Standing in front of Tom Parish’s enormous photographs of stone cellars — the largest is 17 feet wide and 8 feet tall — the first thing you do is look up.
Vaulted ceilings of rough stone curl over your head; the detail is so crisp you want to reach up and touch the cold, scratchy surface of the rock.
Next you scan the middle of the 360-degree photos, noting the doorways where light pours down the steps from the unseen world outside and, on the other side, the solid back walls.
Then you lower your gaze to take in objects littering the dirt floor: Mason jars shrouded in decades-deep dust, cider jugs with peeling paper neck labels, a chair with the back rotted away.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Web developers call websites where people spend a lot of time “sticky.”
Parish’s “Take Shelter,” through Jan. 30 at the Box Gallery, is a sticky exhibit.
Robin Trafton, curator of the gallery inside the Commerce Bank Building at 1000 Walnut St., says the photographs exert a powerful pull.
“People outside in the arcade walk past the gallery, and then I see them do a double take and come in,” Trafton says.
Once inside, she says, visitors spend significantly longer standing in front of each photograph than is typical with most artworks.
Jonathan Kemper, chairman of the bank’s Kansas City region, stumbled across the exhibit at the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University when he was in Manhattan for a board meeting.
“I didn’t realize I had this lack of knowledge about cellars. They are part of our regional heritage, and Tom has captured them with great artistry using a unique panoramic technique. I wanted to bring the exhibit here to give it a wider audience,” Kemper says.
Parish, who teaches photography at Emporia State University, spent two years seeking out and photographing native stone, arched-roof cellars in the northern Flint Hills region of Kansas.
Lots of farmsteads around the country and around the world have root cellars or storm shelters. It was the arched ceilings made entirely of stone, with no wood or concrete supports, that captured Parish’s interest.
“These places look like they could have been thousands of years old. They are reminiscent of these stone structures you see all around the world but that are much older and were probably built for entirely different purposes,” Parish says.
As Parish bounced his car around back roads in 11 counties in search of arched-roof cellars, he made two discoveries: The arched-roof cellars were more prevalent than he ever imagined, and yet there was a confounding lack of information about them.
Parish has found nearly 300 so far, mostly in Riley, Geary, Wabaunsee and Pottawatomie counties. Those four counties appear to contain the highest concentration of such structures in the world.
But despite spending countless hours combing through historical archives, Parish could find no photographs, drawings, ledgers or diary entries that explain how the cellars were built, the names of the masons who built them, or what they were originally used for.
“It was just all these unanswered questions,” Parish says.
At the same time Parish was spending hours underground working out how to create super-high-definition, 360-degree photographs of the insides of the vaulted-ceiling stone cellars, an anthropology professor from the University of Kansas, Jack Hofman, stumbled upon similar structures in Republic County, just west of the Flint Hills.
Hofman was excavating a pre-1800s Pawnee Indian village, wanting to compare timbers in the Pawnee lodges to timbers in barns built later by European settlers.
Once he started exploring nearby historical farmsteads, he says, “The caves sucked me in.”
The arched stone cellars represent a perfect confluence of geology, terrain and migrants, Hofman says. Stone was plentiful, there were no trees to provide lumber for wooden roofs or scaffolds, and the settlers who came pouring into Kansas between 1850 and 1890 came from countries with traditions of building with stone: Czechoslovakia, Germany, Sweden and Ireland.
“These cellars were not built hastily. They were built with a European mindset that their descendants would still be living there and using them 200 years later,” Hofman says.
“Between 1850 and 1890 you see a huge influx of people, and they build all these structures — caves and barns and homes — and by 1900 they start walking away,” Hofman says, defeated by harsh weather, drought, wind sickness and rocky soil that would not yield to the plow.
Built for permanence, the arched-roof stone cellars are often the last remnants of abandoned homesteads and ghost towns across the tallgrass prairie, the last witness to a brief era of great expectations followed by devastating loss.
Parish’s interest in the caves grew out of two encounters with the structures.
The first came when he was a boy of 9 or 10, living on a remote stand of prairie outside Manhattan.
“We didn’t have cable TV, so the wilderness was the entertainment,” Parish says. One day, he and some pals came upon what looked like a pile of rocks in the middle of a field. It turned out to be the entrance to a cave, and the boys, afraid, dared one another to go into it. They ran down inside and immediately back out again without pausing to examine the inside.
