Building A Root Cellar
by Ida & Khoke Livingston of Davis City, IA
photos by Ida Livingston (IL) and Stephanie Smith (SS)
Before the advent of refrigeration, modern food preservation and storage, the world relied heavily on root cellars. They kept a wide variety of vegetables such as cabbages, potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips and more, fresh the whole winter through. Often as not, apples and pears were cellared as well for fresh fruit over the dormant months. Specialized cellars came about such as cheese caves to age cheese to perfection, and a spring house to chill milk and cream. As time went on and canning was developed, root cellars had a pantry section added with shelves to store the jars.
After Khoke and I married, the life we wove with farming and gardening kept us as busy as one could imagine. The summer and fall harvest would leave our small house feeling quite small indeed. As winter wore on, our potatoes and apples would shrivel in the dry air and some of my canned goods would pop their seals from being stored at temperatures much too warm. So began the conversation about building a root cellar.
We have friends who have a root cellar attached to their house. They did it the easy way and incorporated it in the original layout of the house as they built it. Their house, like ours, is built slightly into a hill, Hannah opens a door in her kitchen that opens directly to the root cellar entrance. This is very convenient. But looking at our house, to add this feature we would have to knock out a large portion of our downstairs stone wall and likely our fireplace. So, we opted out of this idea. Instead, I suggested we build it near our house on the site where Khoke wanted to build the woodshed. This way, he could build the woodshed over it and then we would have a trap door in its entrance that opened to the cellar stairs.
Both of us were happy with this idea, so we began to plan what we needed in the cellar. A pantry section is a must, but how much? Khoke thought an 8 ft length with shelves on both sides would be ample. Then he took a good look at how many canned goods I had in the jar and lengthened the pantry to 10 ft. By the time it was laid in stone, it was a 12 ft pantry.
We both wanted a cheese cave; this would be a smaller room at the very back of the cellar. It would be closed off by a door and it would have its own vents so air would circulate independently in that room. It would double as a space to store potatoes. They say potatoes emit a gas that causes apples to spoil faster. Our hope was that they could coexist under the same roof if they were separated into different rooms, each with their own set of vents.
Khoke was concerned about outside temperatures affecting the root cellar temperatures. Temperature fluctuations can cause condensation and excessive moisture in a cellar, rusting jar lids and rotting wood shelves. So Khoke incorporated an air gap in his layout. This is to help control the temperature swing by putting more space, and an extra door, between the cellar entrance and the pantry entrance.
Looking at it on paper all drawn out, it had everything we wanted. The cellar would have an 8 ft entryway where the stairs came down. Then there was to be a door to the air gap, a 6 ft hall with another door opening to the pantry. Walking through the pantry we would come to the last door that would open to the cheese cave. Counting the outside of the stone walls, from end to end, the root cellar would be nearly 40 ft long but only 9 ft wide. The inside measuring a 7 ft width. It would have an arched roof to make the structure stronger and more sound to support the weight of the soil over it.
An important point we discussed was the shelves themselves. I have been in a number of root cellars where a zealous carpenter built nice deep shelves. So deep in fact that his wife could not reach the back of the shelf. I have lots and lots of opinions about this and Khoke fully understood that I wanted the shelves built to my arm length and not his. So we planned for 20 inch shelves on either side of a 3 ft walkway and enough space for a 4 inch gap between the shelves and the wall. This is to aid air circulation.
Once we had gathered our thoughts onto paper it was time to get started. Instead of laying a cement block root cellar, we decided to use stone. Khoke ordered limestone riprap from a local quarry, basically chunked limestone in medium sized pieces (75-150 lb average per piece). This would be the stone we would lay up our walls with. He then ordered two 16-ton truckloads of gravel and about that much sand. We bought 60 bags of cement and put them on a pallet in our shed.
Now it was time to order the air vent pipes. A local Amish man specialized in custom stainless steel so Khoke ordered his pipe from him. Ideally one wants equal air intake as air outtake for good circulation. Poor air circulation results in damp, drippy, stale root cellars. We needed three 5 inch chimneys 8 ft long (air outtake), two 3 inch chimneys 12 ft long (air intake) and four 4 inch chimneys (air in-take), two of which were also 12 ft long, and two were 8 ft (all the pipe came in 4 ft sections). The difference in the 8 ft versus the 12 ft lengths was the height discrepancy between the front and back of the cellar – since it was dug into a hill, the back was a little deeper.
