Last Sunday was one of those rare spring-like days in the Central Plains, where most spring days mimic winter or summer.
The clear sunshine warmed my cheeks as I watched a buzzard — the first sign of spring according to locals — glide on invisible roller coaster currents of air.
The breeze was light, perfect for sowing seeds, watering, mowing. Peony and lily shoots were jutting out of the soil like eager children raising their hands: Look at me, I’m up! I’m too experienced to be caught off guard by late April freezes, so I made a mental note to cover those beds with dry leaves.
I had also cleared a site to dig trenches for an asparagus bed, but when I flipped open my laptop to find instructions for planting depth I was distracted by a comment a (real life) friend posted on one of my landscape photos on Facebook: “I’m thinking of busting open the cellar today.”
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In my former life in the city, that would have been an invitation to drink wine. But my rural Chase County friend, Scott Dawson, was responding to an earlier plea to check out the inside of a boarded-up stone cellar built into a rocky hillside on his property.
I had first noticed the cellar with its rectangular rough-cut stone entrance on a snowy Sunday when Scott’s wife, Elexa, hosted an anti-Superbowl music jam.
Scott’s grandparents moved their house, the house he now lives in, to the site after a flood in 1951. Scott and Elexa took the property over about six months ago, after his grandfather passed away and his grandmother moved into a nursing home.
I had recently reported a story about arched roof stone caves in the Kansas Flint Hills and was curious about whether the ceiling inside Scott and Elexa’s cave was vaulted stone.
“I’m 32 years old and I’ve never been inside it,” Scott told me. “When I was a kid, my grandparents always told me, ‘Don’t go in there!’”
Besides being fascinated with the architecture of vaulted-ceiling caves, I love the stuff often left in them: thick Mason jars with glass lids and wire bails; cider (or moonshine) jugs, butter churns and molds, milk cans. The artifacts conjure a way of life that is as vanished as Ancient Greece.
So I put away the garden tools, loaded a cooler into the trunk and drove to the other side of the county.
When I got to the Dawson place, Scott had pried off the plywood that had sealed the entrance. He jumped inside, grabbed a dust-shrouded oil lamp and joked, “They were expecting us.”
But we didn’t need any additional light to see that the walls of rough-cut rectangular limestone blocks vaulted gracefully to form a barrel-shaped ceiling nearly 7 feet high in the center. The vaulted ceiling dates the cave to the period from the late 1850s, when Chase County was first settled, to the early 1870s, when the railroad came through, bringing concrete and dimension lumber that offered easier ways to build cellar ceilings.
The floor of the cave, roughly 8 feet by 10 feet, was blanketed with hundreds of old blue glass-lidded canning jars. Most were empty but a half dozen had unidentifiable remains of preserves; the contents remain a mystery because decades of moist air and limestone dust had glazed the jars with a thick chalky film and glued the rubber seals to the lids.
Elexa pulled out two pretty vases made of milk glass with intricate raised designs. Scott found a “regulation Tang pitcher,” straight-sided glass with a mod orange handle and lid and joked, “You had to drink the Tang out of one of these pitchers, had to.”
But my favorite find was a fat glass cracker jar with a metal lid filled with old matchbooks, many from businesses in the county seat of Cottonwood Falls, which used to be a much larger town than it is today. “Ochs Cleaners / Pickup and Delivery / After Hours Use Clothes Chute,” one read.
Another was for “Haskell Motors / ’54 Ford, Value Check It! / Phone 95, Cottonwood Falls.”
There was no gold bullion or John Steuart Curry painting hidden behind a paint-by-numbers canvas, but I couldn’t have felt any more like Indiana Jones standing in the cool, mineral-scented dugout, imagining the Old World immigrants who built it to shelter their seeds and food from rain and themselves from the violent winds that rip across the prairie in spring.
The latter use is why my friends wanted to unseal and clear out the cellar. Elexa was raised in Crawford, Okla., so she doesn’t take tornado season lightly. “I want a ’fraidy hole by April,” she said smiling but with a serious look in her dark brown eyes.