Volume V, No. 3, Spring 1978



by Darrell Pollock

"When we were growing up several years ago without deep freezers or refrigeration either one, a cellar was the only way we had to keep food," Bernice and Delmer Wade said as they showed their cellar which is still well stocked with potatoes and home canned goods.

In years past almost every home had some kind of cellar near the kitchen to store foods in a safe, dark place free from extreme cold and summer heat. Though some were fortunate enough to have a spring convenient enough to the house to store the perishable foods, springhouses were of no value for storing root vegetables and other foods that needed to be dry. But any family could build a cellar almost anyplace they could dig in the ground.

Since electricity reached every farm in the 1940's, making refrigeration and home freezers possible, the importance and use of cellars has declined. Some people have abandoned them completely, others have torn theirs down or filled them in, but still others who continue to raise big gardens and do some canning, are yet making some use of them.

Though the use and insides of cellars did not vary a great deal, there were differences in how they were constructed. Some were built down into the ground, some built back into a hillside and others were constructed under the house or other buildings such as a smokehouse.

The first cellars built were probably simply holes dug in the ground with a drain to carry off the water. They were crudely built with dirt walls or walls of split logs to help hold the shape and keep the dirt from eroding in. These types of cellars did not last long, though, because the logs would rot and fall in, making them dangerous.


Some people constructed double boxed wooden structures. To insulate them, they put sawdust between the walls. The sawdust kept fruit from freezing in the coldest weather, especially if a bucket of ashes was set in overnight.

More permanent cellars were built under the house as the house was built. These proved to be safer, convenient and usually freeze proof. The floor of the building would be the ceiling of the cellar. The houses would seldom have a full cellar, usually under one room about 16 by 18 feet. However, if built under a smokehouse, the cellar was usually the same size as the building. The walls of the early cellars were usually sandstone or limestone found nearby or even on the farm. The rocks were chipped by hand to fit together to form the walls. The mortar between the rocks, if any, was lime and sand, used only to seal the walls, not to strengthen them as the rocks were laid to be their own support. The floor always had a drain and could be kept clean and dry even with a dirt floor, but some people hauled in river gravel to improve the footing. Later when cement became available, builders made the walls of concrete.In some houses there was a trap door in the floor of the kitchen as well as an outside entrance. If the house foundation was high enough, a few outside steps led down to the door which opened directly to the cellar. Others had an outside wooden door slanted like a roof which enclosed the steps leading down to the opening to the cellar proper. Sometimes there would be another door in the house foundation but not always.

During the twenties and thirties many people built cellars of formed concrete. The majority of these were dug partially in the ground with curved cement tops. Then the whole structure was covered with dirt for insulation.

It usually took about three weeks to build these cellars from the first digging until final tramping down the soil. The construction was generally done during dry weather, so the hole wouldn't fill with water. Most of the people who had cellars built them themselves with maybe one or two neighbors to help. They chose a convenient spot near the house but far enough from a tree to prevent the tree roots from cracking the concrete.


The first job was to dig the cellar and make a drain. The drain was dug from the lowest point of the cellar floor to let out the water that might accumulate. The drain would run slightly down hill to wherever it needed to go to drain out the water. The drain was made by digging a trench or deep ditch and then laying down pipe of some kind. Commonly used was red tile pipe. As Lorraine Davis put it, "It was no big job building the form and pouring the concrete, but digging the hole was something else."

The digging was done by hand with a pick and shovel, digging downward to a depth of about five to six feet. Some cellars were dug deeper, or if the location was on a hillside, the depth and extent of the digging would depend on the location. The size would generally be eight by ten feet. The dirt dug out was saved for covering over the cellar later. The sides were dug straight with square corners. The hole needed to be at least twenty-four inches larger than the inside dimensions of the cellars to allow for the walls which were five to six inches thick and to have room to work with the forms. Almost as big a job as digging the hole might be digging the drain, depending on how far one had to dig.

