The root cellars of Twillingate: A personal passion for local history

Elliston has earned its reputation as the root cellar capital of the world, but Twillingate could give it a run for the title, writes Julia Cook.

Elliston has earned its reputation as the root cellar capital of the world, but Twillingate could give it a run for the title. 

Some 232 root cellars have been counted so far in the Twillingate area, and Otto Sansome is the man who has taken the time to document each every one.

During a recent interview at his home, atop a cliff in Durrell and where his wife grew up in as a kid, Sansome showed me a photo album that holds proof of his work. 

Digging up information about root cellars in Twillingate. We take a tour around the some 232 root cellars in the Central Newfoundland town. 5:14

"They were all used for vegetables years ago," he told me, explaining how root cellars allowed people to protect their vegetables in the era before refrigerators.

"Some are built with concrete. You could get some that was made out of  gravel, dirt."

Once I got started at it, I couldn't stop. I had to get most all of them.- Otto Sansome

For each of the dozens of root cellars that he has catalogued in the Twillingate area, Sansome has placed a photograph and handwritten notes on the date they were built and who owned them. 

I asked him how he found them all.

"I'd stop and somebody would tell me there was another cellar over there and go to the next fellow and he would tell me the same thing," he said. 

"Once I got started at it, I couldn't stop. I had to get most all of them. A lot of people saying, all you doing, make money. I said no, I'm just doing this on my own."

A Memorial University student used his information for her own research. Some of the root cellars have also be catalogued online, along with GPS coordinates.

Only a few still in use

On Sansome's own property is an empty root cellar, with a faded red split door. There are empty bins on the shelves and the domed concrete walls were still covered in frost during my recent visit.

"They just done this with boards, come up round like that [...] while they poured the concrete first. Then they took the boards down. But we don't use this any more."

The owners of this root cellar in the Twillingate area have a new layer of blue paint on the door, while others in the region have fallen into disrepair. (Julia Cook/CBC)

We left his cellar and Sansome took me on a tour through the twisting roads and sharp hills of the Twillingate area. 

He's memorized the location of all cellars. Eventually he took me to a root cellar with a top hatch that sits along the shore. He said it's like the one he had when he was a boy.

"It was up on banks," he said. "It had a top like that. And it was so they wouldn't have to dig out the door in the winter."

Only a couple of the root cellars we see have new locks and freshly painted doors. Most have fallen into disrepair; others have been taken down.

"Well, there's nobody don't want any vegetables any more. Buying them all. That's what we do."

But Sansome is still hoping to continue his work. He suggests that I come back for another visit, to see more of the local history he has uncovered.