Sometimes it’s best to tell a story from end to beginning. So here is our intrepid group at the end of our experience of seeing where an unscripted walk, searching for root cellars, would take us. We are holding root vegetables as a testament to how “rootful” our time was…as also to help us remember that we’d all taken “root-names” (nicknames we’d use for the adventure). I renamed as Rutabaga, Marian took Turnip, Tom believed in Beet, Gabi picked potato, Derek took Tumeric Root, Krista chose carrot, and Peter went with Blueberry Wine (very appropriate since we were outside a winery). Yes, I am holding a parsnip instead of rutabaga. Yes, I am pretending to be a unicorn. Yes, that is an onion in Tom’s hand instead of beet. Amazingly, Derek had a supply of veggies in his jeep for us to call into service, it’s just that rutabagas, beets, and blueberry wine were on the missing list.
The highlight of our experience was meeting Otto Sansome. If you say the word, root cellar in Twillingate, Otto’s name is not far behind. In planning our Unscripted Twillingate Rooting for Adventure workshop, I did not make prior contact with Otto, leaving it to chance and serendipity. We’d left the winery about 1.5 hours earlier and had found 12 root cellars when I’d been expecting 4 from my prior research. As we were walking on the road, near Otto’s house, he drove by. Peter managed to flag him down at the last second, and asked if he’d be willing to chat with us some about root cellars. Although, he just headed out on an errand, he graciously turned around, headed home, and welcomed us in.
Otto began by having us sign his guest book and by handing around the photo albums he has of root cellars around Twillingate. He’s taken pictures of 232 of them and tracked down information on who build them and when for most of them. Marian and I had seen some of Otto’s root cellar photographs in the Memorial University Digital Archive and now we were seeing them “up close and personal.” It was thrilling. We’d long been fascinated by the root cellars we’d seen while hiking (and kayaking) around Twillingate. I asked Otto, “How did you become King of Root Cellars in Twillingate?”
He got out of his chair and pointed out the window across the bay to this root cellar I’m pictured in. This was the first root cellar he’d taken a picture of…and that one lead to another one, and to another one, and another one…one by one, he found them, learned their history, photographed them, and catalogued them. What a treasure of information. Otto said that he didn’t photograph the root cellars that were simply dug out of earth or that has been lined with wood because most of those, had caved in and looked only like rubble piles. He, instead, turned his photographic eye and documentary interest, the the ones constructed out of concrete. The photograph above shows very well the classic concrete construction for a root cellar. This concrete hull would be poured and then covered with sods to help insulate the structure. Many root cellars have a double door to provide an airlock/climate control when entering and leaving.
We then asked Otto if he still uses the root cellar in his backyard, the one I’m having an unscripted moment in above. “No,” he replied but quickly went on to name many others that were still using them. Otto told us about cutting ice in winter to use to keep root cellars cold through the summer. “There was no refrigeration back then,” he said, “So we had to use a large saw to cut blocks of pond or sea ice to provide the cold. We would pack the ice blocks in sawdust and then lasted all through the summer.” When asked about what all was kept in root cellars, Otto had a long list. “Meats, potatoes, carrots, turnips…and berries. We’d keep berries in a wooden barrel in water. When you wanted some berries, you’d go into the root cellar with a cup and scoop some out of the barrel. By the time the barrel was empty, you had a nice bit of blueberry wine.” Peter had found his name sake. Otto explained that they would only take a small scoop of berries out at at time because berries had to last through to the next summer.
Many of the root cellars are falling into disuse and disrepair but several we found had been spruced up with splashes of colour and other decorations.
Root cellars are a delight to photograph because of their diversity.
They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and door styles.
The hardware is often rusted. Some doors are nailed shut. Some doors have fallen off their hinges.
And some doors swing wonderfully open and welcome you in. Inside working root cellars, there are often wooden bins that hold potatoes or shelves that can hold canned goods. There is a vent hole or stack to allow fresh air to circulate. Root cellars keep food cold in summer and they keep it from freezing through the long winter. Some root cellars have their doors on the top instead of the front. Otto said this was to reduce the amount of snow shovelling in winter as most of the snow would be blown away rather than drifting up against the door.
After leaving Otto’s house, we found three more root cellars as we walked back to the Auk Island Winery. They’ve honoured Twillingate’s root cellar heritage with a strawberry rhubarb wine appropriately called “Root Cellar.” I’ve got some chilling and I look forward to enjoying it once I finish writing. Rooting for adventure was a fine digital journey and I look forward to updating our digital root cellar resources with the pictures and GPS coordinates we captured today. This link is a great spot to find out how to find root cellars in Twillingate. Thanks to all who shared the adventure.