Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jacob’s Cave, Versailles, Missouri

Face it, Missouri’s summers are damn near unbearable, and most of us can’t imagine trying to live here without air conditioning.

When I describe this situation to outsiders, to people who lack a truly cold winter or truly hot summer, I tell them that when you have four full seasons like we do, we have two seasons—spring and fall—that are incredibly pleasant and richly beautiful, where it’s a punishment to stay indoors.

But then, we have two seasons where you would rather remain indoors, because the weather is so uncomfortable: winter and summer. Summer’s a lot like winter—you venture outside because you have to mow the lawn, which is analogous to shoveling snow in the winter. By the time you’re done, you’re so glad to get back inside—sipping cocoa in winter, gulping iced tea in summer.

You might remember this past winter when I recommended visiting Missouri’s caves when the weather is, well, horrible. On those endlessly gray and freezing days, visiting a cave, which is humid and comparatively warm inside, is a treat, and it gets you out of the house. Plus, all that darkness makes the sky seem so much brighter when you emerge.

Most people don’t think of visiting caves in the winter; they think of it as a summertime activity, and that attitude is warranted, too!

In summer, caves offer relief from the smothering heat and humidity. (No wonder show caves were such popular tourist attractions in the days before a/c!) The darkness is also a wonderful, calming respite from the brilliant sunlight (which becomes positively glaring on the most humid days).

So back in January, I reminded you about Bridal Cave, near Camdenton; and soon after that, I gave you some background information about Missouri’s caves. Today, I’m going to tell you about Jacob’s Cave, near Versailles, Missouri. (Yes, folks, that’s pronounced “vur-SAY-ullz”—get it right!)

Jacob’s Cave

Jacob’s Cave is one of Missouri’s historic commercial show caves (a “show cave,” you might recall, is a cave that is run, basically, as a tourist attraction): It opened for tours in 1932. Before that, the cave had been used, for instance, as cold storage for apples (there was a large orchard located in Versailles in those days), and it had been prospected for mineral wealth.

The cave had been discovered by a lead and tiff miner named Jacob Craycraft, who signed his name in pencil inside the cave on August 9, 1875. (Yes, it’s horrible graffiti, but at this point, it’s also historic. His inscription, which is by now coated with a glaze of new cave material, is now part of the cave tour.)

Craycraft did try to mine lead in the cave, but he met with little monetary success. He did, however, begin leading crude, lantern-light cave tours, charging twenty-five cents for admission.

In the 1930s and 1940s, when the Lake of the Ozarks was developed, nearby Gravois Mills became one of the Lake’s popular communities, and Jacob’s Cave was developed more seriously as a show cave; in 1950, it opened for visitors with electric lighting, widened passageways, and level walkways, and it became extremely popular. Remember, Missouri summers are hot, and caves are cool. Jacob’s Cave remains 52 degrees year-round (compare that to tomorrow’s predicted high: 95 degrees, with a heat index of 105).

Jacob’s Cave has the distinction of being the only show cave in the state that’s completely wheelchair accessible. There is a rock and gift shop adjoining the entrance of the cave, and ample parking. Owner Frank Hurley and his family have been running the cave for over forty years.

What Is It Like?

Well, you drive there, you park, you go inside, and you buy your tickets. Since it was a sweltery day when we were there, we arrived in shorts and tee-shirts, and the women who sold us the tickets reminded us of the cool damp environment of the cave, and recommended we wear jackets. Then—amazingly enough—they produced some nylon jackets, big flannel shirts, and other alternatives that we could borrow for the tour. They guessed our sizes pretty accurately, too. What a pleasant touch! And as it turned out, we were grateful for the extra clothing.

Yes, it’s coooooool in there. Ahhhhh. Hallelujah!

Because this is the peak of the season, the cave tour was pretty structured—this time of year, cave operators don’t spend a lot of time lollygagging, and the groups can be fairly large. There were about twelve people in our group, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. If we’d gone in the off-season, we would have monopolized the tour guide more. But that’s okay—this is the time of year cave operators try to make ends meet, and sure enough there was another group of folks waiting to start the next tour by the time we returned.

I have already mentioned that these commercially run show caves are often, sadly, devoid of life; they were opened to the public before people had much awareness of the delicate ecosystems that exist in subterranean chambers, or the damage that can be caused by the oils from people’s hands, or the algal growth because of lights. But while this is sad, it also means that you don’t have to feel too worried about visiting these caves; the damage has been done, and the cave owners today do what they can to prevent further damage.

One example of past damage is the thin layer of green algae that formed on several walls and formations, wherever spotlights had shined on their surfaces. It’s regrettable, and our tour guide explained that the cave’s owner had attempted to try to remove some of this disfiguring material—but he had found that a thin, clear layer of cave rock had already formed on top of it, sealing it in forever. Nowadays, as with other caves you can tour, the guide turns on only the lights for the room you are currently viewing, and switches off each chamber’s lights as you exit.

