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Grandma’s Root Cellar – Remember that?

How to Store Food Without Electricity Just Like Grandma Did!

For many of us remembering Grandma and how she prepped food, canned it, stored it and cooked it was just part and parcel of our upbringing.  We may have noticed that our mothers did the same prep, storing and cooking as she did, and it makes you wonder how far back these old ways of doing things go. Stories of how the ancestors did things come down through the generations and its amazing to think that for most of history there has been no electricity and people have had to rely on these old ways to produce, store and cook food.

In Kathleen Kay’s story “Grandma’s Ways” she writes what this might have been like and reminds us that Grandma never had a fridge and had to store food in other ways.  Therefore  Grandmas all over the country had their own root cellars and some of these were pretty inventive and interesting.

Today many people are taking up the skills again of storing food to last for many months, if not years and its time to go back into history to see how it was done…

This excerpt from Kathleen Kays story takes us back into time to see what Grandma did without electricity…

“Have you ever wondered how Grandma ever functioned without electricity? … Let’s start with root cellars.  We had one out on the ranch.  It had been dug down into the ground about 7 or 8 feet.  The sides were reinforced with cement.  It wasn’t the fine quality we have today, oh no!  There were all these chunks of rock sticking out of it.  Gravel wasn’t crushed in those days.

At one time it had actually been white-washed but in my day it was just gray.  There were shelves built all around the sides with a sort of counter at the back.  I imagine the room was probably 8 feet wide and 10 or 12 feet long.  The roof was constructed of heavy timbers that looked like railroad ties.  Outside the roof was mounded over with several feet of earth to keep it cool and to prevent rain from leaking through.

… Well, folks, root cellars were used as refrigerators back in the good old days.  Daddy told me that when his mother was alive that spooky place was as clean as a whistle.  Nary a spider lasted long there let alone a mouse.  She had what was called a ‘pie safe’.  She would have these big baking days when she would make a dozen pies, mostly cream pies of one flavor or another.  She kept them ‘safe’ from any vermin that might venture to risk its life there or perhaps hungry passersby.  The pie safe looked like a screen cupboard.”

For homesteaders and those that are wanting to be more self reliant, or move towards self sufficiency root cellars may be something that you want to look into.

There are some basic principals of root cellars that are as important today as they were in history.

  1.  Choose a place that is cool as the optimal temperature is 32F – 40F.  As earth is a natural insulator choosing a north facing sloping hill or shaded area is optimal.
  2. Make sure that there is good drainage.  Dirt and gravel floors are ideal as the air is naturally humidified.  However if you don’t have dirt concrete is ok too.  Just make sure to ventilate…
  3. Ventilation – you will need this as ripening food produces ethylene gas.  Good ventilation means that the food will last longer and you wont be affected as much by mold and mildew.
  4. A cellar that does not get sunshine but is dark.
  5. Remember you need to get to it a lot, so make sure its somewhere that is readily accessible.

Whether you live in an apartment or on a homesteading property doesn’t matter.  In most situations there are things that you can do to find the perfect place for the situation you are in.  For example, in a suburban home, or apartment there may be a basement or crawlspace you can convert.

Here are some examples of cold storage areas for a number of situations (all of these need shady areas).

Inside Ideas:

They had cut a hole in the basement wall which led out to an empty space under the front porch and steps.  The storage area was lined with rigid foam to help insulate.  They had rigged a little light so they could see the contents better.  They cleverly disguised the entrance to blend in with the paneling in the family room.  It was small but could probably hold a couple hundred pounds of potatoes.

   Root Cellar Photos courtesy of

Other inside ideas may be using a closet, or attic space, a pantry, unused bathroom, stairwell, or window seat.  Anywhere that is unheated and there is a bit of ventilation and of course it doesn’t get the sun.  If you need to think about heating coming into the area, use insulation to keep things cool.  Keep checking temperature over time just to ensure that the temperature remains optimal.

Here is another popular idea which is incredibly cheap to create.

Buried Barrel:

Dig a hole large enough to place the barrel in at a 45-degree angle with the bottom of the barrel top at soil level.  Place rocks or
gravel in the bottom of the hole under the barrel.  Put the barrel in the hole and cover with at least two feet of dirt by mounding it up.  Layer the vegetables between hay, straw, or leaves ending with a thick layer of insulation inside the barrel.  Cover barrel with thick layer of insulation and a board or something to keep insulation in place.

RootCallarPhotos courtesy of

Buried Refrigerator:

Remove the motor, shelves and drawers and please disable the latch (so children dont get trapped inside!).  You will need to dig a hole large enough for the refrigerator to go into but also with a foot all around it so there is drainage.

  The refrigerator should sit just below ground level.  Line the hole with gravel or rocks.  Place the refrigerator on its back so it opens like a chest.  Pour gravel in the space around the sides of the refrigerator.  Run a small vent pipe into the refrigerator for ventilation. Protect from water by covering the top with a large mat, board or other water resistant material.  Cover with bales of hay or straw to insulate.

Freezer-Root-Cellar-Image via

Wood-Box Cellar:

Dig a hole about 2′ x 2′ x 4′ feet (or larger) and construct a wooden box to put in it.  Line the box with mesh hardware wire to keep out rodents. Place a layer of leaves, straw or moss on the bottom then add your vegetables.  Place 3-4 inches of additional insulation material on top of the vegetables and set hardware cloth lined lid on top.  Place bales of straw or hay on top to insulate it.

Here are some images of root cellars to get you inspired even more!:


root cellarPhoto by Paula Schechter

earth bag cellar

Hole in the Ground Cellar

images via:

and if you really want to go all out check this out!:


Click here To learn more about this amazing (but expensive) root cellar

Whatever you decide investigate what kind of root cellar would suit you.  There are always options and if the lights go out, it wont matter because not all of your food will be spoiled!

Cover image via Pinterest


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