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By Randy Dudley
At the age of 25, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft set off on an expedition to explore the sparsely populated areas of the Midwest including southwest Missouri. Schoolcraft was a self-described neophyte at this sort of adventure and often depended on the hospitality of the local settlers to help him on his way. Schoolcraft had a passion for documenting native plants, animals, cultures and natural features.
During this adventure, Schoolcraft explored the opening area of a cave he called, “Winoca.” and documented it in his book, Scenes and Adventures in the Semi- Alpine Region of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas. Winoca is an Osage Indian word meaning “Underground Spirit”. At this time Schoolcraft noted that it was unusual as the mouth of the cave opening was the largest he had seen in Missouri and the riverbed filled the entire opening.
During the Civil War, there is a great deal of speculation and folklore associated with the cave. It is known that the Union had a large encampment in Ozark and there are many rumors that the cave was used as a munitions warehouse during that time. In fact, an owner of the cave in the 1950’s promoted this scenario in an effort to increase tourism at the cave. At the time, locals said you could see and smell the wet paint on the powder kegs that had allegedly been removed from the cave. However, a cave with a stream running through it would seem a less-than-ideal place to store gunpowder.
Smallin Cave was opened to the public in April of 2010. Cave owners Kevin and Wanetta Bright seem as if they are just a natural fit for this place.
Kevin and Wanetta are from Mountain Grove. In 1993, they began looking at the economic situation in that area. “We began looking at the opportunities for our children in Mtn. Grove. We loved the area. It is beautiful. Economically, you have three choices. You can work FOR the government. You can get a check from the government. Or, you can slab logs at a sawmill. That’s about it.” So, the Bright family packed up and moved to Branson. Wanetta got a job as a cave guide at Marvel Cave. Eventually, she became Cave Manager. It was during this time that Kevin had a realization. Caves naturally draw people. When you have caves, and then add people, that is great. But when you start telling the history of the cave, that is where the magic is.” There is something powerful in seeing graffiti from the early to mid 1800’s. “We are presently working on tracing down some of the names from inside the cave. I feel certain
we will eventually find out who these people were.”
A Bright Future at Smallin
When Fall comes this year, Smallin Civil War Cave will once again be doing night tours by lantern. There will be Civil War style food and storytelling around
the campfire. Being the anniversary of the Civil War, there is sure to be an increased level of attention to all things Civil War. It is sure to be a magical time to sit down, eat and fellowship with like-minded friends.
After leaving the gift shop, an immaculate concrete path leads down to the mouth of the cave. As you round the last corner and the giant opening comes into view, it is truly breathtaking. The stream is crystal clear and full of life. As you go through the mammoth opening, you can begin to see the signs of human history in the cave. A large stone dome has footsteps carved into the face to allow easier access. Presumably, this is where native Americans accessed the cave to mine chert, a native stone they made weapons and tools out of. Signs can be seen of this mining up to 600 feet back in the cave. The chert is found from the cave as well as in the riverbed all of the way to the Finley River. It is probably safe to assume that the Native Americans were here for thousands of years, judging from the amount of chert removed as well as ashes and other signs. “We really haven’t had to do any excavating yet. When a good rain comes, the cave floor changes much like any other Missouri stream. Our watershed here covers about a square mile. But there are other sources as well,” says Kevin.
“We are going to have some students do dye-tracing to find out more exactly where our watershed lies.” The features inside the cave are too numerous to mention but here are some of the favorites. The whirlpool is about seven feet deep and varies in intensity depending on the outside weather. Kevin says a fall into it would be “unsurvivable”, although there is a story about a man falling into it many years ago and locals were able to save him by linking arms and forming a human chain to pull him to safety just before he drowned. Another feature that is sure to mystify is the starfish embedding in the ceiling of the cave. The various openings along the walls of the cave may inspire the brave to take the “Wild Tour”, which totally departs from the concrete walkways and explores the much-less accessed areas of the cave. This tour costs extra and spelunking equipment is available to rent, but it is sure to impress the adventurer that likes to get off the normal trail.
An Educational Resource
Smallin Cave also cooperates with MSU on a couple of different projects. Students come and study blind crayfish each year, and some bats from the cave spent this winter in a lab in Springfield having their sleep patterns studied. School groups are taking field trips to tour the cave as well.
Kevin says that season passes should be available shortly. You may think that once you have seen Smallin Cave that is that and that is all. Go back again after a hard rain. After the hard rains of last week, Kevin’s voice had grown weak. The tours from the previous day had required him to pretty much yell all of the information they give out during the tour. When you get to the back of the cave and the water is high, the noise level is nearly deafening. “We have been open since April of last year and the water has never came up onto our walkways. It has been right at the edge of our walkway, and we have lost a light or two to high water, but we have never had to close for high water.”
Smallin Cave is open 7 days a week. Pricing and other information can be found at smallincave.com. Kevin and Wanetta look forward to telling you about their cave and the inspiring story of how it ended up being theirs.