October 1995

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Letters to Suzanna

The Root Cellar


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

Since there was no electricity in my day, if people wanted to keep food cool in hot weather, we devised other ways to do it. If one's house had a cool cellar, food that might spoil was kept there. Some folks built a series of shelves, perhaps enclosed by mesh or netting to keep out insects. There were always mice and other rodents which could gnaw through to get at food so if a housewife had covered dishes, she would store food in such wares. In that case a mesh or net was unneeded and that was one cost which could be avoided.

Lacking a dish with manufactured cover, we might search for a flat stone which was not too heavy for the pottery but was wide enough to cover the opening. That would then serve as a cover in storage. These large flat and thin stones we often found in creek beds.

In Culver's tavern, there was a mesh-covered circular pie safe in the cellar. It had eight or ten shallow shelves from bottom to top. Each shelf could be turned individually to either put in or take out a dish as necessry. They also had another similar storage unit, although this one was square and had only four shelves, which could be raised by a rope from the cellar to the kitchen and used for food storage. It would be lowered into the cellar to keep food cool without someone running down and up stairs for its contents. There was a trap door in the tavern kitchen which concealed this "dumb waiter." That was a modern convenience!

For people like us, with no cellar, there was ususally a root cellar. This was a dug out area made to whatever size the housekeeper and her husband deemed adequate. Ours was in the ground outside the children's room, off to one side. Papa built a wooden wall to keep dirt fromcollapsing inward and we kept clean straw on the dirt floor and put a pile of soft dirt in the middle in which we buried things like carrots, beets, salsify, turnips and potatoes. Papa built a door on top. Every year, we children went to a field of wild hay up west of our woods and gathered hay to dry and use around and atop the vegetables. Johnny used a sickle to cut and Ruth and I pulled the hay into windrows. Later, we all three returned and tied sheafs of hay with long grasses to make it easier to carry to the cabin.

Sometimes, come spring, seeds of plants mixed with the hay would have tried to sprout and grow among the buried vegetables.

Our root cellar was about four feet long, three feet wide and another three feet deep. Looking back on this accommodation, I am surprised that those foods did not ever freeze. If they did, I cannot remember.

In summer, we could preserve some foods during hot weather by setting the bowls in a part of our creek where the water was running but was shallow enough not to splash into the food.

Across the lake, we were told, there was a spring which had been boxed in for the housewife to store foods in summer. One day, she put down one of her cut glass bowls with some dessert to cool. She left it overnight and when she lifted it out the next day, the glass exterior had turned a yellow color. It would not wash off. Her husband then laid a glass bottle in the water, immersing it and filling it. Two days later, that bottle was a beautiful amber color that defied any method of trying to restore it to its original transparent no-color condition.

After that, many folks deliberately discolored glass in that spring. Regular glass was cheaper than colored but, this way, families could inexpensively have colored glassware. This glass was more than merely yellow or amber, the shade depending on how long it was left standing in the spring. Everytime you moved the glass in the sunlight, you would see rainbow colors. Well, not really rainbow, perhaps, but more like aurora borealis. It was lovely.

When Will went to the university, he tried to find some reason for that spring having the ability to dye glass. He told us there must have been some kind of mineral in the water.

When I was an old woman, I heard about another spring with the same propensity. It was in Tompkins County, the next one east of Schuyler. We were told that the owners of that spring boxed it in and built shelves tohold many glass pieces at once for dyeing only on the exterior or for immersion if their customer wanted the amber borealis inside and out. They charged according to which way the coloring was to be done and how long a glass was in the water to reach the particular shade its owner preferred.

One of our neighbor families, the Hillermans, had an ice house which was built as I was growing up. It was the only one for many miles around. In winter, when their pond ice reached the thickness of at least twelve inches, Mr. Hillerman would scrape off any snow. He hitched a horse to a homemade wooden scraper, something like a snowplow, to do this. Then he hitched up a marker, something like a sharp-pointed plow, which had been made by the blacksmith. With this, he cut grooves in the ice in such a way that the pond looked like a giant checkerboard. He cut those groves whatever size he wanted the blocks of ice to be.

Next he, and the neighbor men and boys who were helping, would saw deeper grooves or pry apart the existing blocks, using stout bars. They removed all the blocks in one area to make an open lane of water. Row by row, the rest of the ice chunks were shoved over to that open lane and floated to the pond's edge.