Parish, now 37, could not locate the cave recently when he tried to find it. “Memory is very unreliable when it comes to distance and direction,” he says.
The second cave he discovered, in 2007, was a Cadillac of sorts, built behind a stone house on Moro Street in Manhattan by a mason who worked on some of the original buildings on the K-State campus.
Parish was wowed by the workmanship and created a panoramic image of it.
Then he began to wonder: How many more of these are out there?
Four years later, the idea for the “Take Shelter” project jelled, and Parish got it funded through grants. The hunt was on.
Parish hit the old highways and county roads in his car, looking for the telltale mounds covering the tops of caves, as locals called them. When he spotted them, Parish would walk to the closest farmhouse and knock on the door, leaving behind crude fliers about his project if no one was home.
When he found descendants of the original owners, he recorded their stories.
We never had electricity so we had no way to keep anything cool and it was very important to have a cave… We took our eggs down every day and kept them there until Saturday, and then we all went to town and sold the eggs and that was what she had for her money… I spent a lot of time with my grandma down there (in the cave) cleaning eggs. The top part (of the cave) was used for smoking meat and washing once a week…
— Beulah (Bankey Reuter) Herbic of Alma, memories of her grandparents’ cave in Wabaunsee County
I remember along one wall there was some racks and wooden barrels there, and I can remember… Grandpa and Dad and the neighbors down there having a glass of wine or a glass of beer after a harvest day or a Sunday morning after church… If it was hot outside, on 90-, 100-degree days in the summertime… they’d go down there and that was a place where you could cool down, and in the wintertime… it was warm enough that we could go down and play basketball in there in a sweatshirt.
— Terry Dekat of Manhattan, memories his grandfather’s cave in Pottawatomie County
We used the cave house for storing vegetables from the garden and my mother’s canned goods. My grandfather Jennings was a carpenter, and he built wonderful deep bins to hold potatoes and onions.… Of course, we did go to the cave when there were storms. We didn’t have television until 1957, but in the night if somebody thought we ought to go to the cave house, or during the day if the radio said we should go to the cave house, or if there was a tornado in the area we would go to the cave.… We had a large family, but there was plenty of room for us, and, yeah, some would get up on the shelves, and some would get in the bins and we would wait until the storm subsided.
— Glenna Walter Harrison of Wichita, memories of her grandparents’ cave in Riley County
Tracking down people with memories of the caves was tedious, but making the photographs was grueling, physically and mentally.
Parish’s panorama technique requires setting up a tripod inside the cave and shooting up to 1,000 images over the course of three to six hours. Constant adjustments are needed to deal with changing light and parallax shifts in focus, so Parish has to stand in one spot while half the cave is photographed and then move to the other side of the tripod to shoot the other half.
At 6-feet-3, Parish was able to stand up inside most of the caves, but in some he spent entire sessions slightly stooped.
The caves were cleaner and housed fewer critters than Parish expected.
“A lot of people just see a black hole, and your imagination takes over. People avoid them because of the idea of snakes, but I saw maybe three snakes in 300 caves,” he says.
On the other hand, Parish says the caves have a seashell-like quality where things from much farther away sound closer than they are.
The amplification combined with not being able to see outside was unnerving.
Once, Parish was photographing inside a cave where a few hundred yards away, neighbors were riding ATVs and hanging around a bonfire.
As soon as he got his equipment set up, he started hearing the “tat-tat-tat-tat-tat” of semi-automatic rifles. The gunfire and ATV engines sounded like they were just outside the cave entrance.
“I had this paranoid thought of going out with my arms raised, and then I thought, ‘No they’ll just have to come in and get me,’ and it just continued for hours,” he says.
Another time, on a bright 100-degree day, Parish covered the entrance to a cave he was shooting with parachute-like fabric to diffuse the light.
The cave was only 5 feet tall, so Parish had to bend over or crouch the entire time.
“I was almost immediately struck with neck and back pain and quickly developed a headache,” he says.
As he continued shooting, Parish realized the floor was covered in run-off cow manure; he was breathing in methane gas, and the fabric over the entrance limited the supply of oxygen.
