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The World's Most Wonderful Root Cellar

When I was a child, I spent a few years with my grandparents on a homestead claim in northern Saskatchewan, well beyond paved roads, electricity, and virtually everything else with which I have since become accustomed. The territory was just being opened up and it must have been like early Kansas in many ways. I've occasionally written reminiscences of that period of my life, and I thought that you might enjoy reading one. It isn't about Kansas, but it's about something that your great-great-grandparents would have been quite familiar.

I.

I suspect that few folks today have ever had much dealing with a real root cellar, but it was an essential part of any well-appointed home only a hundred years ago. The kitchen often started life as a lean-to outside the home, but home owners were anxious to make that lean-to a permanent part of their household, and acquire a good cast-iron stove that would feed the family, incubate the eggs, provide hot water from its water tank for washing clothing and bodies, heat the irons for ironing clothes, keep a soup hot for days on end, dry wet clothes in it drying chamber, make ashes for soap, and provide a nice bumper on which to stretch one's feet and ignore the blizzard outside. The cast-iron stove was a marvelously useful invention, and our ancestors spent most of their time in the kitchen, enjoying the amenities it provided.

But before you can have amenities, you need to have a stove, and before you can have a stove, you need a kitchen. And how did one go about building a kitchen that would meet the needs of a large family for many years?

My father rolled up spare clothes and his toilet gear in a bedroll and walked the twelve miles to the nearest saw-mill. He had made arrangements to work for three weeks in exchange for a load of sawn lumber to be delivered to the little square log house that was all we had for a home. While he was gone, my grandfather and I tore down the old kitchen lean-to, mother and grandmother set up a campfire down by the spring, and we got ready for three picnics a day for the next month.

First my grandfather laid out a square where the kitchen would be, hitched up the team and plowed as deeply as he could. He then took the wheels off our wheel barrow and, using great ingenuity, turned it—temporarily, because it was a useful tool—into a small scoop that could be drawn by a single horse. I was a child at the time and could do little to help him in this line of work, and so I set up with Nick, my dog, and the red Radio Flyer wagon that was my only toy to walk the mile to a scarp where sheets of thick black slate jutted up in the middle of a vast green meadow. I had been entrusted with a wide chisel and a maul, and would gather and load into my wagon as many slate flagstones as I could haul. I would walk back and stack them beside the slowly deepening hole in which my grandfather was working, and Nick and I would set off for another load. We got pretty good at our job and were soon able to make eight round trips a day. We might have been able to do more, but Nick kept discovering interesting things that simply had to be explored. One was a clutch of wild duck eggs that became the seed of my grandmother's flock of ducks, a group that grew steadily larger since she hatched them, they bonded to her, and she could not bear to kill any of them.

After a week, my grandfather that I had brought in enough slate, and Nick, I, and our Radio Flyer turned to the other direction, where a clay pit lay some two miles away. The clay was much lighter than the slate had been, and so my heap of clay grew quickly, even though Nick and I only managed four round trips each day. It was just as well, because, by that time, my grandfather had finished trimming the sides and floor of the eight-foot deep hole he had dug, and it was time for us to go and gather willow saplings and cut them into one-foot lengths. While I cut the saplings, each about as big as your thumb, grandfather set up a pulley and lowered the slate into the pit. For the first time in a long while, I was told to go play, but I managed to slip around by the pit and hide myself in a tree. Grandfather was cutting the slate and laying it out as a floor for his pit, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. When engaged in such work, my grandfather's profanity was a wonder of the western world, and his performance when laying that floor was without comparison.

Father's three weeks would be up in only three days, so grandfather and I worked from dawn to sunset finishing the pit. Hundreds of willow pegs had to be driven into the earthen walls, each protruding exactly the same distance since my grandfather was a perfectionist in such things. Once that was done, the clay I had hauled in, mixed with sand that had been spat up over many years by our spring, was wetted and lowered down into the pit, and my grandfather and I troweled it over the walls of the pit where it was held in place by the willow pegs. Then came the most exciting, and most dangerous part of all. Grandfather hitched up the team, and used the rake to drag in all the brush that had been left when he had cleared grandmother's two acre garden. All of the brush went into the pit until it was virtually full, and then grandfather set fire to it while the rest of us threw buckets of water on the adjacent cabin.

