Standing under a tin-roof pavilion in rural Christian County, several historians and I watch closely as Dr. Milton Rafferty thumbs through a series of topographic maps. Laid out over a picnic table, the retired emeritus professor of geography at Missouri State University is retracing the steps of the famous explorer whose geologic survey helped map much of the Ozarks.
“Well we’re looking at Schoolcraft’s destination when he came out to find the lead mines which were near present day Springfield. And he’s at the mouth of Pearson Creek on the James River,” Rafferty explains.
Rafferty, who wrote the book Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal, is referring to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who along with companion Levi Pettibone began an expedition through this region in November 1818.
“I often wondered why he waited until winter but I think he had been told that summer wasn’t a real good time to travel with all the ticks and bugs and stuff,” Rafferty quips.
On this overcast June morning, our group has met northeast of Ozark at Smallin Cave, which is anything but with a 55-foot tall and 100-foot wide entrance, and concrete walkway extending 550 feet inside. It was once inhabited by Osage Indians and believed to be used for Civil War-related activities. It was the first documented cave in the Ozarks, thanks to Schoolcraft and the journal he would later publish. The present day name of the cave, and the stream that passes through it, comes from Gerry and Jane Smallin, who purchased the property in 1852.
“The roof of this cave used to go past even the Schoolcarft sign down there. And over the millennia, has collapsed back to this point. So as big as this cave is now, it was even bigger in the past,” says Fuller.
We’ve tagged along with a group of fourth through eighth-grade students from Stockton on its tour of Smallin Cave. Our guide is staff archeologist Eric Fuller, who outside of giving tours has been working with the Osage to create a publication analyzing how this land was used during the tribe’s occupation.
Referencing his chin curtain beard and bushy eyebrows, Fuller directs the students to signage just outside the cave’s entrance.
“This is the man I try and look like. Let’s say it together, say Henry… Rowe…Schoolcraft. 65 Highway as it passes by Springfield is known as Schoolcraft Highway. That’s because in 1818 and 1819 Mr. Schoolcraft and his friend Levi Pettibone did for the Ozarks what Lewis and Clark had done for the Missouri River Valley; they did the first scientific survey of the region.”
Throughout the roughly hour-long tour, Fuller offers evidence of the cave’s Civil War connections, and points out examples of its many formations and environmental data, as well as its wildlife inhabitants, past and present.
Smallin Cave is one of more than 800 caves in Christian County alone. Kevin Bright and his wife Wanetta own the landmark.
“And every year, almost on a daily basis we’ll pick up a little bit more of that Ozark history,” Kevin Bright said.
But despite the significant history it holds, it was only recently that the cave became a public attraction. The Brights purchased the property in 2009 from the Assemblies of God Church, which had used the cave and its surrounding property for retreats. They opened it for tours the following year. And crews have since put in a lot of work to uncover and preserve the cave’s history.
“Schoolcarft, well that was enough, but it was just the beginning basically. We’ve got a link to all the Native Americas,” Bright said. “There’s even a Cherokee family that stayed in the cave; dropped off the Trail of Tears. The original pioneers, their descendants still live around here, so not only do we have that recorded history we have word-of-mouth history passed down through the generations that we can present here at the cave.”
While the students’ “oos” and “aahs” may be muffled by the running water, Eric Fuller can see on their faces how valuable this tour can be. It’s an opportunity, he says, for youth and others to understand how people used to live on this land.
“I think that’s really important because sometimes we get an idea as to well, you just live in the Ozarks this way. In reality there’s a lot of different ways in which people can live in this region. And by sharing those historic accounts, they get a broader perspective of how life can be in this region,” Fuller says.
“I liked going into the cave and seeing the big part where they put their names and all the stuff on there,” says Cox.
12-year-old Ciera Cox is referring to a section of stone pointed out during Fuller’s tour on which soldiers carved their names around the year 1860. For Ciera, it’s a visual confirmation of the history lessons she’s currently receiving back at school.
And that’s pleasing to people like Jim McFarland with the West Plains-based Trillium Trust. Smallin Cave is one of dozens of sites that McFarland wants to learn more about as part of Trillium’s Unlock the Ozarks initiative. Earlier this year, the nonprofit organization received a $7,500 grant from the Missouri Humanities Council in support of the project.
“I think there’s approximately 50 campsites along the way that we should be able to document real well and get signage either at or nearby of those that would also feature QR or Quick Response codes,” McFarland says.
Those QR codes can be scanned with a smartphone, taking visitors to a website to display topographic maps from Dr. Milton Rafferty, for instance, as well as entries from Schoolcraft’s journal, and historic and present day photographs.
So with the help of officials at Trillium Trust and Smallin Cave, these maps and other written accounts of history in Christian County and throughout this region are and will become more accessible to the public.
It’s a history you can see, hear and feel, and crucial to understanding how the past inhabitants of this land lived. After all, in the words of Smallin Cave Owner Kevin Bright, “We’ve gotta know where we’re from; otherwise there’s no telling where we’ll go.”