Hours later, when Parish climbed out, he collapsed on the ground, unable to get up for nearly an hour. On the drive home he had to stop several times to vomit.
Not long after he started the project, a personal tragedy added to the rigors of shooting: Parish and his wife lost a baby through stillbirth.
Inside the caves, Parish says, “I felt like I was inside a mausoleum sometimes; that was a pretty rough time. But I was able to be by myself and confront feelings … it was a peaceful isolation.” (The couple have two children now, ages 6 and 1.)
Hofman and Parish learned of each other after Parish’s exhibit at the Beach gallery opened. The two met, and Parish accompanied Hofman to some caves in Republic County. Parish also invited Hofman to explore caves in Wabaunsee County.
The chief difference between the caves in the two regions is the stone. The Flint Hills caves, most built in the 1850s, are made from smaller, individual stones found on and near the surface. The arched caves in Republic County, to the west in Post Rock Country, named for its massive shelves of limestone, were built in the 1860s out of blocks of cut and jointed stone, giving them a smoother, more uniform look.
As an anthropologist, Hofman says he is always looking for details that might lead to a specific mason or culture.
“The niches, the orientation of the stone and other elements of construction seemed to pattern differently depending on where you came from and how you did it in the old country,” he says.
When Parish first began to go into the caves, he assumed they were built as root cellars or storm shelters.
But the more he saw, the more that didn’t add up. Why were they so large, typically 15 to 17 feet long? Why did the opening frequently face south, which didn’t make sense if you were trying to keep food cool in summer? Why did the caves have windows, some with glass panes, built-in hearths, niches that appeared designed to hold oil lamps?
A theory began to take hold in Parish’s mind: Could it be that the caves were built to be lived in until a larger above-ground house could be constructed?
Historical photographs abound of Kansas settlers next to sod houses farther to the west. But, Parish points out, in the Flint Hills where there were virtually no trees and the soil was very shallow and rocky, a sod house couldn’t be built very easily.
Also, in the 1850s when many of the stone caves were built, there were no photographers in the area, Parish says. By the time people like Alexander Gardner were coming through documenting frontier life in the late 1860s and 1870s, the people who had lived in the stone caves would have moved to their next house or picked up and left all together.
Parish found many clues that pointed to people having lived in the cellars: oral stories of three brothers living in “caves” near the Riley-Pottawatomie county line for seven years while they built stone homes; stories of caves built near railroads for workers to live in; stories of children born in caves.
Some people are skeptical of the notion that stone caves were the first structures built on many properties and that people lived in them. But Parish had two eureka moments that support that theory.
First, he found a photo found through Kansas Historical Society that shows women sitting outside the entrance to a stone cellar and the word “dugout” handwritten on the front.
“I have very little doubt that they were living there,” Parish says.
Even more convincing was a cave Parish discovered in northern Riley County in the middle of a field. Parish had already been in 250 or so caves and frustratingly could find no artifacts that pointed to habitation.
Parish approached the cave and stuck his head in. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw a bed and a stove. They had been there so long the sediment was up to the level of the bed springs.
“The question was when was that old iron bed put there? I know there are stories of transients living in the caves in the ’30s, but in that place I could imagine the original family having lived in it,” he said.
Another mystery is technical: How did masons build the arched roofs? A New England author sent Parish drawings of how he thinks the arched roofs were constructed on wooden forms.
Parish was persuaded. Until he talked to Hofman.
“Two things make me think no scaffolds were used,” Hofman says. “If you put yourself back to 1860, and you have hand tools and very few dollars and no dimension lumber, it would be a huge expense to build a scaffold, but the rock was free and plentiful.”
Second, Hofman saw centuries-old arched-roof stone wine caves in France once and asked what kind of framework was used. He learned the stones were stacked on a dirt mound with no framework.
So that construction method would have been known to European masons.
An excavation of a stone cave in Republic County confirmed Hofman’s theory. When he dug out sideways from the outside wall, he discovered a trench 5 feet wide and deeper than the level of the floor, filled with smaller rocks and crushed rock for drainage.
“With the dirt they dug out, they were able to create a mound the shape they wanted the ceiling to be and lay the rocks against it,” Hofman says. When the outside walls and arch were completed, they dug out the dirt on the inside, down to the level where they wanted the floor.
“They were truly engineered,” Hofman says.
