The “Great Depression” started in the United States near the end of 1929 with the stock market crash now known as Black Thursday. The financial-social-political effects of this event spread around the world.

Recovery began in the mid-1930’s with the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many areas of the country suffered from poverty and unemployment until America's entry into World War II at the end of 1941.

Some areas were hit harder than others. It was estimated that one-quarter of the national workforce was out of a job; in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this figure was closer to 95%. My parents dated for five years, unable to marry because both were unemployed. My father finally found work with the CCC planting evergreens in a reforestation project. A few years later, when he landed a job driving a gravel truck on a road building project, they were able to set up housekeeping.

Their first house was a clapboard shack with no basement or foundation. It was mounted on posts made of old railroad ties. Located on the edge of town, it was squeezed between the highway and the railroad tracks. Peter, ever resourceful, dug into the railroad embankment rising behind the house to build a root cellar.

A root cellar is useful for storing fruits and vegetables. Properly built, it keeps out the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. If built into a hillside as this one was, it has a vertical door on the front and is actually a little room with a dirt floor. Shelves are arranged around the walls with several inches between the wood and the earth for increased ventilation. Often there will be bins of sand on the lowest level where carrots and turnips can be buried for storage.

Peter had another use for the root cellar. Beer. Homebrew, to be exact.

The decade preceding the Depression, known as The Roaring Twenties, had seen Prohibition which outlawed the sale, manufacturing and transportation of alcohol. Many, many people learned to make their own alcoholic beverages   :   beer, bathtub gin, or homemade wine. Peter was locally famous for his homebrew, which he kept in the root cellar.

So here are the newlyweds, snug in their little house by the railroad tracks. They are poor, but so are all their friends. Most of their furniture came from cast-offs and their families’ attics. A rickety table and an old lamp by the front door is “the foyer”. They have no telephone. If they are not home when someone comes to the door, there is a “Leave a note” box alongside the door jamb.

Television is unknown and most home entertainment is “visiting”, when several couples gather in one home for an informal evening of conversation and refreshments. People often drop in unannounced.

This was the case one Friday evening. Friday was shopping night, when the A&P stayed open until nine o'clock. After getting their groceries for the week, Peter and Mary often stopped at the ice cream shop for a banana split. That is probably where they were when a carload of friends, the Pelkeys and the Grants, stopped to visit.

They knocked on the door and nothing happened. Betty Pelkey suggested leaving a note. Dave Grant said, “Heck, no – they’re home, there’s a light on inside.”

This was the Depression and nobody wasted electricity leaving a light burning in an empty house. After more door-knocking and speculation as to why Peter and Mary would not answer the door, the two couples decided to help themselves to beer from the root cellar in the back yard.

It was a nice evening for a beer party, cool enough so there were no mosquitoes but still warm enough to sit outdoors. When the beer was gone, the four young people tiptoed through the yard to the front of the house. Before leaving, someone put a message in the “Leave a note” box   :   “Hey! We couldn’t wake you up so we drank all your beer!”

Peter and Mary were not surprised to find a light burning when they returned home. The whole house rocked whenever a freight train passed; the switch on the lamp by the front door was loose and it often activated the light bulb when the house shook.

They were surprised when they read the note left by their friends.

Source: "Root Cellar Basics" from Al Durtschi,