Written by Sean Adcock
Having graduated to houses I should mention an interesting little booklet “An Illustrated Guide to Stone Antiquities on The North Yorkshire Moors” by Elizabeth Ogilvy which I acquired many years ago and includes an entry on “Potato Houses”. I have still to actually get to these, however I dispatched our North Yorkshire (formerly Ireland) correspondent. Okay sometime contributor David Perry kindly agreed to visit the houses noted by Ogilvie and send some photos and comments.
Potato House Ash Farm, Glaisdale.
Photo © David Perry
Ogilivie shows one potato house near mountain Ash Farm, Glaisdale “thought to have been built around 1839”.2 David noted that internally it was 13 feet by 10 feet and much as Ogilvie described, having an internal dividing wall of nicely worked sandstone blocks, which supports a stone slab roof. The floor is stone flagged.
Inside Ash Farm potato house.
Photo © David Perry
Ogilvie also states that “At the rear of the potato house are two openings where the potatoes were tipped in” 3 which is as you would expect but David could find no evidence of these – which you would expect to be visible in the internal shot. The second house is at Yew Grange Farm is not shown by Ogilvie, but David thought it was of more interest. Ogilvie notes that it is the larger of the two with four compartments, which is apparently an error.
Potato House Yew Grange Farm, Glaisdale.
Photo © David Perry
of similar depth to the Ash Farm house but was three bays wide, and around 15 ft wide inside in total . David couldn’t actually measure this as the house is still in use, although it is now full of roofing slates rather than tatties. When the current owner acquired the farm in 1953 it was roofed over, with pantiles laid on the loose earth which was placed on top of the slabs.
Tipping holes, Yew grange Farm.
Photo © David Perry
These were in danger of getting smashed up by his stock, so he removed them and placed them inside the structure! Here they have sat ever since and of course the house has not been subsequently used for its original purpose. Internally it was similar in design to the Mountain Ash one in that the subdivisions were equal, with the internal walls being built of finely tooled stone, with a larger width stone capping which the large roof slabs rested on. Here each bay had at the opposite end to the door there was a horizontal slot through which to pour in the potatoes. Each bay has a flagstone floor and the stones around the door were rebated to accommodate it. (Ogilvie notes wooden doors at both, but at Ash farm this has long gone David also noted that the structure had been changed, with around 2-3 feet added to the side walls. This has partially collapsed on the other side at one corner. David wonders if this addition was to aid insulation.
The original structure’s roof had carefully bevelled/sloping gable ends to suit the original pitch of the roof. This is much degraded but you can still see a couple of these gable stones at the rear and one on the front at the left hand side. Noting the pantiles David wondered if perhaps the Ash Farm house was similarly roofed in some way – it does appear to have a profile with a slight apex – to prevent water from dripping in and spoiling the potatoes?
David also wondered how these structures would be rat proof. As far as I’ve been able to work out this isn’t really a concern as most root crops in their raw state either contain toxins, or failing that nitrates, which disagree with the rats digestive systems.
I have come across one book dealing specifically with root cellars: “Root Cellars in America: Their History, Design and Construction 1609-1920”, James E Gage, Powwow River Books, MA, USA (see PowwowRiverBooks.com). Many of those shown are mortared stone and/or brick, although many have a white wash of lime mortar which covers dry stone covering the masonry and was added to make it easier to clean the cellar. James Gage explained to me that by and large “Brick and stone root cellars get all the attention but they are not representative of what was really going on”. The book gives a comprehensive guide to their early history and development, including information from Britain. Some of the cellars are shown on http://www.stonestructures.org/html/root_cellars.html and this does show the remains of one interesting one with flat laid dry stone faces earth core about 4 feet wide. It is said this was a house cellar built specifically as a root cellar. The website also shows a couple of dry laid root houses not covered in the book, the best being at Thompson Connecticut (http://www.stonestructures.org/html/thompson-root-cellar.html). The frontal facade shows some nice stone work, but moist striking is the internal vaulted dry stone roof spanning an area 10’2” wide by 17’10” long. It dates back to the late 1800s.
Front facade of Thompson CT, root cellar
Photos © James Gage
Dry stone vaulted roof Thompson CT
Photos © James Gage
Last year I was taken to see a root house at Frankfort, Kentucky, with a nicely domed, corbelled roof. James Gage looking at roof design ignores stone roofs, beyond arches, had found only one non arched stone roof (slabs) in all his research and no corbelled roofs. I have asked him about this and the nub of his argument is that they are absent from the historical record, literature, design etc and that many buildings apparently built this way were not necessarily built as root cellars.
James explained to me that whilst there are some 500-600 stone chambers in northeastern U.S. with either corbelled or slabbed roofs. Are these structures prehistoric Native American? Historic root cellars? Or A mix of the two? There has been “vigorous” debate since the late 1930’s as to their origins- prehistoric Native American or otherwise. James argues that whilst archaeologists and academics have until recently maintained that all of these structures are root cellars. When they actually knew little to nothing about root cellar construction.
Corbelled dome root house, Frankfort, KY
© Sean Adcock
Inside the corbelled dome
© Sean Adcock
So he has searched the historic record identifying designs and features – which are by and large absent from these slabbed or corbelled structures, and he has found no historic record/design pertaining to corbelling.
The owner of the Frankfort root cellar, Richard Tinsley restored the façade/entrance but says the dome is essentially as he found it 20 years ago. The property itself is quite old, originally a cabin with the root house
and a nearby ice house/pit (now roofless). The cellar structure feels quite old and does have vent pipes – although how old they are I wouldn’t like to guess. There are wooden beams built into the dome, and it could conceivably have been a smokehouse rather than a root cellar. Richards father’s property also has a stone roofed root cellar, partly corbelled, finished with slabs, and he knows of several other stone roofed ones in the area, which he tells me has plenty of them.
Of course they could also have undergone mid and later 20th Century changes/renovations and its difficult to know whether they were originally built for storing vegetables. However I worry when the over-riding argument is a lack of written historic record – even where the history is not that long a length of time. Rarely is the vernacular that well recorded in Britain, maybe it’s different elsewhere, so I did wonder and reported my suspicions to James Gage. Having reviewed the photos I sent he agrees it is historic rather than modern with a Euro-American style of stonework which is not a Native American style of stonework, concluding this is the first confirmed example of corbelling in an historic U.S. structure which we are aware of.
He adds that the terracotta vent pipes (one can just be seen in the corbelling photo) would suggest a 19th century date for the structure and consistent with a root cellar. He feels the that the wood “beams” are crude in comparison to the overall quality of workmanship in the structure and probably a later addition. Apparently some root cellars were equipped with ceiling hooks to hang vegetables or even smoked meats
Thanks to James Gage for permission to use the Thompson photos and his comments/advice, and to Richard Tynsley for his time
1 Coflein is the online database for the National Monuments Record of Wales (NMRW), the national collection of information about the historic environment of Wales. The name is derived from the Welsh cof (memory) and lein (line).
2 Ogilvie.E. “An Illustrated Guide to Stone Antiquities on The North Yorkshire Moors”, Muddy Boots, N.Yorkshire, (1996)
The content below was copied with the generous permission of the author Sean Adcock. This Master Class article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 ISSUE No. 26 of STONECHAT, produced by the North Wales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Brittan.
This entire issue of Stonechat, and many more, are available at http://www.dswales.org.uk/Stonechat.html Thank you to Sean for allowing us to provide this content, and please donate to The North Wales Branch.
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