Tony Vagneur: Getting to the root of the cellars question: It’s about art

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The question was, “Do you know of any root cellars I could photograph?” It came from my neighbor and renowned photographer, Daniel Bayer, and my first thought was “Do those still exist?”

It all might depend on the definition, but before we go there, allow me to say that for practically every dilapidated, falling down, restructured or barely visible backwoods cabin, one can almost always find the remnants of a rudimentary root cellar out back.

They were not much more than a hole dug in the ground, sloping down maybe 4 or 5 feet, and covered with a dirt or sod roof. Apparently, they worked reasonably well, for the majority of the cabins around here had one. Those old huts were generally one-story, which precluded the obvious term “cellar,” underneath the first floor.

Which brings us to a possible definition and the reason for what may have been my initial wonderment. A root cellar is any space, underground, or partially underground, used for the storage of vegetables, fruits, nuts, or other foods.

The first house I lived in, a four-room, two-story log cabin in Woody Creek, had a cellar under the kitchen which lived up to the above definition, plus it had shelves lined with canned goods, put up every fall by my mother and grandmother. It had a dirt floor and did its job by keeping the stored goods above freezing in the winter, but not by much, and very cool in the summer.

My grandmother’s house in town, on the corner of Bleeker and Second streets, had the same type of root cellar, common to many of the old Victorian-style Aspen homes. Both the one on the ranch and Grandma’s had trap doors that allowed access.

But that wasn’t what Bayer was talking about. He wanted something from the past, maybe a step up from the rustic hole in the ground variety that probably doesn’t exist anymore, but aren’t in someone’s house, either.

It’s that time of year, the potato harvest, and the perfect root cellar came into my consciousness. There aren’t many of them left, either, but a few can be found in the valley. No one raises that crop anymore, not in any large quantities, so most of them have been bulldozed or retrofitted into storage areas for vehicles or other items. Many now have heat, something anathema to any decent potato cellar.

If you can keep potatoes in such a cellar, you also can keep vegetables, fruits, nuts and other foods. With a dirt floor, which allows breathing, hanging meat can be kept there, along with homebrew and other alcoholic beverages, such as wine, grappa and brandy.

Bayer and I traveled up to an old potato cellar on what was, for many decades, Vagneur Ranch Co. land. It had deteriorated a bit in the past 10 years or so since I had ridden by, but perhaps it had gained more charm. Built into a dry swale above the canyon with an excellent view, the log walls were still mostly standing, and the skeleton roof, made of pine logs heaped over by dirt, gave a side-cut view as to the basic architecture.

No sooner did we get close to the tall, swinging French front doors, than a large, four-point buck bounded out through what had at one time been part of the roof, not necessarily frightened, but happy to get away from us. Upon entry, we found his small lair, shaded from the sun and protected on three sides from the vagaries of an ever-changing environment. It was clear that he had been using this aerie for most of the hot summer.

The perfection of a potato cellar is what might pull such back into relevance in an age of hobby farms and people trying to store fruits and vegetables over the course of brutal Rocky Mountain winters. They just have to be partially underground, with thick, dirt or sod roofs held up by stout wooden supports. A couple of air vents are necessary, along with the dirt floor, and no heat or cooling apparatus is needed. They are cost-free to operate. And, they are less obtrusive than other farm structures, such as greenhouses.

When I was in the seventh- or eighth-grade, I put in a 5-acre patch of potatoes. My dad rented me the land and the equipment. I planned to sell the spuds in town to restaurants, but ignorant chefs put me off as too young to have good, or consistent produce. Otherwise, I’d have made a fortune. I did sell quite a few to folks around town, and come February, I managed to peddle the remainder to a roving vegetable buyer, and climbed out of that project with some profit, but not enough to try it again.

People thinking about storing produce through the winter should do a little research on local potato cellars. They’re not “state of the art,” they are the art.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at