By this time, it was August. We’d had a hot dry summer and the clay behind our house had baked into a brick and was difficult to dig. Our faithful team of Belgians, Addie and Mary, were the horse power that dug out the cellar. Our friend Ammon came over to help dig the cellar. He had recently built one himself and Khoke had helped with it some. When they had dug Ammon’s cellar, it had been a breeze, nice soft dirt that moved easily. We were not so lucky. Often the guys would use a pick to loosen the soil so it could be scooped out. Then they hit on watering the site down each night to soak in and it helped soften the soil for the next day.
To move the soil, they used what is called a slip. At least that is what we call it. It is pulled by a team of horses. It looks kind of like a wheelless wheelbarrow that scoops and transports dirt and is pulled by a team of horses. There are various types of slips. There is a “tumblebug,” this is not used so much for digging as it is used for moving dirt or gravel. There are also pond scoops and slip scrapers. We used a slip scraper or slip as we call it. It is actually used for digging. You scrape it level with the ground and then tip it just enough to dig in and scoop a load of dirt. Then you let the horses pull it around to the pile where you want to dump it. The horses do not have to stop, all you do is lift the handles and flip the slip to dump your load. The horses circle around, the handles are flipped back to right the slip and the next load is dug.
Some comments and cautions on using the slip. A zealous digger can turn a perfectly sound team of horses into balkers. When a person digs in too hard it can jerk a team to a halt in full pull. If this happens too much the team will begin to doubt themselves and/or their driver and balk or seesaw. This is also hard on harness. Khoke and Ammon broke several harness pieces over the course of digging out the cellar. It does not help that they were digging very hard clay. And Ammon loved to dig. Maybe a little too much.
Another thing to consider, it can take a good deal of upper body strength to run the slip. If a person accidentally tips the slip too deep it can catch and flip the slip as it does when it is being dumped. This could potentially launch a person over the slip. Though Ammon had several close calls, he never actually had it happen to him. If a person is conservative with their digs there is little chance of this happening and it is much easier on the horses.
Khoke and Ammon dug deeper and deeper. They’d trade places throughout the day between driving and digging. Khoke wore a weight belt to help support his back with all the bending. It had been injured years ago from falling off a roof, but the belt helps. Finally, the hole was so deep the horses could no longer walk out of it. So Khoke walked them around the hole and added some extra length to the chain between the evener and the slip and the digging continued. This made it so that the horses did not have to walk through the hole anymore.
It got to where it was too deep and steep for even a person to walk out of. So as the digger filled his scoop, they would just hang onto the handles and let the horses walk them up and over the bank. I got to do this once for the fun of it, and it was!
Slowly but surely the cellar reached depth. It was dug into a slope and so at the deeper end it was a little over 11 ft deep and at the shallower end it was just over 9 ft beneath the ground level. About this time, it began to rain. We started to have to bail the water out of it. I called it Lake Livingston. It was time to dig the drain.
The drain needed to be dug almost level with the cellar floor and then angling at a slight slope away from the cellar. This drain was dug the width of the scoop and then about 90 ft long to where it came out of the hill. It was not practical to dig the drain the width of the team of horses, so a chain was again used to keep the horses on the level and the slip in the hole. The clay was hard digging and again picks were used to loosen the soil.
About the time the drain was nearly dug we got a big rain and the sides of the drain sloughed in pretty bad. So Khoke and Ammon had to back up and redig what had caved in. Only this time it was not so simple. When they were digging the trench the first time, the horses were directly in front of where they were pulling out the dirt. Now the length of trench was dug and needed to be cleaned out, but the horses could not fit in the trench to pull it out from in front. When faced with digging it all out by hand, Khoke became innovative and adjusted a 4-horse evener to fit his two horses. This hooked them up to the evener and left a wide gap between them so the team could straddle the trench, a horse on either side of it. They re-dug the trench this way. It worked great with only one glitch along the way. As they went along re-digging the trench, the moist soil was easy to dig for a change. It seemed to go pretty fast. Ammon got a little greedy at one point and scooped too big of a load. Pulling harder than they wanted to, the horses began to seesaw, and Mary lurched to one side pulling Addie into the hole. Addie fell and wedged sideways into the trench which was about 5 ft deep there. Khoke and Ammon threw themselves into digging her out. It was a frantic 15 minutes of digging before they were able to pull her upright again. She was a little sore and probably shaken but otherwise all right. The guys called it a day and gave her a long weekend before putting her back in harness.
