The back roads of the Flint Hills hold a certain charm.
The tires of a lone vehicle crunch the chert gravel on the unpaved roads. Sunflowers fill ditches and blue stem prairie grasses dance in the wind.
Then there are the ruins – stone fences leading to nowhere, walls of forgotten barns and houses and abandoned cellars crumbling in the grass.
They are the remnants of lost promises and dreams.
And they may be an emerging trend in Kansas tourism.
The Volland Store in Waubaunsee County has upped the number of tours of arched roof cellars and rural cemeteries it will host this fall. It offered six last year and will have eight this year.
The tours are by bus. Visitors travel over craggy, rough terrain to sites hidden well along the back roads on private land.
Interest in the tours has been fueled largely by a 2016 photography exhibit by Tom Parish, who grew up in the Flint Hills near Manhattan. Parish, while attending graduate school in photography at Kansas State University, began photographing and researching abandoned stone arched cellars.
What he discovered is that Kansas has a treasure.
Granted, almost every farm family that ever homesteaded had a root cellar or storm shelter.
But these are different.
They were built entirely out of stone – with arched ceilings – and used no wood or concrete supports. They are underground artisan wonders. He has documented more than 450 of these cellars and plans to write a book. Most of the stone arched cellars – reminiscent of European structures hundreds of years old – are located in Riley, Geary, Wabaunsee and Pottawatomie counties.
The cellars, he said, are the largest concentrations of this type of basement architecture in the world.
“Very few of these masons left any records,” Parish said. “We are one or two generations past knowing the answers. But they were built primarily by Germans and Swedes – by early homesteaders, some going back as the 1850s.”
When and why
It is hard to know Kansas without understanding the impact the Homestead Act of 1862 had on the state’s settlement. It has been called one of the most important pieces of legislation in the United States. From it, Kansas gained its diverse roots.
To acquire land under the act, a person had to pay a $10 filing fee, live on the land for five years, and cultivate and improve it. On the treeless plains of Kansas, families built dugouts and sod houses and strung miles of barbed wire, some using limestone posts hewn from native stone to string the wire.
Parish thinks these stone arched cellars – built by craftsmen in the rocky terrain of the Flint Hills – were the first structure a homesteading family lived in while a larger, more visible barn and then house were built. The underground cellars also were used as an early form of refrigeration. They kept foods cooler and were often packed in the winter with ice and straw.
Starting 10 years ago, Parish created a website, www.flinthillshelters.com., traveled the backroads, knocked on farmhouses and left fliers telling about his project.
Since then, word has spread about the cellars.
People want to see them for themselves.
So what’s the appeal?
“These cellars have been left to time,” Parish said. “You begin to notice the chisel marks and pattern of stone. I look at them as portraits.
“They are so discreet, you can be standing on top of them and – if you don’t know what to look for – not know they are there. They are like looking at a geode. You have to uncover it and crack it open to see something beautiful inside.”
Rob Meseke is a fence builder and comes from a fifth generation Waubaunsee ranching family. His great-great grandfather homesteaded in 1859, north of Alta Vista.
The 49-year-old Meseke never explored the cellars growing up.
“Never had time. I was working all the time,” he said. “I can’t say I was interested in the cellars until Tom Parish came along.”
Now, Meseke helps lead some of the tours. He says he’s come to appreciate the cellars’ appeal. On the tours, he shares his knowledge of the landscape plus stories passed down from generation to generation in his family.
“You can go into the caves and tell whether the Germans built them or Swedes by the way they are put together,” Meseke said. “They each had a different way of putting them together.”
Patty Reece, owner of the Volland Store, also helps to host the tours. In its heyday, Volland boasted about 150 residents. Now Reece is the only one left. But her century-old store has become a draw as an art and community center in the Flint Hills.
“All of a sudden, something that was taken for granted and considered ordinary is something of interest to people who have never seen them before,” Reece said.
Aging Baby Boomers and studious Millennials show the greatest interest in seeing the cellars, she said.
“I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could see the original thing,” Reece said. “Part of the appeal, I think, is that people are fascinated by going into other people’s cellars.”
How to take a tour
The Volland Store offers arched roof cellar and cemetery tours this fall, with more planned for spring Reservations must be made in advance.
When: Cellar tours are Sept. 16-17, 30 and Oct. 1, 14-15. Cemetery tours are Oct. 28-29. Each tour lasts about four hours. They start at 1 p.m.
Where: Go eight miles southwest of Alma on Old K-10 highway, then 1/4 mile south on Volland Road to the Volland Store.
Cost: $20 per person. Box lunches, for an additional $12, will be available prior to the tour.
For more: Go to thevollandstore.com or call Abby at 785-499-3616.