It took an entire day for the interior of the pit to cool down enough so that we could begin to sweep up the ashes and add them to the soap-making heap. Some time before, grandfather had found a curious piece of granite, absolutely flat on one side, probably having been ground down being carried by a glacier during the Last Ice Age. He now used that strange rock to smooth the sides of his pit, the clay had now become a sort of rough pottery that took on a dull shine as grandfather burnished it. He had scarcely finished before my father showed up, looking tired and a bit thinner, but riding on the passenger side of a wagon load of lumber from which the wind blew the most delicious smells my way.

Father got down, took a look into the pit and said to my grandfather, "Well, Harry, ready for shelves?"

II.

There was so much to be done and so much that was done, that I can hardly remember anything but bits and pieces of the end of that summer. My father and grandfather built their shelves, and they were shelves that seemed built for the ages. Grandfather had no use for puny shelves, and he had planned his root cellar so that his shelves provided the supports for the floor of the kitchen that they built above. I could write a book of bright memories of that kitchen, with its windows facing down the slope to the lake on the southern boundary of our farm; its great floor-to-ceiling cabinets with big doors for flour and sugar, medium size for salt and cereals, small doors for tea and coffee, and many, many tiny doors for cinnamon, nutmeg. cloves, rose-hips, sassafras, and all manner of herbs, spices, and medicines; its well-oiled and finely-honed floor; and its bright red back door. I particularly remember the door. It was the final task to be done to complete the job, and each of us—Mother, Father, Bomp, and Donnie, and I—painted it with a quick-drying enamel. The next morning, grandfather laid on a coat of clear varnish that made it gleam like satin, and the work was done.

There was a chill in the air that morning; pig-sticking came to those parts in late October, and it was well into that month already. Snow could come at any time. One never knew it was coming until suddenly it was there, and grandfather was out digging his way to the barn. My mother and father had packed their things in their marvelous 1933 Chrysler Airflow, kissed me and told me to be good, and slowly drove off down the track that would take them to Loon Lake, St. Walburg, North Battleford, Moosejaw, Swift Current, and finally, after many, many towns, and many, many miles, to Chicago. They were on their own, heading to try to find work in a city still deep in the grips of the Depression, but they had taken care of my grandparents and of me.

I didn't have much time to pine away about things. Grandfather said that there was nothing more useless than teats on a boar except an empty root cellar, and grandmother said "Harry! not in front of the child." Grandmother said that a lot, so I quickly learned that what grandfather was not supposed to say in front of me was usually well worth committing to memory. One of those things was a curious phrase that grandfather had used about a neighbor who was continually offering advice to people with far more experience than he.

Last Fall, I was on a committee meeting with our new Chancellor, who had asked me how I would go about dealing with a certain problem. I had gotten warmed up to the subject, realized that I was telling the Chancellor how to do his job, stopped short and said—what funny tricks memory plays on us!—"But I don't want to try to teach my grandmother how to suck eggs." When the Chancellor said "What?" in a somewhat strangled tone and the other participants in the meeting burst out laughing, it occurred to me that the new Chancellor may never have met my grandfather.

