A community potato house, portable saw mills, preserving fence posts, and sawdust insulation.
OR How my Grandpa built his potato house and stored potatos for the whole community.

During the late 1930’s or early 1940’s Tennessee, my Grandpa operated two portable sawmills.  During and after the Depression the demands of lumber and building materials were high because the war, the railroads, and the housing that was needed, and barn building.  He operated two different saw mills.  One he kept set up at his home place, and one was taken to different wooded areas an operated when large amounts of lumber were to be cut.  They were called “portable saw mills”.

Each base foot frame (there were four of them) weighed in excess of 100 pounds each.  The arbor and flywheel weighed between 400 and 500 pounds.  After he had built his barn from the lumber that he had cut, he started cutting 10″ by 10″ timbers, 16 foot long.

He soaked the timbers in heated oil vats that were troughs made of wood.  I don’t recall what type of oil was used.  As the timbers soaked in the oil for a period of time, they were then brought out and set afire.  Whenever the oil and the heat were sufficient enough to blacken the wood and “seal” it, wet burlap was then thrown on them to put the fire out.

These became ground timbers (to be used in contact with the earth) because they would not rot.

Being the methodic, headstrong person this man was, he continued repeating this process until he had eight such logs.  Every one of the neighbors and visitors kept inquiring:

“You keep blacking these timbers and stacking them in a square, what are you plannin’ on doin’? ”  But Grandpa did not immediately repley . . .

Grandpa started building his uprights, ten foot long.  As he had put the uprights for the door and the corners of the building he was building.  He had been saving from his sawmill, cedar, cypress, and oak sawdust in burlap bags, and storing them in his barn for several years previously to dry.  As he continued putting the “lap siding” on this building he would mix the three kinds of sawdust together with the inside and the inside and the outside of the lap planks being 1 inch thick, and the interior wall filled and packed full of this mixture of sawdust.  He continued this process until he had, from the ground up, a building sixteen feet by sixteen feet, with 12 inch thick walls.

Everyone kept telling him that his building didn’t make any sense. What kind of crazy notion did he have?

He would just look at them and grin, and then go on about his business. He did that a lot.

After he had completed the outer walls, filled with sawdust, he put his ceiling joists in and began filling THAT with sawdust.  Then he went inside the building and started running two by fours from the ground to the ceiling every four foot against the walls, and four foot out from the walls.  Then he started cutting oak slats approximately 1 by 2 inches.  He nailed those between the two by fours putting two by fours every three feet making a ladder in all directions.

In the center of this building he put a coal stove and ran the stack out the ceiling.  The door (that he made) had heavy iron hinges, and was also  made with 2 by tens making it ten inches thick, and filled that with sawdust.  He then took the 1 by 2 inch planks and laid them over the 2 by fours.

He went into his field that he had planted that spring with sweet potatos, and dug out several wagon loads of sweet potatos.  He brought them from the field to this house, and started laying them out on the slats.  He had enough potatoes to fill only one small section of this building.

Grandpa told all of the farmers in the area:

“If you do not wish your potatos to ruin this winter when it freezes, you don’t have to bury them or keep them in a cellar to spoil.  I have built a potato house.  If you wish to pay me to store your potatos in a dry, clean area I will charge you fifty cents a month for each bin that you use.  OR, I will store your potatos right beside mine, and for each four bushels of potatos that I store for you, I will store one for me.  The potatos that I recieve from you are mine.  If you run out of potatos before winter is up, then you can buy back the bushel that you traded me for storage.”

All winter he kept this potato house a constant temperature with just a few lumps of coal because it was so well insulated.  In the summertime all he had to do was open a couple of draft doors at the bottom to let fresh air in, and the thick door in the front being only a screen door in the summer as an entrance door.  And in the middle of the summer when it was 80-90 degrees outside, the inside of this house would still be cool.  The entire community stored their potatos in this house for over 30 years, being able to go to this potato house and get potatos all the way up until the new crop of potatos came in next year.

Grandpa Jones did not allow anybody to go into the potato house and sort potatos after they had been put into the potato house.  If they picked up a potato, they were instructed that was the potato they had to take with them.  The reason for this is, once a sweet potato has been put into a bin, the liquids in it will settle to the bottom side of the potato.  If you pick this potato up after several months and turn it over, within a period of approximately 30 days it will start to rot.

When you put your potatos in his potato house, those were the rules.  And if you got potatos out of his potato house, HE WATCHED YOU, to make sure that you did not cause your own potatos to spoil.

NOTE – In the top of the potato house he had a place at the top of the ladders that you could hang your bunching onions, the ones that were dried and hung over a nail.  Irish potatos had a separate place in the potato house.  Because of the coolness at which they had to be stored, they were put on the bottom level.  Irish potatos are best kept, unmoved, same as sweet potatos, on dry straw, on the ground in this house because of the absolute constant temperature.



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