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Whittling Away: On pondering the use of cellars

September 6, 2019 11:36 am Updated: September 6, 2019 11:38 am


I was sitting the other day having a pleasant little ponder when a request from my queen sent me on a mission to the cellar. Having accomplished the requested deed and still being in a ponder mood, I decided that cellars would make a good ponderous topic.

When did cellars go out of style? I guess I wasn’t paying attention again. When I was a kid (boy, there’s a statement that’ll date you faster than asking someone if they want to see your autographed 8x10 glossy of Buffalo Bob), everybody I knew had a cellar, a most useful room that is being omitted from most new houses.

Cellars then weren’t places for the family room or for parking a pool table and bar. Nope, they were working rooms, not places for lounging. They were a source of sustenance and warmth. The cellar of our old farmhouse had no ambiance, just a dirt floor and laid up stone walls. The bones of the house could be plainly seen, along with its circulatory and nervous systems. The hand-hewn beams and the walls were whitewashed and shelves, some narrow, others wide enough to form small bins, lined one wall.

Most of the fall was spent filling those shelves with all the fruits, tomatoes, pickles and other goodies that kept Mom busy canning. The bins were filled with potatoes, big crocks on the floor were filled with pickles. When the harvest season ended, the cellar was a comforting place for a little kid who liked to eat, just to stand and think about the good times to come.

There was a small window in the back wall through which a shiny chute carried coal into the cellar bin that held tons of it. Try explaining to a kid playing a video game that when you were his age you had to spend time shoveling rocks that burned into a big metal thing filled with fire in the cellar and see what you get!

The furnace was the most impressive thing in the cellar, possibly the whole house. It was huge with octopus-like arms reaching out everywhere. It was a friendly monster that lived in the cellar, you had to go down and feed it every so often. Like any good monster though, you had to be careful around it or it could destroy the whole house and the family with it. Sometimes you had to shake it into good behavior and daily you had to lug a big bucket of its gray powdery offal up the stairs and out to the garden. This monster was controlled by a chain that ran up to the controller in the living room. The chain ran over a pulley and if you pulled down on one side, the heat went up; pull on the other side and less heat found its way upstairs.

The cellar was an exciting place, sometimes a little too much so. I remember a particular batch of catsup that Mom whipped up. I helped her bottle it; I liked the little capper thing that sealed the top. Mom put catsup in any of the bottles that she had washed and saved during the course of the year; catsup out of a Nehi soda bottle wasn’t unheard of in our house. I helped her carry the bottles down and put them on the shelves. A few days later a loud pop in the cellar sent us down to investigate. The catsup, for some reason, had started to ferment. The pressure built up and bang, the bottle would explode, spraying catsup in all directions. This went on for weeks and made a trip to the cellar really exciting.

I hate to think of cellars going the way of Buffalo Bob. I’m glad our old house has one — one with laid-up stone walls and shelves. I think I’ll store some food down there just for old times’ sake, like the dog food, possibly, or maybe I’ll can something, I wonder if Mom’s still got that recipe for catsup!

Thought for the week — ”You can pretend to be serious; you can’t pretend to be witty.” — Sacha Guitry

Until next week, may you and yours be happy and well.

Reach Dick Brooks at