Cellar potatoes were valuable currency for farm families

Justin Isherwood
A bin full of potatoes stored in the root cellar was a source of mid-winter cash income for farm families in Central Wisconsin.

Drive any rural road and you can spot the farmhouses where something called the potato economy once ruled. For Central Wisconsin that economy belonged to the winter months when the weekly trip to town involved a half ton of potatoes delivered to a warehouse in exchange for cash money at a particular time of need when the chickens weren’t laying and the dairy herd was served frozen silage. 

A time when the farmhouse cellar did not have a stove or furnace, no rec room, not even a canning cellar, instead to the purpose of a potato cellar. 

This antediluvian farmhouse and its economy is identified by an ample outside stairway to fit the processional of the worshipful carrying hundred pound burlap bags on their backs to that same cellar.  There to dump the contents into a bin built decidedly robust in hopes of a profitable internment. 

Old farmhouses in potato country were noted for outside stairways leading into the basement where burlap bags filled with potatoes were stored down in the cellar in bins.

The floor of the cellar was dirt to the better purpose of long term potato storage. The dirt well-wetted before the potatoes were dumped in to hydrate the tubers. It was not unusual in the pursuit of a midwinter cash crop that a farmhouse might store 200 hundredweight in multiple bins, all with robust oak doors, the entirety at an earth temperature only slightly moderated by two parlor stoves and a wood range on the floor above. 

A quality farmhouse cellar maintained a reasonably consistent range, about the same as groundwater, something like 45° give or take. Anything warmer and the potatoes broke dormancy, the most vivid examples sprouting vigorously by January – the tubers then de-sprouted to have any commercial value. 

The real trick was to hold the crop to midwinter and the most robust prices of the season when Chicago, Cleveland and Gary mill workers came home to a kitchen heavy with the smell of potatoes frying in a pool of butter, consumed by laborers for whom a 4000 calorie work day was normal.

The renown Chicago writer Upton Sinclair did not much appreciate the scent of his working class neighborhood stinking of frying potatoesfrying, the smell seeping like a fog under every stoop.

A specific act of retail was involved. Ten pounds of potatoes in New Jersey or Cleveland in 1932 sold for 18 cents, ten pounds of potatoes still smelling of that farmhouse cellar.  Perhaps a touch wrinkled but nothing an afternoon soak in a pot of water couldn’t cure. 

Potatoes were a most adaptable vegetable, boiled and mashed for supper, add milk gravy on Monday night, chicken gravy on Sunday night, fried with catsup and sauerkraut on Wednesday and Thursday.  he peelings could be soaked and fried with breakfast bacon. 

This American Dream powered by that farmhouse cellar and its cash transaction at the potato siding on a cold day in February. What every decent village in Central Wisconsin once performed, teams and wagons loaded with straw and potatoes selling their small lots to a potato broker whose sworn oath to cheap was legendary.  Who somehow always lived in the biggest, best brick house on the town road. 

The rail-side price for that hundred pound bag, give or take, was a buck. Ten bags ten bucks. The operative spell was cash money, crisp, cold, lettuce-green cash money, that included dollar coin, that alone felt like a million bucks. 

On the Serengeti is an ecology every water hole obeyed, a kind of peace where the gazelle could drink with a lioness with cubs. Like the potato depot at that small town track side, shared the spot with a tavern, a feedmill, dry goods, hardware, grocery sometimes all at once. The odds were half that potato transaction didn’t make it back to the farmhouse. 

All powered by that farmhouse cellar, whose outside steps remain to be seen on any rural route in Central Wisconsin, legends of the potato cellar economy.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.