Story last updated at 4:05 PM on Thursday, March 24, 2005

Use of root cellars a piece of peninsula history

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

A historical documentation project completed by Ninilchik Native Descendants in 2004 resulted in the following information gathered from the fourth generation of villagers. It was printed in "Chainik Keepeet," a four-part newsletter published as part of the project. It is reprinted with permission.

Although her father's garden, with its dozen or so rows, never produced salmon, Helen (Matson Benedict) is still impressed with how neat and straight the raised beds were. And for the Matson family, moving vegetables from the garden to the root cellar in the fall was fairly simple. The garden was near their home, which sat on the hill above the village. The cellar was beneath the home's living room.

For other gardeners, it was a long haul from village gardens to the other root cellars that dotted the hillside.

"In the fall time, we harvested the gardens," said Alex Oskolkoff of the potatoes, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, beets, cabbages and other vegetables. "We had to dig the vegetables and let them dry in the sunshine for several days before we carried them up the hill and put them in the root caller." Alex estimated a year's harvest of potatoes could mean carrying as much as 500 to 600 pounds of potatoes.

He described root cellars as a "big hole in the ground that was cribbed up with spruce trees and had several bins in it." The entryway had a peaked roof over a door.

"And there was a hatch and a ladder that went down eight feet or so," he said. Although Alex never helped build one, he did help with repairs and ensured adequate insulation. "You'd have to get a lot of hay on the top part so the cold didn't penetrate down below," he said. "I don't remember it ever freezing and we had some really cold weather. A lot colder than what they have in Ninilchik now."

"Ninilchik was full of gardens," Erling (Kvasnikoff) remembered. "We had to help dig it in the spring, weed it in the summer, and then dig it up in the fall. It was a lot of work." So was getting in and out of the root cellars. "They were stuffed full of hay and you had to crawl in the door," he said of the first entryway. Then there was (a second entry), the trap door that led straight down into the ground, to where the bins were located. The hillside proved an excellent location because it provided drainage so that no water collected in the underground areas.

Once vegetables were stored, Joe Oskolkoff said he made weekly trips to get what his mother, Matrona, needed.

"We would go once a week and (the vegetables) had to last," he said. "When they were gone, they were gone."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at