Once the trench was dug to daylight, a length of black perforated drainage pipe was laid and covered with 18 inches of gravel. Over the gravel, Khoke laid old re-purposed sheets of tin, and covered the tin with dirt up to ground level.
Khoke cemented around the drain exit so it would not be crushed per chance it would be driven over for some reason. He also cemented a heavy wire mesh over the drain opening to keep mice out. We work too hard for our food to just feed it to rodents.
With the drain done, Khoke turned his attention back to the cellar. When the rain had sloughed the drain walls in, it didn’t stop at the drain. Those beautiful sculpted earthen walls surrounding the cellar hole fell as well. More seemed to fall every day. It took a while for this to stop. This was moderately consternating. As frustrating as it was at the time, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Khoke had originally chiseled out that hole in the earth exactly the size he needed to build the cellar in. But really, it would have been difficult to work in, having no extra space to maneuver. Once those earthen walls fell and were carried out, it opened the area up and it was much easier to work on, in, and around the cellar.
By this time, we were well into fall and one of our rainy seasons. Khoke took several pallets and nailed them together to make a temporary roof over the cellar site and then covered the pallets with tin. This made it possible to work out there in any weather. These pallets were obtained from a shipping company that moved large machinery, so the pallets were 8 by 10 ft in size. These larger pallets worked better for being repurposed in this fashion.
Now he was ready to actually start on the cellar. He dug a footer about 18 inches wide and 8 inches deep. Then he laid large pieces of limestone in it and filled it with concrete. The drainage pipe came through the footer and was cemented into place.
Once the footer was done, Khoke began to build up his stone walls. A layer of mortar is between each stone as it is placed. Khoke kept a bucket of water with an old broom in it. This was to brush the stones with water so that the mortar would stick to them. The stones were sorted through and placed as they fit best. A time-consuming job. Very likely why brick and cement block buildings are so much more popular. But then, anyone digging out a cellar by horse and hand isn’t exactly looking for the easiest way to do it.
To move stone and gravel into the cellar, Khoke built a tin slide that had wooden braces for support. This helped make it easier to shovel gravel in, which slid down to a waiting bucket at the bottom. This made it easier to get the riprap in as well, though the limestone chunks were handled more carefully as we didn’t want them to break if they were to fall on other stones. Another minor luxury was the earthen stairs Khoke chopped into the clay. It certainly helped make it easier to get in and out of the cellar before the entryway was walled in.
Before we get any farther, I want to mention the air intake pipes. The air intake pipes come out just above the finished floor so Khoke cemented them in place about 6 inches above the dirt floor. He would later put several inches of gravel in for the floor. Two 3 inch diameter pipes were placed in the back corner of what was to become the cheese cave. Then the 4 inch diameter pipes were placed in the corners of what was becoming the pantry. The intake pipes came through the wall and were cemented into place but were outside the cellar itself.
As Khoke laid up the walls he back filled as he went. Back-filling is another technique to help drain water. All the way around the outside of the cellar, even over the arch, he has a 6-inch layer of gravel. He would space sheets of tin about 6 inches away from the wall and then fill the space with gravel. Against the other side of the tin he would shovel dirt. As the gravel level rose, he would pull the tin up and continue back-filling gravel against the cellar as he went.
Once the walls were built up about 3 ½ feet tall Khoke went and got the arch forms Ammon had used for his cellar. Ammon had made his cellar taller than ours and not as long, but the same width. Having an arched ceiling makes a much stronger cellar. The forms are made of 2 x 12s cut and built in the shape of an arch. They are heavily braced. There are 2 x 4 and 4 x 4 battens nailed around the arch to support the non-corrugated tin that is screwed to them. These forms are very heavy, but they have to be strong to support the weight of the stone and wet cement until the cement hardens and can support itself.
When placing the forms, they are set on a well braced wooden frame. Between the form and the wooden frame, Khoke placed several 2 x 4 blocks. This way, once the cement ceiling had hardened, he could hammer the blocks out and the form will drop down, pulling away from the ceiling. This enabled him to have the space to remove the forms and wooden frames without too much trouble.
We would have 3 forms in place and cover that section. Once the cement set, we would drop the forms down, pull them forward and do another section. Once the forms were in place, Khoke would take some old engine oil and paint the top of the form well so that the cement would not stick to the tin.
Once this was done he took cattle panels and cut and bent them to fit over the form. Each end of the panel was bent to lay flat on the stone wall. The panels act as rebar and were spaced about 6 inches from the form. From here Khoke mortared in the bent ends of the cattle panel with another layer of stone on the rock wall. Then he continued his stone wall another 18 inches beginning to follow the curve of the arch.