After digging and laying the drain, the next job was making the forms. In some communities there were forms provided by the county Agricultural Extension Service which one could borrow. Most people, however, built their own, usually using green oak lumber, usually 1 x 6's or 1 x 8's for the sides and ends which needed both inside and outside forms.

The form for the curved roof was made in a variety of ways. One way was to use green 1 x 4 inch boards which were bent to the desired shape and fastened to the inside side forms. These boards were nailed flush together the entire length, strengthened and held in place with a ridge piece tacked underneath. A piece of tar paper over it all prevented cement from falling between the cracks.

Some people made flat roofs over their cellars. Though easier to build, the finished cellar was not as strong and could not support the dirt on top which was helpful in insulating.

When the forms were all in place, the builders began pouring the concrete. When these cellars were poured, there was no ready mix concrete companies ready to come when called. The builders had to spend many hours hauling the fine gravel and sand mixture which they had shoveled by hand out of the gravel bars of the closest river or creek, often getting stuck several times. They hauled water in barrels from the creek or spring or drew it by bucketfuls from the well. They shoveled one shovelful of cement and four of the sand and gravel mixture into large open wooden tray-like boxes built for the purpose. Adding water, they mixed it well with a hoe. The job became easier and faster in later years with cement mixers turned at first by hand and later powered by a belt from a tractor. Then hauling the cement by wheelbarrow loads, they dumped it into the forms.

This is an arrangement of the. storage areas inside the cellar. Some vary.


Leading to a cellar under a smokehouse.

A second house has been built over this old cellar constructed in 1847.


This cellar build under a smokehouse made good use of the steep hillside.

A well constructed concrete cellar still being used.

This cellar had honeysuckle vines planted on it.

One of the many old abandoned cellars one sees throughout the Ozarks.

Notice the name and the date on this cellar.


To save cement many people carefully placed in the wet cement in the forms layers of rock which they picked up on almost any field. They strengthened the walls with iron wire, rods, old bedsprings or any old scrap iron. The concrete was tamped in to fill all the spaces. It was especially important to make sure no rock or iron jutted against the form, but that the walls were all smooth concrete.

Pouring over the top was more difficult, for there was only one form. After laying the metal supports, workers shoveled on the cement and smoothed it out on top by hand tools. They usually worked from the back to the front, squatting on top of the form to smooth out the cement to the desired depth, finishing up above the entrance door.

After pouring the roof and sides, they would let the cement dry overnight or until well set before taking the forms down. The next step was to pour the cellar floor and make the stairs and door. Just like the cellars under the house, some had open outside steps leading down to the door, while others had covered steps, or if built into a hillside, some had no steps at all, but a walk-in door.

The cellar had to have some type of ventilation to circulate the air and to help keep foods from freezing. For that purpose a hole was left at the top of the cellar about four to six inches in diameter.

The next step was to cover the exposed parts of the cellar with dirt. The deeper the dirt layer the better the insulation two feet deep on top was adequate. Most people sowed grass or some plant on top to hold the dirt and help prevent it washing away.

Correctly built and insulated with dirt, the cellar remained warm in winter and cool in the summer. During the summertime the average day temperature would stay about fifty to sixty degrees. At night during especially hot summers some people would leave the cellar door open to cool off, and then would close the door early the next morning to preserve the cool air during the day. In the winter the temperature would stay well above freezing on a zero day. Lorraine Davis said of his cellar, "You go down in that cellar in about zero degree weather and the thermometer will read about thirty-six degrees, while a spring house which is on top of the ground will run about thirty-four degrees. During the summer it will stay about fifty degrees. It just depends on how much dirt you have on your concrete."

For less well insulated cellars some people used to put hot coals in a big pan and place them in the cellar during winter to keep cellars from freezing. Although cellars usually wouldn't freeze in normal winter temperatures, most people would rather be safe than sorry. In more recent times people left light bulbs burning or put in heat lamps during prolonged extreme cold periods.

