall be corrected or supplied in order to make a complete and workmanlike building as though embodied in the original specifications.”

1913 Root Cellar Plan

1911 Root Cellar Plans

Hopkins, Alfred
1913 Modern Farm Buildings. New York, NY: McBride, Nast & Company.

“ROOT CELLAR

Where roots are intended to be used as feed, it is usual – as it is more convenient – to put them below the feed room, where they may be readily obtained and prepared. As previously pointed out, such root cellars are likely to freeze in extremely cold weather, and some method for heating them under such conditions should be provided. The best way to do this is to build a chimney containing a large flue, 16 x 20 in., which does service as a ventilating flue when not in use as a chimney. Ventilation for the root cellar is as important in preventing undesirable conditions as ventilation for the cow barn or horse stable. Roots mold and spoil very quickly if deprived of a circulation of air, so that the root cellar must be so ventilated as to insure a circulation of air throughout every part of it. The volume of fresh air here need not approach in extent that required by the buildings for housing the animals. If the ventilation is arranged so that the air will come in at the extreme end and be taken out at the other, it will provide all that is necessary.

There seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether the floor is better of earth or concrete. Some farmers prefer the latter, for it possibilities of cleanliness, while other will tolerate nothing for the storage of roots but the soil in which they are grown. The character of the site and the position of the cellar with respect to it are important factors. A dry cellar must be assured at all times, and good drainage and a sandy soil are the necessary natural conditions. If such conditions prevail, the root cellar is best without a concrete floor. Where other considerations place the farm buildings on the low ground, every precaution should be taken to provide a dry cellar – waterproofed floors and walls and careful drainage of the foundation. After a dry place has been provided, sand may be put in over the concrete floor.

The difficulty of the root cellar under the feed room is that it frequently thrusts the cellar so deep in the ground that in some localities it is difficult to keep it dry. To obviate this the author as tried several times to construct a root cellar above ground, forming the walls of three thickness of building tile or of studding, and filling the spaces between with sawdust or granulated cork. This construction has been entirely successful in keeping the contents from freezing, but only when this room has been placed in the farm building (Fig. 36). For the isolated root cellar the only satisfactory one is found by going into the side of a bank and constructing a chamber whose top as well as sides are completely covered by the earth. (Fig. 76.) The ground above the top should be at least 3 ft. deep; the entrance – the one side exposed to the air – had best face south, though its exposure may incline to the east or west but never to the north. Ventilation must be provided, which can be arranged by an inlet in the door and a flue carried up above the ground at the back. Though this is a perfect type of root cellar, it is not automatic with all degrees of temperature, and some regulation of ventilation is necessary in extreme weather conditions. A concrete roof, which must drain as shown, is the best. In fact such a structure is practically indestructible and should serve its purpose as long as it is put to its use.” pp.200-203

Root Cellars You Visit

Root Cellar-East-Brookfield-3-Small
Root Cellar-Thompson-1-Small

East Brookfield, MA - Root Cellar (Click for more information)

Thompson CT - Root Cellar (Click for more information)

 

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