In the Ozarks, caves serve as geological landmarks and a testament to the region's Karst topography. But some caves in the region are woven into the legends and folklore passed from one generation to the next.
One particular cave in the tiny village of Smallett, Missouri near Ava has been shrouded in mystery since the Civil War.
Today, the cave is on a farm off of Highway A. The farm belongs to the Sellars family.
Jerry Sellars, who owns the property with his wife, says stories about the cave have been passed down through his family. His relatives have lived on the property since the late 1800s.
“In the early 1900s the cave would have been much larger because there’s a stream that runs right in front of the cave and over years some of the silt and everything has filled in and the opening is still there, you can still walk in, but it is smaller than it used to be,” Sellars said.
The Smallett cave has been associated with mysterious sights and sounds, including floating lights. But it's perhaps best known as being the site of a headless cobbler--going back to the days when people relied on cobblers to make and mend footwear.
Sellars’ cousin, Walter “Darrell” Haden, also grew up in Smallett and was interested in local folklore from a young age. After becoming an English professor at the University of Tennessee, Haden published a book in tribute to the legends from his childhood.
The book is titled The Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave. It recounts stories and sightings from family members and locals.
Now deceased, Darrell Haden knew the importance of storytelling and keeping and traditions alive--especially in the rural hollers of the Ozarks.
Darrell’s brother, James “Loren” Haden, says there wasn’t much else to do when they were growing up than to tell stories and read books--which were often too expensive.
“So they were told over and over again and embellished on each time they were told probably. I think people...that was the entertainment. [It] was getting together and visiting with people,” Haden said.
Like many tales of old, the legend of the headless cobbler is said to have started from factual events.
According to Darrell Haden’s book, a woman named Mary Pratt recounted the story in the mid-1940s.
She said during the Civil War, a man she knew as “Old Man Evans" moved his shoe making business into Smallett Cave to escape the rebel fighters who were going after men who didn’t support the Confederate cause.
The man is believed to be George Evans, whose descendants, according to the book, corroborated the story.
It was said that the cobbler was beheaded for being a Union sympathizer. Thus started the stories of a headless cobbler in Smallett Cave.
Jonathan Beard, a caver in Springfield, studies caves in Missouri.
“I’ve been visiting caves for 48 years to find out all the information I could,” Beard said.
He says there have been a lot of caves that have been shrouded in mystery.
“Murders occurring in caves. The Civil War combatants using caves as either a hideout or a storage area. Jesse James and the folklore following him. Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas involved many legends,” Beard said.
According to Haden's book, locals also heard the staccato tapping of a hammer coming from inside or horses hooves near the cave at night.
Hunters in the area were said to report abnormal sightings.
Sellars says his parents, Raymond and Carrie Sellars, saw a mysterious light floating above the treeline going towards the cave many times.
He says one night around 1 AM, he and his brother were driving home from playing cards with friends when they encountered the floating light for themselves.
“We had a light follow us, then when we pulled in the driveway and stopped we could still see it coming toward us. It went suddenly back to the west and then another sudden and rapid movement to the south,” Sellars said.
Sellars says he takes all of the explanations for the stories with a grain of salt, but does believe in the value of passing the stories down.
“I think that’s a part of our history that should be kept alive, you know, and should be passed on,” Sellars said.
Jonathan Beard, the professional caver, says Missouri has roughly 7,300 documented caves--and that there are many more out there.