But that's neither here nor there. My grandmother had been preparing all summer to stock her cellar, and we had been almost driven from the house by bottles, jars, crocks, baskets, bags, boxes, and other containers that seemed to be multiplying much faster than the pair of rabbits in which I had set such hopes of profit that my grandfather had said that I had dreams of being an hare to a fortune. All of these were to be taken down to the root cellar and placed in their assigned positions. My grandmother's stock was not the sort of home canning that one sees practiced today, even by those with enough years to claim to do things in the old-fashioned way. Many of the jars contained fruits, meats, and sliced vegetables that she had spread out in the sun to dry, and then had placed in open jars into which she had thrust one of those long pine sticks that grandfather used to light his pipe. The end of the sticks were burning and, when the flame went out, grandmother quickly capped the jar or bottle and stowed her own vacuum-packed treasure away. We had dried peas, tomatoes, turnips and parsnips (yuck!), and various berries. Sweet corn, cucumber, radishes, and a number of other things were usually put up in heavy salt brine and had to be washed again and again before they were fit to eat. But nothing was wasted, since the stock accepted the salty water most gratefully. Then there were the hard-boiled eggs and young onions packed in dark vinegar, the syrups that had been slowly boiled down to a molasses-like consistency, the strips of ripe apple and peach packed away in sugar that we would use in our tea during the winter, giving it a flavor that is impossible to describe but that made one think of springtime even though the snow was so deep that the animals could not—or would not—leave the barn.

Grandfather had carefully saved the sawdust from building the kitchen, and I had collected what for me was a huge pile of dried pine needles, all of which was taken down and laid in a corner of the root cellar. Rows upon rows and layers upon layers of potatoes and sweet potatoes were carefully laid down on this soft bed, none touching another, and tenderly tucked in there, beside the boxes of pop corn and dried sweet corn that grandfather carefully stacked one on top of the other. We were not so well-established that we could afford to kill our own stock, but I had been bringing fish to grandfather's smoke house, and he had been adding an occasional duck or prairie chicken. Well-smoked and, by now, quite dry, grandfather painted them with a liberal coating of wild honey and hung them in garlands from to hooks that he had put in the ceiling of the root cellar. Here they joined the cheeses that grandmother had made, dried and aged, and finally dipped in candle-wax. The tubs and tins to hold the milk, cream and butter that Old Rose and Buttermilk would continue to produce were put in place down in the root cellar, where the dairy foods would stay cool but not freeze. Last, but not least three large crocks were set in a row, and filled with alternate layers of chopped cabbage and salt, and heavy wooden lids, each weighted with a fine, heavy rock, were placed upon the contents.

My grandfather's root-cellar was filling up most satisfactorily, and we would all go down every now and then with a kerosene lamp—there was no chink in his root-cellar through which light or anything else could penetrate—and view our progress. One thing had been left untouched, a wooden container that was something between a tall tub and a short barrel. I didn't know what it was for until one morning I awoke just as dawn was breaking and saw through a chink in the logs by my cot that a frost and light snow had turned the trees down toward the lake into a silver forest like Marshall Field's put in their windows at Christmas time. Grandfather was already awake and dressed. Sitting at the table by lamplight, he had just finished cleaning the 30-caliber Springfield he had picked up somewhere and had oiled the Colt .45 and Luger that lay on the table. When he saw that I was awake, he said "Get up and get dressed, Squirrel. You get to carry the Colt today. It's time for us to lay in some meat."

III.

It was just after dawn when Bomp and I set out, and the sun was so low on the horizon that every little bump on the ground cast a long black shadow against the white no, by now it was a rose-red snow. Everything in every direction looked like some crazy-quilt pattern, and I didn't know which way to turn. My grandfather knew where he was going, though, so I just followed in his tracks along the road that led past the in-field of our neighbor, Mr. Richardson. Mr. Richardson seemed to be quite unable to plow a straight furrow an ability that tended to be regarded as a reflection of the moral rectitude of the plowman—and his field was a hodgepodge of curving furrows, islands of unplowed ground, furrows that lapped over each other, and all sorts of other irregularities. In the low sunlight, it looked even worse. Normally, anyone who plowed so badly would have would have enjoyed scant respect in the district, but people treated Mr. Richardson, and the entire Richardson family for that matter, with consideration and deference. I couldn't fathom this until many years later, when my mother explained why Mr. Richardson, along with his field that seemed to spell out incompetence to me, was held in high and general esteem. It's an interesting story that I may tell you about some day.

