Wednesday, May 11, 2016

1: Taking Shelter

Back in January and February, there was an event at the Volland Store southwest of Alma that was of photographs that Tom Parish took of arched cellars in the Flint Hills. He spent several years documenting over 300 man-made caves around the Flint Hills from the Nebraska border through Morris County and photographing over 55 of them in beautiful 360 degree images. The cellars/caves/shelters were used for cold storage, storm shelters, short-term dwellings, and many other things. When I first read about the project in the Kansas City Star, I found it fascinating and wandered through Parish’s website, clicking on the little triangles where he had found cellars. On two Saturdays in February, the Volland Store offered cellar tours which I was unable to go on because of previous plans and lack of money. Then they offered another couple of tours in April which I was able to do. The tour also gave me a reason to wander Alma and return to the ghost town of Volland which I hadn’t been to since 2009. It was amazing to see how the old brick Kratzer Store transformed into the Volland Store, an modern art gallery, gathering place, and guest room. It was inspiring to see the center of a community no longer around still serving the communities that are.

The fairly large group of us boarded a school bus and headed off back to Alma where we stopped at Palenske Hall, a building that used to be a saloon and then a bank. It is currently used for the Wabaunsee County Economic Development and Emergency Management. The cellar was probably used to house alcohol. Palenske Hall was built in 1873 and rebuilt in 1890 after a fire. Since this cellar was actually used for storage for a business, it was one of the larger we were in with a height of eight feet.


After Palenske Hall, we headed south out of Alma on K-99 toward Lake Wabaunsee. A couple miles west, we pulled into an almost abandoned property--a house had been torn down years ago and only steps to it remained. There were two caves on this property, one was 7 feet in height but was filled with water so inaccessible for exploration. The other cellar had two chambers, both 5 ½ feet tall and built into the banks of a creek.
The smaller cellar with water.

The bigger cellar outer arch. Note hanging stones in doorway to second cellar.

Inside the second cellar chamber.

Steps to the house that was demolished years ago.
We headed back to Alma but turned onto Low Water South Road toward Hessdale Road. We saw two cellars in the vicinity of a place called Thoesville, a small community that apparently vyed for county seat against Alma. I can’t find any information on Thoesville except on old maps showing the abundance of Thoes in the area. The “town” supposedly had a post office which is not listed on the Kansas Historical Society’s post office list but small post offices serving only a few residences are abundant in Kansas. We only got to see the exterior of these two Thoesville cellars. The first was built behind the post office, the second was constructed on top of what is called Lookout Hill and was said to be a hideout for bootleggers and bandits. Wild Bill Hickok is said to have used the cellar at one point.
The cellar built behind the Thoesville post office.

The cellar on Lookout Hill.

We continued along Hessdale Road to the Elmer and Evelyn Zeckser property just past Alma City Lake. Elmer and Evelyn were married in the 1930s, Elmer’s father, Frederick, moved his family into a beautiful stone house around the turn of the century. The stone house was considered the most beautiful stone house in the county and built in the 1880s or 1890s. In the 1940s, a wood frame house was built to the north of the stone house. The stone house was rented out for the next several years until it became abandoned. Due to cracking in the walls, the Zecksers, for reasons unknown to Evelyn, tore down the house. Evelyn recalled that she had no pictures of the house where she had started raising her family. The cellar was built into the hill near the stone house and had a covered entrance attached to the house. 7 ½ feet tall, this was my favorite cellar of the ones that we saw.


I believe this slight level rise with a dismantled stone foundation
was the location of the old stone house that stood for more than
50 years.
The next cellar was built into an embankment and seemed to have been recently restored. Stone wall ruins still stand a top of the cellar and part of the original house sits to the west. The property owners allowed us to view their other outbuildings including a renovated barn that is now a guest house, an outdoor stone fireplace, and a round silo.


The ruins of the original house.

The round stone silo.

The last, and largest cellar, was at an agricultural site called StoneBridge, the original homestead of Christian and Magnalena Kuenzli. In 1859, the Kuenzli’s moved to Wabaunsee County where they became involved in many different ventures including livestock, a vineyard, and cheese manufacturing. The cheese business failed due to weather and problems getting the cheese to market. The cellars were built in 1860 and 1861, are 8 and 10 feet high. In 1905, a fire mostly destroyed the house and it was rebuilt to be a barn. The land stayed in the Kuenzli family for 145 years before being passed to Bill and Kathy Hogue in 2004 who spent years renovating the barn and the nearby summer house.
The former house-cum-barn, now a museum commemorating
local agriculture.

The summer house.

A newly built stone wall with the ruins of another Kuenzli house
in the background.

This was something close to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and if other tours are offered I highly recommend signing up. For more information on the cellars, you can go to flinthillshelters.com. For more information on The Volland Store, go to thevollandstore.com and for more information on StoneBridge, go to missionvallyranch.com/stonebridge.

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