In the back of Heller House, tucked into a bank is the Heller Homestead’s root cellar. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps indicated a one and a half-story summer kitchen attached to the root cellar. Since all stone structures have survived over two centuries, it can only be assumed this structure was of wood construction.
The root cellar is a marvel, having survived to this day. Original to the homestead’s farmstead, the structure is literally a buried stone room with an arched ceiling, four walls and a paved floor. The structure has a protective shingled roof to shed precipitation.
The floor of the root cellar is well below the frost line, and even in 90-degree heat of summer, the floor below ground remains cool enough to see your breath.
The root cellar allowed winter storage of produce from the garden without processing, preserving or canning.
Ideally, a root cellar could hold food for several months after harvest time. The cool, moist atmosphere prevented freezing or decomposition of produce.
A root cellar needs to remain between thirty-two and forty degrees Fahrenheit. Not all kinds of produce are successfully stored under those conditions. The best candidates are carrots, onions, turnips, beets and Irish and sweet potatoes.
Fruits and other vegetables include apples, pumpkins, cabbage, cauliflower and peppers. Parsnips do very well by being left in the ground in the garden all winter.
Onions are harvested, dried and packed in barrels to avoid freezing and thawing. Onions and garlic are often braided and hung to dry for storage in the kitchen.
Sweet potatoes are stored in bulk, after drying on straw and layered with potatoes and straw. In fact the more layers, the better they keep. Large cans or covered crocks kept milk, eggs and butter cool until needed.
The root cellar was used by farmers and country folk alike years before electricity and refrigeration ever reached their farmsteads. It was really the best way of storing fresh produce at that time without cooking or preserving. Most farm wives knew these agrarian customs which were handed down from family to family over the years.