The road began to curve south as it passed Mr. Richardson's, heading for the swamp, locally call a "muskeg," that lay at the west end of the lake. Here it became the corduroy road that the households of the district maintained, just as they maintained a similar causeway through the muskeg at the northern end of the lake and so completed the circular road that lay at the heart of Lawndale District. On the higher ground just past the end of the corduroy was the house of Mr. Pankratz and his family. Like most of the other homes in the district, Mr. Pankratz' house was made of well-trimmed and tightly-fitted logs, but Mr. Pankratz had carried the procedure further than others. Other homes had steeply-pitched roofs made of overlapping and rough-cut pine boards covered over with hand-split oak shakes to shed the weight of the heavy snows of winter. Mr. Pankratz, however, had fashioned a flat roof of logs, each of which he had locked to its neighbors with rough tongue and groove joints he and his sons had cut out with an adze. His root cellar was some distance from the house, further up the hill where the sod was deep and dense. He had begun the digging of his cellar by cutting the sod out in strips and had laid those strips on top of his log roof. His wife and daughters had improved on the occasion by gathering the seeds of the wild flowers that grew in the wide meadows of the nearby coulee buttercups, Dutchman's britches, daisies, brown-eyes Susans, lady slippers, tiger lilies, Indian paint brush, violets, jack-in-the-pulpits, and many others and had sown their roof thickly. Throughout the Spring and Summer, people would ride or walk out of their way just to be able to look at the Pankratz' roof, and provided that there was not work to be done few escaped without staying for a cup of tea. The Pankratz family was penniless so it wasn't real tea of course, but Mrs. Pankratz' concoctions was made from dried roots, blossoms, berries and other unknown things, given body by cream from their single cow and sweetened with crystallized honey. My grandmother wasted a good deal of time in trying to teach English to Christina Pankratz, mainly or so said my grandfather because grandmother would never be able to pry from her the secret of her wonderful tea if all Mrs. Pankratz could speak was Russian.

But, although the road curved to the south, my grandfather turned north, into the dense growth of ash and birch that we called "the brush" to distinguish it from the tall pines, which we called "woods," that grew in the lower ground along the lakes and swamps that formed a long chain curving back and forth and extending far down to the south. I was hard put to it to keep up with my grandfather's pace, even though he was loaded with his rifle and ammunition, a block and tackle, and assorted other accouterments. I had the Colt .45, which was big and heavy, a jug of sweetened tea, and, in a leather bag inside of my shirt, grandfather's special straight razor, but the underbrush was a good deal higher for me than it was for him. I asked him, somewhat breathlessly, where we were going, how far we had to go, how soon we would get there, whether we were going to skirt the coulee, and a half-dozen other things intended to suggest that I was tiring. Only to suggest, naturally, since it was not something I could admit. After about the third question, he said, in a flat sing-song voice (grandfather was quite tone-deaf), "Isn't it funny how bears like honey?"

I didn't recognize that grandfather was making a literary allusion until several years later, but his words were enough for me to figure out what we were about. I may have mentioned that grandfather had glazed the fish and fowl from his smoke-house with a thick wild honey before hanging them in his wonderful root-cellar. He had not collected the honey himself. A couple of the braves from the nearby tribe had shown up, handed him a couple of birch-bark bags from which one could smell the honey fifty feet away. He had taken them into the house and returned with a couple of long rolls of tobacco. I haven't seen anything like those rolls of tobacco since childhood, so I suppose that they were one of those things that have vanished with the years. At that particular time and place, they were quite common. I was small so I am no good judge of their size, but I remember them as being like a cigar the size of my grandmother's rolling pin for pie crust and somewhat sticky to the touch. The tobacco they contained was a protean mixture. Men would bite off a mouthful and spent half a day chewing and spitting on the strength of it. Others would cut off a number of thin slices, rub the slices to shreds between their hands (sometimes adding a bit of mint or some other aromatic plant), and stuff their pipes with the wreckage. Still others would rub longer and more energetically, and roll a cigarette with the results. And still others would sit or stand, talking, while they slowly and methodically reduced the leaves to a gummy dust that they would put between their upper gums and cheek, and continue on their way looking just a bit like a chipmunk heading home. The most important use of the tobacco rolls, though, seemed to be as a universal currency for everyone except the tax-collector for the Crown.

