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Local History

Fantastic Caverns: The Story of a Commercial Cave

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http://ozarkspub.vo.llnwd.net/o37/KSMU/audio/mp3/fantastic-caverns-story-commercial-cave_32638.mp3

Here in “The Cave State,” natural caverns have served as shelter, meeting space, and places of wonder for humans for thousands of years. In more recent history, many of the most spectacular and accessible caves have been turned into tourist destinations. For our local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson reports on one such cave.

If you live within a stone’s throw of Springfield, it’s likely that you’ve seen the billboards for Fantastic Caverns. Well, maybe a little farther than stone-throwing distance; their signs dot the highways and their pamphlets line the shelves at hotels and visitor information centers. This cave’s glittering geologic features and interesting human history have made it a popular destination for tourists as well as locals for decades. I visited the caverns on a recent Tuesday and like all visitors, hopped aboard the most unique feature of the cave: the Jeep drawn tram. Our tour guide is Jill Joy.

“So we are pullin’ down.”

[SOUND: Little Girl: “Put the spotlight on, too!” laughter, key turning, engine starting, puttering engine]

Fantastic Caverns is the only drive-through cave in the United States, and one of only four in the world. The propane fueled trams drive into the side of the hill next to the large visitor’s center and gift shop. Inside the cave, we stop to look at some soil beds that were once used to grow mushrooms. There’s an opportunity to touch a “dead” spot on the cave ceiling, and a group picture is taken by a photographer perched on a slope.

[Sound:  tour continues]

We ride through various underground rooms and corridors as our guide shares numerous historical anecdotes and cave facts. There’s even a short film about the history of the cave shown on a mounted screen.

Numerous people have used the cave, some more savory than others, since its initial discovery in 1862.  It was found when the property owner’s dog ran into the small opening, likely in pursuit of a rabbit or squirrel, while they were hunting in the woods. The only natural entrance is only a couple feet across. I spoke with Kirk Hansen, the public relations director for Fantastic Caverns about what happened after that first chance finding.

“The cave sat empty for about five years and there’s a pretty good reason for that. The Civil War was going on and the property owners didn’t want a lot to do with the war. It was bad enough to have it in the region; they didn’t want to have it in their back yard.”

During the Civil War, many Missouri caves were occupied by Union or Confederate forces and were used to mine saltpeter, a key component of gunpowder. The cave wasn’t explored until after the war in 1867, when the owner, John Knox, placed an ad in a Springfield newspaper. The first official exploration took place just two weeks later by a group of 12 women from the Springfield Women’s Athletic Club. The women came with ladders, ropes, and lanterns to explore the underground halls. Their names are still smudged onto a cave wall.

The cave went through another period of disuse. The Ku Klux Klan briefly held meetings in the so-called Grand Ballroom. Just a couple years after the start of Prohibition in 1920, the cave was used by another organization that wanted to stay, well, underground.

“The cave was turned into a speakeasy of sorts. There was drinking and gambling and all sorts of carousing going on in the cave’s big room. There was a foot trail built from an enlarged area next to the natural entrance that went back to the cave’s auditorium.”

The club was shut down after several years by local law enforcement. For a short time in the late 1950s, the country music radio show, Farm-A-Rama was taped in the auditorium room.

“The Farm-A-Rama program had the house band, it had the house entertainers but they thrived on the visiting artists.”

Such stars as Tom T. Hall and Buck Owens graced the subterranean stage. There were numerous attempts at starting up commercial tours, but the first successful tours started when the Trimble family, owners of the Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre in Branson, purchased the cave.

They built bridges to span the two sinkholes and began the now-famous ride-through tours in the early 1960s. Hansen says that the changes they made were relatively non-invasive and ensured the cave could be seen as it was 100 years ago.

“It worked out with very few changes. We get to see a cave today, we get to see it easy. For lazy people like me that’s a plus, but we have a lot of families come in with someone in a wheelchair. Most wheelchairs go right on to the tour trams. There’s no reason for someone to be left behind and not be able to enjoy an attraction.”

Four-year-old Emma Kirk said that her favorite part was riding in the tram and seeing all the different rooms, and maybe everything about it.

“This is the best trip ever!”

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.