The Way it Was: What do you put in a basement?

by John Straka Published:

It was February, 1938, and I was on a train headed back to Ohio from a sightseeing vacation in St Petersburg, Fla. Somewhere along the way, maybe in Georgia, a young lady boarded the train. All the seats in the coach were taken, either by two people seated together, or by a single passenger hoping to occupy both seats. The new passenger asked if the empty seat next to mine was saved and when I said it wasn't, that was enough to start a conversaton.

She said her name was Dixie and she was on her way to visit an aunt living in Akron. Dixie had never been that far north before and I was on my way back from my first time "down south." That gave us plenty to talk about. I told her about seeing pelicans up close, orange groves, palm trees and lots of sand everywhere.

Dixie said she was looking forward with great anticipation to seeing two things. One was an escalator, which at the time was still a new invention, even in Ohio. Her aunt planned to take Dixie shopping in a large department store where she could actually, for the first time, ride an escalator. The other was something that puzzled and fascinated her: a basement. She asked many questions about basements and that was the first time I realized that some homes had a basement and others did not.

In Ohio, land is expensive, houses are built close together, and winter temperatures can go as low as 15 degrees below zero. A century ago, all homes were heated with coal. That required a huge furnace and an even larger coalbin to store as much as 5 to 7 tons of coal. Heated air rises and is circulated by gravity. The best place to put a furnace was in a basement.

Warmer weather in southern states reduces the need for a furnace. Excavating a basement there is expensive, because the soil is just a shallow covering over solid rock. In Florida, the water table is close to the surface and a basement will fill with water quickly.

When the TV news shows homes destroyed by tornados, they never show any basements. That's because there aren't any, and houses built without an underground foundation are more likely to be blown away by strong winds. The movie about the Wizard of Oz shows Dorothy's family entering an underground shelter called a storm cellar.

Some farmers would excavate a kind of cave in the side of a nearby hill and use it to store potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other items for use during winter months. That was known as a root cellar. I remember seeing houses that had a small area under the house excavated to be used as a root cellar. Entrance was by means of outdoor steps covered by a slanted barn door. There is an old song that includes these words, "Shout down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door, and we'll be jolly friends, forevermore."

I wonder how many people know that a concrete basement floor is poured inside the foundation walls? The foundation actually extends below the floor. A few years after my wife and I moved into our new home, I was awakened from a sound sleep by a noise coming from our basement. It was raining like I had never heard it rain before and when I went down to see what was going on, I saw water gushing up from the broken basement floor. Insurance covered the cost of a new floor.

In another rainstorm, a family living on our street heard something thumping under their living room floor. It was their freezer floating in the basement full of water. Rainwater was flooding from their driveway into the basement windows.

My parents had a small porch and a pantry added on to the back of their house. The space under that addition, had one small window, and a dirt floor two steps above the basement floor. It was closed off with a wooden door and we called it our fruit bin. Mom and Dad used it to store a winter's worth of potatoes, carrots, apples, canned goods and even our homemade root beer.

Some apartment houses have apartments partly below ground level. I wonder if they have a separate space for heating and storage? Many homeowners fix up their basements to serve as a recreation room or family room. During the Great Depression, some women would install a beauty shop in their basement. A man in Maple Heights had a full size barbershop in his basement. He charged less than other barbers, and I was one of his many regular customers.

I wonder if houses in all other parts of the world have basements? What about Europe? Houses there can be very old. Or China, Australia or Hawaii? Here in Ohio, we have lots of ranch style houses. How many of them have basements?

Straka can be reached at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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