Photographer treats practical Kansas structures as art, history

By Bryan Richardson

Tucked away from the road down the trail of branches and leaves, you don’t find a root cellar all that easily.

Many cellars are camouflaged into their surroundings, but if you happen to stumble upon a root cellar, you’ve found history.

Photographer Tom Parish has documented these cellars from the times of early Kansas settlers, and currently has an interactive exhibit on display at the Beach Museum of Art.

“Take Shelter” will be at the museum until May 25.

These old root cellars, which are built underground to provide a cooling effect, could be used to store vegetables and fruits, but also served other purposes.

Parish said the history of a particular cellar can be hard to determine, due to the lack of information.

“There’s not even the practical history of these things, and whether we look at them as homes or not,” he said. “They’ve just been kind of overlooked in every way.”

Parish described the root cellar as a “Swiss army knife structure.”

“Traditionally, if you look at how Europeans tended to use it, it was for wine and cheese and beer,” he said.

This also was a place that could serve as a storm shelter and place to live.

Root cellars can be found elsewhere, but Parish said the Flint Hills region is special, because of the stone material and number of cellars in the area.

“It’s definitely something I found curious,” he said. “Until I was 30-something, I’d maybe seen two of these in my life.”

One of those times was when he saw a cellar by a lake as a little kid.

“We never went into it,” he said. “We were kind of freaked out by it. It was totally dark inside.”

He saw his second one after returning from post-bachelor work at the University of Missouri in 2005.

Parish said his friend lived in a basement apartment on Moro Street that had a root cellar.

He said he started to hear about more cellars in the area, which led to him to starting his research more than two years ago.

“I thought I might find 20 or 25 or a few dozen, tops,” Parish said.

That modest projection turned into nearly 300 cellars discovered in Clay, Geary, Jackson, Marshall, Morris, Pottawatomie, Riley, Wabaunsee and Washington counties.

The project took a lot of time, as he’d spend three to seven hours spent taking 700 to 1,000 pictures for each 360-degree photo, he said.

“When I first started this, it was really trying to bring out the beauty within the rubble,” Parish said.

Parish said the historical aspect of the project came when he realized there wasn’t much known about the cellars.

He created a website, flinthillshelters.com, to provide information for the public.

“When I started to realize they were so rare everywhere else with an important unknown history behind them, I decided to make it much more of a documentary,” he said.

The project received partial funding from the Patty and Jerry Reece Family Foundation and the Kansas Humanities Council.

Tracy Quillin, council communications director, said the organization decided to provide a grant because the project provided a look at how the early settlers lived in this area.

“They could engage in the root cellar’s history with Kansas in a unique way,” she said. “They also had education programs to put these cellars in context.”

Theresa Bembnister, one of the museum curators, said the subject matter is important to the Flint Hills.

“They’re really particular to the history, geography and even weather of the region,” she said.

Bembnister said the exhibit produces a learning environment that is atypical.

The installation includes a construction hallway designed to capture the feeling of being in a root cellar — with pictures on both sides and audio from a cellar playing as background.

Parish said the sound is similar to a seashell effect.

“It’s almost like a ground microphone,” he said. “You can hear things from way far off.”

There is also a place to listen to audio from area residents as they recount what they’ve heard about root cellars from their relatives.

“It’s something you can see and hear,” Bembnister said. “It’s an immersive experience.”









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