But good cellars won't freeze. Bernice Wade said of her cellar which is in the ground at least five feet, "It doesn't freeze in this cellar. I've got potatoes in the potato bin next to the door. We don't cover the door with anything and of course we don't have a solid door at the bottom of the stairs and it didn't freeze last winter." [One of the coldest winters on record.]

After building the cellar, it was used for keeping a variety of foods. Lois Beard said, "Things we stored in a cellar were very precious to us because it was our grocery store. We would prize the things we put in the cellar. There's nothing better tasting then an apple kept in an underground cellar. It gave them a flavor like the earth. Those of us who had cellars couldn't imagine kids coming to school without an apple."

And strange as it seems, Lorraine Davis assured us, "You store apples and potatoes together in your cellar, the potatoes won't sprout."

Besides apples and potatoes, cellars were storage places for stone jars filled with pickles, kraut, honey, molasses, apple butter and pickled meats, all weighted down with a rock on a wooden lid that held the food under the preserving liquid. The early days also saw stone crocks with milk, cream and butter set on tables near the door and baskets of eggs for market and for home use. After butchering, cellars held the stands of  lard which were kept cool enough during the hot summers that the lard did not become rancid. As sugar became cheap and available, jams, jellies and preserves of all kinds covered the shelves, first in stone jars with a lid sealed with beeswax, then in glass jars. When cold pack canning in glass jars in the early twenties and pressure cookers in the 1930's made home canning possible, shelves bulged with canned tomatoes, fruits, berries, green beans, peas, greens, corn, meat, relishes and pickles.


There were some foods that would not keep well in cellars. Pumpkins, onions and sweet potatoes because they needed lots of air, which cellars didn't have, spoiled quickly in a cellar. Some fresh foods were kept in cellars, but they wouldn't keep very long. Garden vegetables would keep three or four days--about as long as in a modern refrigerator, but milk would "get blinky in three days."

The way things were put into a cellar depended on the owner. But usually on one side there would be an apple bin and a potato bin. There would always be plenty of shelves lining the back or sides to put canned foods on. In some cellars there was also a table used for butchering meat and straining the milk. Some kept stone crocks or jars by the door to store milk in the cellar and others kept their egg cases there.

Besides being places of storage for food, cellars also served some other purposes, mainly that of a storm cellar. After the big tornado came through Webster and Laclede Counties in 1936, many people in its path built cellars. Being underground and close to the house they were ideal protection. Many rural schools also built them for the children in case of a storm after that big storm blew one schoolhouse away and damaged another. Fortunately the children were not hurt.

When there was a storm, the people would often take an ax with them down into the cellar as a safety precaution to prevent being trapped in case a tree or the house should blow over the cellar door. For some people today storm protection is the only thing they use their cellars for. Some go to their cellars every time the wind gets strong or there is an alert on television. Others rarely go but agree with Bernice Wade that, "It gives a good feeling knowing that the cellar is there."

Cellars give refuge from the extreme heat as well as from storms. In the hot, dry summer months Lois and Cole Beard kept cots in their cellar to be able to sleep during the hot nights.

Animals in the cellars weren't very common occurrences, although most people have had at least one encounter with a varmit. Lorraine Davis had to build a fence around his cellar to keep his cattle from grazing on the grass on top and knocking off the dirt. Another nuisance was ground hogs. Lois Beard recalled, "I got a ground hog in the dirt by the cellar a few years ago and he dug him a hole. That ground hog would take a peep around the corner and look at me, and then I'd take a crack at him with an old .22. Never did kill him though."

An ever present worry was snakes. Although they weren't common occurrences either, a few would get in the cellars for shelter. Dorothy McMicken remembered a black snake that curled up in a gourd in her cellar. It was in so tight her husband had to break the gourd to get it out.

Along with other buildings used for food storage on the farm like springhouses, ice houses and well houses, cellars have almost outlived their usefulness. But unlike the other structures, some people still value their cellars for storing their garden produce and for protection from storms.

One room country schools, such as this one at Washington, used cellars for protection of the kids during tornados.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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