There, they were picked up by ice tongs (also made by the blacksmith) or by broad wooden-bladed shovels and placed on sleds which horses drew to the Hillerman ice house. It was near his barn. The younger lads, who were helping, could drive the horses even if they were too slight of build to lift the ice blocks.

The ice house was snugly built with two walls and air between to keep out the wind and sun. Some people stacked straw to line their ice house as insulation, but Mr. Hillerman also had a sawmill so he used sawdust between the layers of ice cakes and on top of them and around them to keep them from melting when the weather warmed. Those of us who wanted ice in summer could get it there although it was usually all gone before August grew old.

Mr. Hillerman sold ice to some of the storekeepers when weather began to be hot enough to quickly spoil meat or fruit. Papa and Johnny often helped harvest the ice and they did not take any pay. Instead, they piled up credits. Each time we went for ice, the price would be deducted from their credits until they had been paid that way.

While I was growing up, we had two strange summers when we did not have to worry much about heat. In 1812, every month was cooler than average. In 1816, this same thing happened. We later learned that what happened to us that year also happened to all the northeastern area of the United States.

In 1816, as in 1812 only more so, there were frosts every month! In the mountains there was snow — new snow — even in July and August!

Even here in Reading, we had a light snowfall on especially cold nights. During both summers, Mama had us pull heavy weeds and grass from the fields to use as cover in her kitchen garden on nights when frosts threatened. Everyone kept commenting that they had never seen the likes. In those summers, sometimes frosts were severe enough to kill developing fruits and vegetables. The bees did not work enough either. They stayed in their hives to keep warm so some flowers did not get pollinated.

Many farmers had fields of corn, in 1816, that never ripened. If grains grew, the heads would be small. Some wheat returned less new seed than had been originally planted. It proved a hardship for many hard-working families struggle to get by until the 1817 harvest. Some folks lived more on wild game than garden or field crops, that year.

Near Seneca and its sister Finger Lakes, things were a tad better than in the mountainous regions. The lakes provided some protection but we did not totally escape the damage.

Years later, when Will attended the university, he learned what caused that odd weather streak. Months before our spring planting time, there had been a volcanic eruption in the Netherlands East Indies, way over by the Indian Ocean.

That volcano was half a world away from us. It name was Mount Tambora (I may be misspelling that). It spewed huge amounts of volcanic ash and smoke which went way way up in the earth's atmosphere and did not disperse for months and months. Every time the earth turned, whatever part of it that was underneath that hovering ash residue was cooler than usual because it reduced the amount of sunshine that could reach the ground below.

Perhaps a bit about Seneca Lake belongs in this letter. Seneca is deep, as much as 600 feet in one spot. It is fed not only by the many gorges that line it on both the east and west shores and by Catharine Creek, which flows to it from the south, but by springs that well up from the bottom. These springs keep the water temperatures above freezing most of the time. Also, Seneca rarely has a quiet surface so constant wind movement and waves tend to keep ice from forming.

However, when I was so old that I was a grandmother, 1855, there were two days in February when Seneca wore an ice cap thick and pervasive enough that folks could safely walk and play on it and even drive horsedrawn sleighs over if they wished. Not many took horses there because the animal could slip as easily as a human and fall and maybe break a leg and have to be killed.

There were a few, however, who had ice shoes on horses which were worked all winter. Some of these people provided sleigh rides in the lake.

Young men organized skating races for prizes which merchants donated. Fires were built along the shore where skaters could get warm when they wanted. After the fires blazed, some people boiled water and offered hot tea for sale or cooked slabs of meat which they served skewered on a stick. On the night of February 24, there were even some who distributed lighted torches to skaters who proceeded to put on a show by skating fancy circles and patterns.

The ice remained safe for two days, February 24 and 25, but then winds began to eat at the surface and melt the ice. It made a lot of noise as it broke up. It grumbled and roared and whispered and cracked loudly, sounds I had never before heard. We were living, then, in the county seat quite near the head of the lake.We were able to walk to the shore and enjoy the fires and watch the goings-on. I did not venture out on the ice. I was afraid of falling and breaking some of my bones. Most of those on the ice were men and children although a few ladies did skate. I saw one big boy pushing a kitchen chair over the ice, giving his little sister a ride.

Needless to say, the ice pack kept the steamboats from making their rounds that February.

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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