Fremont County, Iowa

Caves, a "Must" in Early Years
by Sherri Perkins

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of August 8, 2011

Many adjectives have been used to describe the Cave or Cellar; smelly, creepy, chilly, dark and dank, safe interesting, scary, awful, useful, well you get the idea. The youth of today most likely haven't any idea of what a cave even is, or was.

Just fifty years ago, the cave was a must, on every farm, and at most houses in small towns. When farmers rented land and moved to a farm the question of whether there was a cave, or not, helped with their decision.

The purpose of the cave was two fold, one was to store the winter's supply of food and the other was to take refuge from thunderstorms and tornadoes. Caves were built underground with steps leading down into a small room. The roof and sides were generally brick with the ceiling being a few feet above ground, which formed a grass-covered hump. The hump had a pipe sticking out to vent the cave. The hump also provided a place for kids to play.

Storms in those years were not tracked on a radar screen. The only warnings were hot sultry days, lightening, wind, etc. People also had their own weather predictors including the bunching of cattle, aching bones, dust devils, party lines and biting flies to determine if conditions were right for possible storms. Not having weather warnings in the "good ole days" resulted in many trips to the cave to wait out a storm in safety. If parents thought conditions warranted it, they woke their children and hurried to the dark cave to take shelter. The best caves had a strong secure door at the bottom of the stairs; an axe (in case a tree fell on the outside or the "boogie man" tried to get in), a sealed jar of matches, a barn lantern with fuel; places to sit and a hoe (in case the boogie man was a snake). A wooden potato bin, wooden shelves for jars and canned goods and large stone pickle crocks used for seats completed the cave items.

Some caves did smell musty or like rotting potatoes and yes the spiders and bugs made for a creepy feeling. However, none of that mattered with storms raging overhead. You felt safe and secure knowing they could not reach you underground. Caves kept secure a rainbow of filled glass jars and the year's potato crop. The cool underground area was the perfect storage place for all sorts of vegetable and fruit, some meats and cream and even lard.

Nothing can compare with hours spent in a candle lit, damp, musty cave sitting on stone crocks, eating (we always took popcorn and cookies with us), playing word games cards, making finger shadows while listening to the thunder and lightening and watching spider shadows crawl overhead. Few of these wonders are left in this part of the Midwest but an excellent specimen remains at the Ferrel House in Randolph. Just one more treasure at the House that can tell of life as it used to be. Have you special memories of caves and maybe a few new adjectives to add to those above?

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Page updated on November 1, 2020 by Karyn Techau