Story and photos
by Valerie Verkamp
Hidden among the limestone bluffs and dense forest floor inside Weston Bend State Park is a landmark once vital to the endurance of products and goods against the harsh elements of nature.
Beautifully crafted by hand in the early 1830's, this Pensineau Cellar provided an ideal climate condition for the storage of food, animal furs, alcohol, and other desired personal items.
Before the first mechanical refrigeration unit, early American settlers constructed cellars, like this Pensineau Cellar, to at least slow down the inevitable decaying process of perishable items.
Folks wanting to get a glimpse of this unique piece of local history now have the opportunity. The first Missouri State Park audio tour is now available by means of a cell phone connection inside Weston Bend State Park.
Just off the North Ridge Trail in the park, the foundation to the Pensineau Cellar is clearly visible. A mound of limestone rock marks the entryway to the 20 feet long and 15 feet wide root cellar.
Inside, a constant cool temperature fills the 10-foot high space.
Matt Carletti, a park superintendent at Weston Bend State Park, said most visitors find the craftsmanship quite impressive despite the largely off-center entry door.
“It's pretty amazing to think that something from the 1830's has been here this long. If you look at it, the cellar is really pristine and we want to keep it that way,” said Carletti.
Today, exactly who constructed the 1830's cellar remains a mystery. Archeologists hired to examine the cellar say it was constructed by a pretty meticulous craftsman.
“That (such a meticulous craftsman) would have been hard to find in this particular area during that time period,” said Carletti. “That makes the cellar even more intriguing.”
It is thought to be built by handwork. Lots of digging. Limestone along the Missouri River bluff was chiseled down into functional-sized pieces.
Historians say the cellar, named after a French Canadian fur trader, was part of a tavern and trading house during the 1830's.
Carletti said the arched doorway to the cellar led local historians to believe a trading house stood just adjacent to the cellar.
Another indicating factor the cellar was used for more than just the storage of domestic goods for a single-family is its sheer size.
According to researchers, a small township known at the time as Rialto, existed on the banks of the Missouri River just outside of Weston. Settlers of Rialto operated a ferryboat that took passengers back and forth across the Missouri River to the establishment of Fort Leavenworth, said Carletti.
Carletti said the primary reason for the construction of the trading house and cellar was to provide products for soldiers at Fort Leavenworth, as well as Native Americans.
“This being an outpost for the West at this time is most interesting,” he said. “It is symbolic of early America entrepreneurism. These guys came and settled in a relatively wild region of the country. They set up a trading post which was a pretty important service to provide at the time. It was also important for the Fort as well.”
But years later, one of the products sold ultimately led to its demise.
Lee A. Wilhite, a researcher for the Platte County Historical Society, wrote in a letter addressed to park officials that Rialto “became little more than a place for whiskey and gambling for Fort Leavenworth personnel, and was ultimately shut down at the insistence of the Fort.”
Shortly thereafter, the parcel of land became Fort Leavenworth property and later sold to the Coffee Family, said Carletti.
“The location of Rialto is actually where Fort Leavenworth was supposed to have been built, but at that location it was swampy bottomland, and not suited for construction of buildings. The opposite shore, on the left bank, was chosen because it was higher ground, and besides, many folks thought it had to be on the left bank if it was going to amount to anything,” wrote Wilhite.
When the property on which Weston Bend is located was acquired by the state in 1980 as park property, it was known the historical cellar rested near the Missouri River. But it wasn't until 2002 before the cellar underwent a complete historically-correct restoration. Off the beaten trail, it laid relatively unnoticed until an Eagle Scout project connected the landmark with the park's trail system.
Currently, other features along the audio tour of Weston Bend State Park include a 1940's corn picker and 1880's Missouri River Survey Marker.
Visitors to the 1100 acre park can also view one of the five historic tobacco barns. In front of the barn is a display passing down the local tobacco history. It certainly doesn't end there, as a scenic overlook, miles of hiking trails, and year round camping are also features to be enjoyed.
Weston Bend State Park is open year round from 7 a.m. to sunset.