A farmer’s wife’s garden was very important to her family’s livelihood in 1800s New England. What she planted had to feed her family for an entire year. Her garden wasn’t the small planting of vegetables that we think of today, but a vast well planned lot of land. It was typically half an acre to an acre in size and included vegetables such as parsnips, beans, peas, potatoes, turnips, onions, corn, strawberries, raspberries, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, winter squash (pumpkins), beets, watermelons, cucumbers, bush beans (green beans), rye, oats (for the animals) and medicinal plants.
This large garden would produce much more food than could be eaten in season. Instead, most of it was preserved for use throughout the rest of the year, when fresh fruits and vegetables wouldn’t be available. Since electricity didn’t make an appearance until the 1900s and canning was still a long ways off, farmers relied on other methods to preserve food. Three ways in particular were used by New England farmers—the smokehouse, the corn barn, and the root cellar.
The smokehouse, a small enclosed shelter, stored the family’s meat. When an animal was slaughtered, the meat would be cut into portions and then heavily salted and hung in the smokehouse where a slow burning corncob fire would smolder for a couple weeks. The smoke would cover the meat with an air tight creosote coating. When the family was ready to eat the meat they’d cut off the creosote coating and boil out the salt (and flavor) making the meat edible. To make up for this lack of flavor, vegetables and herbs would be added to the boiled meat. In New England, the term “boiled dinner” comes from this tradition.
The second means of preserving food was the corn barn which stored the family’s grains: oats, rye, yellow corn, barley, and Indian corn. The corn barn needed to remain dry and allow air circulation. To do this the corn barn was constructed differently from most buildings. The structure was raised off the soil so no moisture could get in. The wall boards were built with space between them to allow air to pass through. And lastly the boards were slanted outward from the floor and the roof given a large overhang, so when it rained, water couldn’t get in.
The third method of storing and preserving food was the root cellar. Built under the house, the root cellar had two entrances, one from the house and one from outside. This was very important in New England. The ground froze in the winter and the root cellar needed to remain dark and cold, but not frozen. Once the food was stored for the year, the outside door would be sealed and straw would be placed behind the door and on the stairs to help insulate and keep the cellar from freezing.
Families stored vegetables such as rutabagas, beets, parsnips, turnips and green beans in the root cellar. Wooden boxes filled with sand were used to keep root vegetables, such as carrots, fresh. Storing the vegetables in the sand kept them in an air tight space, preventing them from drying out. The sand also served a second purpose. It kept mice from getting at the food. Should they get through the wood box, they would be unable to dig tunnels through the sand. Apples were stored in barrels, either wrapped in paper or surrounded by woodchips, closest to the exterior door, while potatoes were stored in barrels in the darkest spot of the cellar. Cabbages and onions were hung from the ceiling.
Growing up on a farm in the 1800s wasn’t an easy task. Making sure the garden was kept free of pests and animals was a full time job that all the family members helped with. Unlike today, where if our tomato plants fail we could stop at the grocery store, back then families’ lives depended on the success of their garden and their ability to store food. That food had to last them for the year, through the winter and spring when the planting season would begin all over again.