Old potato cellars have many stories to tell

Jerry Apps
The remnants of old potato cellars are still evident on Central Wisconsin. One such building it depicted in this painting by Allan Strang.

By the 1870s, many Wisconsin farmers turned to dairy farming and other crops (wheat growing was failing). In central Wisconsin, in addition to milking cows, many farmers began growing potatoes. According to the USDA Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin farmers grew 64,304 acres of potatoes in 1870. That number exploded to 325,000 acres in 1922.

We grew potatoes on the home farm, 20 acres of them every year. We planted them by hand, hoed them by hand, dug them by hand (with six-tine forks) and picked them by hand. Our country school had a two-week potato vacation in October so all the kids could stay home and pick potatoes.

Besides the potato bins in our farm house cellar, we stored them in a potato cellar built into the side of a hill just beyond the chicken house. Every farmer had a potato cellar where the potatoes were stored in the lower part of the building and various farm machinery was stored in the upper area.

Potato prices were usually better in the late winter and early spring, thus the reason for storing them. We kept a wood burning stove going all winter in the potato cellar to keep the potatoes from freezing.

Potato warehouses (with potato buyers) lined the railroad tracks of Wild Rose in those days. In late winter, we spent many evenings after the barn chores were done, by the light of a barn lantern, sorting and dumping potatoes into gunny bags. Pa hauled them to Wild Rose with a bobsled pulled by our trusty team. He selected a warmer winter day to haul the potatoes so they wouldn’t freeze on the four and half mile trip to the village.

Travelers in central Wisconsin can easily spot these little potato cellars as many of them remain standing. These little buildings have many stories to tell.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Wisconsin still grows lots of potatoes, third in the nation among all the states. Idaho and Washington State rank number one and two.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to