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In a Cave Rumored to Have Ties to Civil War, There’s Evidence of More Practical Uses

Claire Kidwell

Smallin Civil War Cave near Ozark has a rich history, dating back to right after the last Ice Age.  It was also a sacred space for the Osage tribes. But after the Osage moved to Kansas and Oklahoma, it became a community spot for pioneers and townfolk. 

Wanetta Bright, who owns the cave and surrounding property with her husband, took us back on a trip to see the cave through the eyes of local explorers.

She says the explorer Henry Schoolcraft came to this place, describing it as a “secret of the great works of nature.”

And while the name implies that the cave was used for strategic purposes during the Civil War, Bright says that has not been proven.

“Honestly, we were not the ones who named it that. It was first called Smallin’s Cave. A family named Smallin came here in 1852, they were some of the first homesteaders”

The locals also referred to the site as Smallin’s Cave.

Bright says in the 1960s a man named Joseph Bolger bought the property and turned the area into a Civil War tourist site

Bright says several people have found Civil War era artifacts and ammunition in the area.

“We found a 69 caliber Union mini ball that was unspent, and there have been folks that have found bullets, Union bullets, mini balls, all around the cave and the Finley River. Of course, that was where camp was located.”

She says the town of Ozark was a military base during the Civil War, so many soldiers would visit the cave when they were off duty.

“They were going back and visiting. Now, why would you go see a cave? Well, why did everybody go see the cave? When it’s 100 degrees, where are you going go cool off at? A cave that is very cool, 60 degrees once you get far enough in.”

Credit Claire Kidwell / KSMU News
A history plaque along the trail leading to the cave.

There is evidence that town picnics would be held in the cave, and some Civil War soldiers even left their initials along with pioneers and locals on the “Indian Staircase” formation.

Others used the cave’s cooler temperatures and internal spring water for more practical reasons.

“This is 54 degree water, and basically what that would do is it would keep the food from going bad, milk and eggs and butter. Back in the old days it would get hot, hot, hot, and the best way to keep things fresh was in spring boxes.”

Families would store these spring boxes in the cave, and use them sort of like refrigerators. The remains of one spring box can be found in a smaller cave around the bend from Smallin cave.

The property was also once used as a church camp, where the kids would go visit the cave.