Elliston – The Past is Alive in the Root Cellar Capital of the World.
Nestled at the top of the Bonavista Peninsula is the tiny community of Elliston – the root cellar capital of the world. People flock here from all over the world for its many tourist attractions, such as the breathtaking coastline – complete with roaring shoreline and fascinating rock formations. And one can’t forget the extremely accessible and friendly puffin colony. But what intrigued me most were the root cellars scattered about the terrain in and around the towns of Elliston and Maberly. It’s as if they’re part of the actual landscape itself – little hobbit homes tucked away in the rolls and hills of the earth. Otherworldly in appearance, they are a natural part of the locals’ lives, just as much as the craggy shore, chatty puffins and pounding surf.
In case you’re wondering, root cellars are storage systems built right into the ground, mainly into small hills and banks. The natural humidity and moisture of the ground keeps things cool in the summer and prevents freezing in the winter. The name comes from that fact that it’s a storage system for root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and turnips, and that it’s kept underground – like a root.
Elliston is the root cellar capital of the world, with 135 documented root cellars in the small town and surrounding area. Of those, about 50% are still in working condition and used today. As I poked in and around, investigating some of the cellars (no one locks them because there’s no need) I bumped into Rex, a colourful character – 85 years young. He offered to show me the root cellar that he shares with his sons. As I stepped inside his tiny hill-hut, the smell of potatoes hit me in the face and I stared slack jawed at about 400 gallons of them – Blue, Atlantic, Yukon Gold – in wooden storage bins. According to Rex, it’s almost 12 months worth. I had never seen so many potatoes in my life.
Next, I had the good fortune to sit down with Cal, root cellar expert and one of the founders of the Elliston root cellar movement. He explained the subsistence story to me – that root cellars play just as an important role in peoples lives today as they did when the early settlers arrived. Back in the days before electricity, root cellars were integral to survival during the harsh winters in the communities on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. And just as important today – they are a popular tourist attraction, adding significantly to the economy of Elliston and surrounding communities. As I continued to explore, I was struck by the connection between past, present and future. Not only are these traditional methods used by the community cost effective, but they are sustainable. With the current issues surrounding energy costs, food safety and accessibility, looking towards agricultural solutions like the ones used in Elliston could provide some real solutions for the future.
Walking around the area, cozy homes are scattered delicately over rolling hills, and a root cellar is never far away. The strong sense of community is visible in even the landscape, as many families share root cellars between them. A root cellar takes in between 3-4 weeks to construct, and is a project for the entire community. From digging the land, to scouring the cliffs for flat rocks – neighbours, friends and family come together to help.
Other than their practical uses, there is something mystical about the root cellars. Their fairytale appearance makes you feel like you’re in another world, in another time. I had a lovely chat with Anne, who’s lived in Elliston her whole life. I asked her about folklore surrounding the cellars. She told me that when she was young, on your way to the root cellars at night you would flip the lining of your pants inside out to keep away mischievous fairies. As she continued to talk with me, the mystique of the root cellars started to become tangible. She spoke of being young and in love and sneaking away with her sweetheart to kiss under the shelter of the root cellars – watching the wind blow snow over the bank from the safety under the ridge. Hearing these true to life stories really brought the magic of the root cellars into being, and I realized it’s not just about the use of the cellars however necessary – but the stories behind them.