The Root Cellar Capital of the World

10 Jan 2011

With over 130 root cellars – small storage spaces skillfully built into the hillsides – Elliston has an unusual heritage. Important to many in rural Newfoundland, the root cellars kept vegetables cool, yet frost- free and edible during the long winter months.

It’s late October, 1887. The few meagre crops eked out during the short summer months are in and the frost is quickly coming. God help the family that doesn’t have a proper root cellar!

- Anonymous Bird Island Cove Resident (now Elliston).

As remote as Newfoundland and Labrador probably seemed to some back in the 1800s, invention and know-how were definitely up to snuff! Though no one is exactly sure where the knowledge originated, root cellars, an underground area that protected food from frost in the winter and heat in the summer, were common throughout many parts of the province. Whittling storage space out of the rough terrain was a task performed by many of our men as they sought to preserve precious vegetables, fruit, and other food items from the frost of the long winter and the heat of the somewhat shorter summer months.

Community spirit was often at play in building the cellars as groups of men would work together to help one another during the construction. Each lending his own spin on the how-to’s for the ultimate design. In many cases, electricity and modern refrigeration techniques did not arrive in our province until well into the 20th century. Therefore, the cellars and the advice on their construction were handed down for generations within our families.

Women and children often helped harvest the vegetable gardens in the early fall, then stocked the cellars with all the potato, carrot, turnip, cabbage (often pickled first to prevent rot) and beet they had gathered. In addition to the vegetables; jams, preserves, salted meat, and fish were also stored in the root cellar during the winter months for the entire family. Once summer came, the cellars were used to prevent our families’ everyday food from spoiling in the heat. Butter, bread, milk, cream, pies, salads, fresh meat, and fish were foods commonly found in the root cellar during the months of June, July, and August.

Typically, our cellars were either a hatch or hill-side model. In a land renowned for its rock, you can be sure digging the root cellar was not for the faint-of-heart. Hatch cellars were usually dug straight into the ground and were typically accessed by a trap door in the shed built over the cellar. As the name implies, hillside root cellars were dug by creating a hole in the side of a hill.

While you’re exploring our province, be sure to look up Elliston, Bonavista Bay - a scenic seaside community and the Root Cellar Capital of the World! A tour of the town and the neighbouring community of Maberly reveals a hillside dotted with tiny doors and wooden frames, portals, perhaps, to a time when living was harder, but life was much simpler.

Elliston is also a great place to observe a variety of seabirds, including the colourful puffin, which can be viewed at close range in its natural habitat. The puffin spends most of the year at sea, coming to shore to nest and raise its young. Some are terrific divers. Once called Bird Island Cove, Elliston is surrounded by numerous tiny islands, one of the best puffin colonies in Newfoundland.

For more information read the following article from the Globe and Mail: The food storage secret our grandparents knew.