It was a cellar, school and racetrack


“In the winter, Mom hung everything from white sheets to Dad’s heavy denim work pants on the lines that stretched between the rafters in the basement. The effect was that of a maze of clothes with a smell that mingled damp clean with wood smoke from the furnace. When I was little, my sisters and I rode our tricycles round and round the stove and in and out of the laundry.”

— Carol Bodensteiner

“Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl”

While reading the memoir of Carol Bodensteiner, so many memories of daily chores of childhood came rushing back, some just a dim glimmer of how we spent our days.

The old cellars of those aging farmhouses were certainly not pretty, but they served a purpose that no other part of the house could quite accomplish.

When my parents moved to the house we all called home, a coal furnace was installed. I remember hearing the coal truck come, the sound of those black rocks being dropped in the cellar chute. Once in a while, I felt important when Dad would ask me to go check how much coal remained, knowing to call for delivery of more.

In the worst of winter, my sisters and I would play in the cellar. The old crank telephone had been moved down there when the dial telephone was installed and we would put it to use as we played house, our tricycles and pedal tractors a part of the act.

“Doc Smith just called,” one of us would say in our pretend voice. “You better meet him at the barn to check on a down cow.”

We could pretend we had a ranch filled with horses, or that we lived in a beautiful apartment in the city. Imagination set no boundaries.

There was an old pantry down in the cellar, and we would stir up all sorts of fancy meals in our imaginary world, and I would serve endless cups of coffee and cookies just as I had seen my mother do so well.

The coffee pot was always ready at our home, and many times Dad would bring a delivery man inside for a cup, just to warm up and get to know one another better. Anyone wanting to stop in for a cup of coffee and cake or cookies was always welcome, no matter the time of day.

In our house-playing world in the cellar, the stairs served as our school. It was warm there, near the old furnace. When the sister playing teacher said our studies were over, we retreated to the larger room and hopped on our tricycles and celebrated freedom.

Invisible cousins, neighbors, doctors, and total strangers all paid a visit in our on-going play. There was usually a “bad guy” we were trying to hide from, though, in our innocence, I don’t think we really had a clue what kind of threat a bad fellow might actually bring.

When the fun ran out, we retreated to the real world going on upstairs or outside.

“Wash your hands — you all look filthy!” Mom would remind us every time.

All these years later, I can still recall the unique scent of that old cellar, a mixture of the dirt floor, coal and ash, along with our barn coveralls and coats hanging on hooks near the stairs.

It won’t ever be made into a scented candle, but I bet if you were a farm kid in those olden days you know exactly what I’m talking about.


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  1. Hi, Judith,
    Thanks for reading my memoir Growing Up Country. I’m delighted that it triggered growing up memories of your own for you to share with your family and readers. I often think of the basement on our farm. What fun we had there. Best to you.


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