Photo of a root cellar. Image from Grit.com
Recently my dear friend Suzanne Alford-Hodges loaned me her copy of the amazing book Garden Sass: A Catalog of Arkansas Folkways. Written in 1975 by Nancy McDonough, this book is much like a regional version of the famed Foxfire series, a combination of folklore, oral histories and photos from around the state. The subtitle alone is fascinating: “house-raising, old time games, honey gathering, music making, water witching, food preserving, quilting, hog butchering, and general making-do in a vanishing Arkansas—with practical advice on keeping traditional ways alive.”
Given that storm season is upon us, it seems fitting to touch on what the book has to say about storm cellars and the ways in which Arkansans have historically protected themselves against tornados and other fierce winds. The storm shelter, the author explains, “is a large cellar dug out of the ground, with sides supported either by timbers or rock walls. Around the oldest houses the shelters are usually mounded over with dirt taken out of the cellar; around larger houses there are rock walls built up above ground.” In some cases root cellars and storm cellars were one in the same. The book features a photo of two different shelters, both of them on Chickalah Mountain—one in the “old style” formed with rocks and another newer, more fancy version made with stones and boards.
These days it’s common for people without basements to hire storm shelter companies to come in and dig big holes in the yard and build safe rooms into the ground. Such storm cellars can run into the thousands of dollars. Even when this book was written in the mid 1970s people were already starting to make their own out of concrete. But I wonder, does anyone try their hand at making the old style cellars today?
As a young girl I remember the remnants of an old style cellar build into a hill at my great Aunt and Uncle’s house in Harkey Valley (not too far from Chickalah Mountain where the photos from the book were taken). I remember being warned never to play inside the cellar as the roof was caving in from that fateful day when a cow stepped across the top and caved in the roof. When I posted about this upcoming column on facebook (that veritable source for trusted news—haha), I learned from several friends that my Great Aunt and Uncle’s storm cellar was well known around the valley and served as a place where everyone congregated whenever it came up a storm. According to their accounts, the men would often smoke pipes and cigars and it seemed there was always a snake in the cellar, leading some folks to prefer taking their chances with the storm.
I’d love to hear your storm cellar stories, too, and possibly include them in upcoming columns and share them with folks at our center, the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources. I’d especially love to hear any stories you might have about building your own shelters and what it was like using them. I’ll also include links online for ordering the Garden Sass book and links to other information she includes about famous storms, like the one in Greers Ferry that changed the life of famous Arkansas ballad singer, Almeda Riddle. Except more from the book in upcoming columns! Thanks so much for reading! I wish everyone a safe storm season.