There were gaps between where his forms and his rock wall were supposed to meet because he was using the uneven medium of rock. To bridge these gaps, Khoke laid pieces of hardware cloth (coarse wire screen) where necessary and mortared it in as he built his walls.
To build the arch, he would put a layer of mortar against the form, dip relatively small stones into water and pack them into the mortar under the panel and cover with more mortar, filling out 6 inches to the cattle panel. Then he would encase the cattle panel, covering it with an inch or two of cement, against which he would lay large (wet) limestone slabs. Between these slabs would be mortared, grouting them together. Rocks are uneven, so in places Khoke filled in with cement to even the surface.
Each section of arch usually took two days. Though it technically could be done in one. The problem with this is the wet mortar tends to sag and then bulge at the bottom and then wind up thinner at the top. So the first day, Khoke would only build the arch up 18 inches on either side. Then a day or two after it had hardened some, he would come back and finish the arch, continuing as before.
A section of arch was actually three forms in length. When a section was completed and the cement had hardened he popped the blocks out to drop the forms down and then moved the three forms forward and prepared to do the next section. The cheese cave and pantry length took seven forms – two sections of three. For the seventh needed form, Khoke combined this with what he needed to do the air gap ceiling. The air gap is just a hall and does not need to be the full seven feet wide. Khoke made two custom forms to fit this narrower hall/ room, maintaining the same arch for the narrower roof it had. The air lock was then covered at the same time as the last form to cover the pantry.
When Khoke was building the arch, he had to be mindful to place the air outtake pipes on the top of the cellar. Basically these are 5 inch stainless steel stovepipes in 4 ft lengths but made to fit together to whatever the desired length is. He cut the pipe an inch deep and an inch apart all the way around the end that was to sit on the arch. Then he bent the strips at a 90 degree angle out, set it on the form, and mortared it in.
An outtake pipe was placed in the center of the cheese cave, and the other two were placed in the center of the pantry. Placing the end against the form and cementing it in place allowed that when the form was removed the outtake pipe opened directly into the cellar.
Once the arch was completed, the back wall had to be built up and finished. The interior walls dividing the separate chambers needed to be rocked up and around the door frames. Khoke built Eastern Red Cedar door frames and then later doors.
At this point the floor was still earthen. By using the tin chute he had made earlier, gravel could be shoveled onto the chute into the awaiting bucket in the cellar. This made graveling the floor a little easier. The floor was covered in nearly 6 inches of gravel, leaving our cellar then just over 6 feet tall at its peak. Barely tall enough for Khoke to stand upright in. When asked why he did that he always says, “I didn’t build the cellar for myself.” Being a foot shorter than Khoke, the cellar accommodates my height very easily.
The last thing to go in before the trapdoor was the stairs. Not wanting the space behind the stairs to be inaccessible, we hinged several of the stairs. They are hinged on the right so that if we want to go back there, each stair step can be lifted and leaned out of the way against the wall though still secured by hinges.
There is more finish work yet to do, as time affords, of course. My neighbor, Jordan, always likes to remind people of the Chinese proverb, “Man finish house, man die.” No danger of all our work being caught up in the foreseeable future. In the cellar there are more shelves to build, both in the pantry and cheese cave. We are presently working on building that woodshed over the cellar entrance. Although the cellar has been covered in dirt now, it is simply the clay we took out of the hole. We hope to cover it with a foot or more of good topsoil and grow something useful like a strawberry bed on it or something. The vent pipes stick out of the ground making the cellar site easy to spot, but a little patience and landscaping should help that.
It is/was a lot of work, but in the end, there is something to show for the effort. A satisfaction in a job well done that will serve our home and farm from here on. We by no means did it alone. We had a lot of help from our good friend Ammon Weeks who spent many a day in the shade-less August sun fighting with that sunbaked clay. His easy going, uncomplaining attitude lightens any workload. We had Khoke’s cousins, Zach and Nathan Miller over, along with some friends, to help set up the forms and get the arch mortar work started.
Khoke spent countless hours on a toil he says is not his. But on a small farm, there is nothing that serves only one. One hand washes the other. That which serves one, benefits the whole. It is the beauty of the small farm and the close relationships built on needing each other. Friends, family, neighbors, and our livestock all enter into this circle. Serving and being served; the true love expressed.