The extensive drainage trenches, side walls and floors are hidden from sight. The arched roof is topped by a mound of dirt and often a scattering of stones to hold the dirt in place. Only a stone arch at the entrance is visible, giving the caves the eerie look of ancient ruins or Stone Age burial mounds, especially when they are the lone structure in a sea of tall grass or a lonely tangle of creek-line brush.
By the end of the 1920s, arched-roof caves were no longer of interest. The railroads had extended into the area, bringing lumber and concrete that could be used to make cellar tops more easily.
Many properties with caves were abandoned, and electrification in the 1930s lessened the need for them on farms that were still occupied.
Hofman says that although the art of Parish’s photographs “hits you in the face,” it has an even greater significance.
“For me as an anthropologist to know whether this floor was dirt or rock or paving stones, we have to dig, and if we dig, we disturb it. Tom has documented that for us,” Hofman says.
Parish has created an important historical record, as well, since many of the caves are gone and the rest are endangered.
There are rational reasons why farmers and ranchers bulldoze and fill in the caves: liability, safety for livestock and humans, tax burden and the inconvenience of working around them, especially if they are in the middle of a cultivated field.
Hofman says Parish did everything right — contacting land owners and getting permission to go in the caves, as nearly all are on private property, and learning about the histories of the properties and the descendants of the original families.
“When you enter that world it’s more like medieval Europe than modern Kansas. You would think you were in a different world when you see the architecture and design, and Tom’s photographs give you an entrance into that hidden world,” he says.
Hofman and Parish hope to team up to do more collaborative research into the caves. Parish would like to investigate how far south in the Flint Hills the structures extend — they start to thin out in counties such as Chase, where much larger parcels of land were given out to settlers.
Parish would also like to create more 360-degree photographs and print some existing ones larger. The resolution of his photos allows them to be printed up to 25 feet wide, if he can raise the money for the printing and figure out how to transport such large works.
Hofman, perhaps working with Parish, would like to contact descendants of the original builders and find out exactly which part of Czechoslovakia or Sweden or Ireland their ancestors came from.
“Then I would like to go to that place and see if this building technique is just transplanted, and I think it is,” he says with a smile.
Where to see native stone arched-roof cellars
Most of the existing stone caves are on private land. A map on Tom Parish’s website, FlintHillShelters.com, is intentionally vague about the exact locations because it is illegal to hike on private property even if no one is living there. Here are a few that are on public land or that may be visited with permission:
▪ Paxico rest area on Interstate 70: The Alois Stech cellar is between the east and west rest areas, built into a hillside opposite a picnic shelter. It is gated off, but you can look inside.
▪ Fort Riley caves: The military reservation covers 100,000 acres in Geary and Riley counties, much of it former farmland. There are three easy-to-find arched-roof caves on the grounds. To hike at Fort Riley, you must register on FortRiley.iSportsman.net and check the website to be sure a given area is not in use.
1) C.M. Dyche cave: Just inside the Ogden entrance, take the first right and park immediately on the side of the road. Walk north up a shallow ravine west of the road a couple of hundred yards. The cave opening in an embankment faces northeast.
2) J.T. Pritier cave: Turn into one of the small “parking spots” on the south side of Anderson Road west of the town of Keats. The cave is a quarter mile past where Anderson curves to the northwest and there is a gated-off road. Walk through the gate and southeast 50 yards across an open field. The cave is in the southeast corner of the field and opens northeast.
3) Unnamed cellar: Continue a quarter mile farther west on Anderson Road and park in another turn-in. Forty yards past the turn-in, you’ll see remnants of a porch with columns. The cellar opens to the east.
▪ Auto route south of Alma, Wabaunsee County: To see caves from the road, drive south on Kansas 99 and turn east on Skyline Road, then south on Hessdale Road.
▪ Mission Valley Ranch, Alma Division: Contact owners Bill and Kathy Hogue at MissionValleyRanch.com for permission to see a restored arched-roof cellar on their property.
To see photos of many cellars, listen to more oral histories or report an arched-roof cellar if you know who owns it, go to FlintHillShelters.com.
“Take Shelter” runs through Jan. 30 at the Box Gallery, 1000 Walnut St. in the Commerce Bank Building. Hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free. TheBoxGallery.org