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By Mindy Crandall
Viewing a cave is not everyone’s idea of fun, but usually only due to three things: the fear of the unknown, fear of bats or because one is claustrophobic. I on the other hand, jumped at the chance to go inside Onondaga Cave. I must say, when I made the arrangements earlier in the week and had a definite plan to go on Saturday, the idea was a little hard to sell to my children. I got the typical pre-teen grumble of I don’t want to go. It was their fear of the unknown.
As Saturday afternoon quickly approached, we topped off the gas tank and nestled ourselves into comfortable sitting positions for the long two and a half hour drive to Leasburg, MO. As we headed North on 5 to Mansfield then on to Hartville, up through Lebanon, the trip didn’t seem nearly as long. We were headed to Onondaga Cave.
Leasburg is a small town of about 300 people. The village so to speak, does have a post office and just a few stores that line either side of the main street. I think it would be appropriate to use the saying, if you blink you’ll miss it, when describing the town of Leasburg. Just past the city limit sign, is a beautiful, serene, well-kept Meremac Missouri State Park, and home to Onondaga Cave.
Onondaga Cave has a lot of history, as well as several owners over the years, and features many stalactites, stalagmites, columns, flowstones, cave corals, lily pads, calcite ice, cave pearls, chert and cave clay.
How Onondaga Cave Was Formed:
It is pretty obvious how Onondaga Cave was formed. In addition to adequate rainfall, plant life and the right kind of rock, Onondaga lies on one side of the Leasburg Fault. A fault is a crack in the rock where uplift or sideways movement has caused the rock to shear, so that the layers on either side do not line up. Because of the Leasburg Fault, stresses and strains on either path of least resistance, entered these fractures, even while they were far under the surface, and formed Onondaga Cave. Studies of the water in Onondaga Cave streams after a rain show that the cave apparently drains water from all along the fault, not just over the valley.
The land surrounding Onondaga Cave had been settled for some time before the cave was discovered. In 1850 George and Statirach Cresswell moved to the area from Washington County with Statirach’s adopted family, the Allisons. On the Meremac River, near Saranac Springs, the Cresswells started by building a mill. In 1881 a large flood destroyed Creswell’s mill. The property was purchased by William Henry Rollosion Davis, who built a new mill farther back from the river. 1886 – It was while examining the spring’s outlet on the millpond that Charles Christopher, a local resident, realized that a cave lay beyond. Later he and two friends, Jon Eaton and Mitis Horine, borrowed a jon boat and squeezed it and themselves into the cave for a day long exploration. They were so impressed, they went into partnership and acquired the land that was over the cave and adjacent to the Davis property. This began the first development of once known “Mammothe Cave of Missouri” now Onondaga Cave. A land dispute with Davis ensued and lasted for more than half a century. By 1897 money for the development of the cave was scarce. Both men had difficulty deciding whether to develop it for tours or as a mine. Cave onyx was in demand for building stone so the cave was surveyed for mining purposes, but tours were given also. Over the next few years, Davis died and amidst all of the property transfers, the Davis property was sold to the Bothe, a St. Louis group headed by George Bothe, Sr. Davis’ widow was never satisfied with the arrangements. Eaton then began to get discouraged and sold his holdings to Eugene Hunt Benoist of the Indian Creek Land Co. They intended to mine the cave. In 1910 Bothe sold the property to his niece, CatharineeWeinborg. She later leased the cave to Bob Bradford who eventually bought the cave, or so he thought. A new dispute arose with Dr. William Mook and the Indian Creek Land Co. Dr. Mook had leased the Benoist property for a doctor’s resort and got word from Ed Houser and Edward Myers of Cuba about an interesting discovery. A little over one half of Ondondaga Cave was under Dr. Mook’s land. He and his brother, Robert Lee Mook, serving as manager of Missouri Caverns, Inc. had a tunnel dug into Onondaga Cave and erected a barbed wire fence across the Big Room at the supposed property line inside the cave. Bradford was asked to stop his tours and trespassing. With the opening of Missouri Caverns, Bradford had more competition – from his own cave! He did have more success using road signs as automobiles replaced train travel. However, Missouri Caverns was closer to the highway and Mook’s Cave Drive-In sign was intercepting his business. Needless to say, Bob Bradford was not amused and court battles went on and things became worse until Bob Bradford headed after Lee Mook with a rifle. More interesting than that dispute was the argument that took place in 1934 when Senatorial candidate Harry S. Truman and the Democrats had a picnic tour of Missouri Caverns while on the same day the Republicans toured Onondaga Cave. They met at the fence and an underground political debate ensued. Finally in 1935 the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mooks and the Indian Creek Land Co. Mook died shortly afterwards. The Onondaga Cave once had a motel at the cave’s mouth cooled by the cave air. In 1938, the cave entrance, which is used today, was dug. Tourists were no longer allowed to boat out of the cave. They boated in and walked out. More legal problems arose among brothers over their shares of the estate. To make a long story short and to leave some of the suspense to those who would like to visit, I will continue by saying the cave changed hands yet again when Lester Dill and Lyman Riley took ownership. Riley sold his interest to Lyman Riley and Lester Dill. At this time the boat trips were discontinued for insurance reasons. Dill, a long time cave owner, operated both Fisher and Mushroom Caves at Meramec State Park and developed Saltpetre Cave in Meremac Caverns. In 1980, Dill passed away leaving Meremac Caverns to his estate and donated Onondaga Cave to the Missouri State Parks.
Onondaga Cave received its name through a World Trade contest. It was named after a tribe of Indians, the Iroqois, meaning people of the mountain. The cave has some really beautiful formations and considered to be the most beautifully decorated cave in Missouri. It is the premier attraction of Onondaga Cave State Park. This 9,100 foot cave features the Big Room, a huge natural chamber decorated by the Queen’s and King’s Canopies, which are two massive flowstones. Other attractions in the cave include the Twins, the Lily Pad Room, a room covered in calcite deposits and the Devil’s Shower. The hour and fifteen minute tour covers just under a mile of cement trail, electrically lit. Once inside it’s amazing to see the variation in color, due to the organic matter decaying above ground and flowing through the water dripping inside the cave. Some cave formations seems almost glass like or a light blue in color while others are brown and dingy. Other highlights are the viewing of the brown bear remains found while more electrical lights were being placed as well as the winding Lost River and the easy visibility of the Fault Line in the Big Room.
Before my family and I knew it, the tour was over just as we were adjusting to life below. We had a great time as a family. To see my children’s faces, all with a different view of cave life, was priceless. We were lucky to receive a private tour with Greg. He was so informative and never once laughed at some of our most bizarre questions. To sum it up, it was a day well spent. If I had to change one thing about the entire trip it would be to have started a little earlier so that we could take in all that Meremac State Park has to offer. Let’s just say, the ride home didn’t consist of the grumbling of children, but the excitement of seeing something new.