I had been sufficiently well-schooled to recognize that there had more to the matter of the honey and tobacco than first met the eye. The honey must have come as a gift from Mr. Crooked Neck, the leader of the local band of Cree, and Bomp would not have sent him tobacco. That would have been impolite and improper. The proper procedure was for my grandfather to wait until the next day, when Mr. Crooked Neck would come to the house for a visit. He and Bomp would sit smoking their pipes for a long time without saying much. Then Mr. Crooked Neck would get up to leave, and grandfather would press a present upon him. Bomp generally knew what he would find welcome as a gift since whoever had brought the gift from Mr. Crooked Neck would mention in passing that their chief had enjoyed something or another that my grandfather had presented him on some earlier occasion. Grandfather was careful to explain that these arrangements were simply ways of ensuring that his gifts would be welcome. Mr. Crooked Neck was a warrior and, as such, did not know the meaning of buying and selling. Of course, this was not actually true, because Mr. Crooked Neck had attended some school in England and was, so my grandfather said, the best educated man for many miles around. My grandmother added that he was also probably the wisest, since he knew that trade bred competitors but gifts cemented friendship.

Anyway, since Bomp had given gifts to the two braves who had brought the honey, they must have given him a gift. Mr. Crooked Neck had taken my grandfather into the tribe some time before, and so Bomp was always getting presents and trying to figure out what sort of gift he should give in return. Presents come in all shapes and sizes, and since grandfather hadn't brought any trout, venison, berries, soft deerskin, or anything else into the house, they must have given him information of some sort.

Grandmother said that knowledge was often the most precious gift of all and carried that principle into action by telling everyone's future from their tea-leaves without accepting the piece of silver that was supposed to be necessary for this sort of thing to work. It seemed to work anyway since she had more tea-time visitors than anyone else in the district, and she was showered with gifts of sheet music, pins, pies, cheeses, embroideries, painted plates, napkin rings carved from oak burls, beaded bags, and much else besides. I suppose our cabin would soon have been filled with these gifts except that grandmother used them as presents for engagements, weddings, births, birthdays, anniversaries, illnesses, deaths. Every time she did this, though, reciprocation brought her new gifts. The more grandmother received, the more she was able to give, and the more she received in return. Grandfather used to say that if Hoover had only followed grandmother's example, there would have been no Depression at all.

But then Donnie was a very special woman. Everyone said so. And she gave people special presents for which there was no suitable reciprocation. These presents were small deerskin bags, tightly stitched, with a short thong. The people to whom she gave such bags carried them in their purses, wore them around their necks, or kept them in their pockets, anything so that they had them always at hand. They were not really talismans or anything, but were to be opened if ever the person got to the point where he or she did not know what to do or where to turn. Grandmother would take a small piece of sheet of parchment paper for cooking, close her eyes for the longest time and, when she opened them, write down something. She would then roll the paper very tightly, tie the cylinder with some red corded thread, smear the edges with red sealing wax, put the paper into the bag and sew it closed with tiny stitches. Every now and then, someone would come to the house looking a bit frightened and ask to see grandmother. They would go into the back bedroom and talk in low voices so I never knew what they were talking about. I suppose that it must have been about serious things because the next day my grandmother would send me to the house of whoever it had been to give him or her a new deerskin bag. I suppose that they had had to open their old one for some reason or another.

But I seem to be drifting off the point. As I was saying, the men who brought the honey must have given grandfather a gift of knowledge. When grandfather said that about bears liking honey, I guessed what had happened. They had told him where the honey-tree was and we were on our way to kill a bear.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Kansas
Nelson was born in 1931.
062004