Those of you who have visited Northern Comfort and gotten a chance to wander around the grounds may have wandered across the back pasture, following the lazy path kept tidy during the summer months until you round the final bend at the treeline and come upon our root cellar.
The still-functioning cellar is a fantastic feature of the farm that looks a bit like it might be home to a friendly troll or gnome. Really, it’s the storage place for potatoes and other root vegetables for the families that have lived on the farm over the years.
When reading through the bits of history we have in our files, the origins of the root cellar are unclear. What’s certain is that, like many other properties in the Embarrass area, one of the primary cash crops on the farm around the turn of the nineteenth century was potatoes. The loamy soil was particularly suited for potato growing and at the height of the market, Embarrass farms shipped over a half million dollars worth of potatoes to buyers in the surrounding area.
One curious potato reference that pops up a few times in the histories and letters from family members in our files is the ‘Potato Warehouse’ that was built on land donated by the original owner of Northern Comfort, John Kangas. The Potato Warehouse was apparently a community building, situated close to the old rail line on the edge of the property and meant to help bolster the waning potato market here in Embarrass. The warehouse was built in 1941, funded by financial aid from the Range Rehabilitation Fund, which we assume is the present day Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Fund.
We’re pretty certain that our root cellar, although quite large, is not the ‘potato warehouse’ we’ve seen mentioned so many times. It’s not quite the size to support a community harvest and it’s a bit farther away from the old railway than we’d expect of the Potato Warehouse, based on the accounts we’ve found. We’re curious where the warehouse was, though, and this fall will take Peppermint the basset hound out to the railway tracks to see if we can find it!
What we DO know about the current root cellar is that it drifted from memory a bit over time. In the 60’s the farm was purchased by the Scherer family and 13 kids, dogs and sundry grew up in the big farmhouse. Two of the Scherer daughters were recent guests of Northern Comfort and remembered that they tended to use the original crawlspace under the kitchen (that’s where the trap door goes, for guests who have wondered!) as a root cellar, as it’s much more accessible during the winter months than trudging through all the snow across the pasture!
When the Scherer family sold the farm to Buzz and Elaine, the first owners to operate Northern Comfort (then the Finnish Heritage Homestead) as a B&B, the large root cellar had fallen out of use. Buzz didn’t even know it was here on the grounds until he stepped through the roof one day while wandering through the woods! Once he recovered, he fixed the roof and shored up the inside to make it usable. That work was continued by Pam and Kathy, the next innkeepers and it’s a safe structure to venture into these days, albeit guarded by a million mosquitos.
Our plans for the root cellar are to use it as it was intended to be used: storing potatoes, carrots and beets that we grow here. Another bonus is as a place to store ferments, as we’ll be experimenting with sauerkraut, kimchi and garlicky greens here at the farm.
If you’re out here for a visit, be sure to stroll down the meadow path and check out the little piece of living history here on the farm!