But the cave isn’t completely sterile, no-sirree. Our tour guide, right at the beginning of the tour, found a little cave salamander to show us, which was a real treat. Apparently there are also nifty black toads, and some bats that occur, but we didn’t see any. Also, larval forms of the cave salamander are apparently also found in the waters of the cave—but though we looked, we weren’t lucky enough to see any. Oh, well; there was plenty more to enjoy.

The cave is continuing to grow, as well; there are numerous places on the concrete pathway where lumps—baby stalagmites—are forming, caused by incessant steady drips from above. And that’s pretty cool to see!

Other interesting things on the tour are some places on the wall where you can see claw scratches by prehistoric cave bears; evidence of previous glaciations; numerous large columns that were fractured and offset by historic earthquakes (three in this cave’s history, the most recent being the New Madrid quake); and more.

An enormous geode is basically a small chamber all in itself; they bill it as the “world’s largest geode,” but I suspect that the “crystal cave” at Heineman’s Winery in Ohio is larger. (They call theirs the “world’s largest geode,” too.)

There are a lot of nice “soda straws” and delicate helectite formations, flowstones, and more. Our tour guide pointed out some places near the ceiling where the former “floor” of a cave passage had been undercut long ago by water, which removed the silt beneath, leaving behind a suspended, flattened, hardened rock shelf connected to the ceiling by its stalactites and stalagmites.

There are some interesting reflections in pools, which create convincing optical illusions of depth, and of nonexistent new chambers—I think those are worth the price of admission alone. (Photographs don’t do it justice, either.)

At the beginning of the tour, you get to see a case full of ice age bones of bison, Mammoth, and so on, that were found in the cave; at the end of the tour is a display of rocks and minerals that you can see under regular lighting as well as fluorescing under a black light—if you’ve never seen anything like that before, you’ll find it an eye-opening experience.

The Retro-Kitsch Factor

The next thing I’m going to tell you may or may not make this cave seem appealing to you: It is touristy in an old-school way. Though they have pulled back a bit from what I’m sure had been a whole lot of fanciful, silly, amusing stuff, there was still enough to remind me of the old days, when cave guides led tours to see a historic “iron spring” (which turned out to have come off an old jalopy) or, in this case, a “bulb garden,” which our guide led us past, but tactfully said nothing about. We took a picture, however:

A bulb garden! Yes, those are flash bulbs of various makes and shapes. (Remember flash bulbs? Goodness.) (They could probably sell these to collectors on eBay!)

So maybe you will sniff and see this as a horrible marring of the cave, and of the experience, but I enjoyed it for what it was—genuine tourist kitsch, the real thing, the kind of whimsy that would have tickled us all back in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies.

Some of the lights illuminating the cave were multicolored; I mean, what the heck; you purists, just relax. It did add to the niftiness. Here is a multicolor light-spinner from a Christmas tree:

And our tour guide incorporated a lot of fanciful ideas into her spiel—especially in describing what particular formations “looked like.” One formation, for instance, looked like a “whale’s tail” from one side, and an “angel’s wing” from the other.

It’s like hunting for recognizable shapes in the random patterns of clouds—anyone can do it. And you have to admit, if there had been kids along on this tour, it would have really drawn them in.

One room, for example, was called the “Cave Garden,” where one can supposedly see shapes of cabbage, beans, and a variety of other common vegetables among the formations. Another spot was called the “Children’s Zoo”; here, one views a representation of Snow White and her seven dwarves (eight humplike stalagmites, one of them large), plus other subjects that would appeal to kids. Another area was called the “Cactus Room”—and yeah, I could kinda see that one—stalagmites can sort of look like columnar cactus. After a while, you do start “seeing things.”

My favorite of these was at a chamber where there were hundreds of delicate soda straws and helectite formations stuck to the ceiling; here, the guide pointed out the odd shapes they had taken and said in rapid-fire: “People see all sorts of things in this room—Dum-dums, turkey legs, popcorn, pickles, corndogs . . .” She must have rattled off about ten things, and the overwhelming quantity (not to mention the food theme) made me laugh. I could definitely make out the little Dum-dums, stuck on the ceiling; they were the right size and everything. I’ll be doggoned.

If I could make one change to the entire experience, I would wish that I didn’t smell cigarette smoke so heavily in the gift shop. Maybe it was just a fluke that particular day, with people standing right outside the door to smoke, but the place kind of reeked. But who wants to spend a lot of time in the gift shop anyway? You can always wait for your tour outside.

Jacob’s Cave: Heartily recommended, provided you are the type to enjoy the occasional remnant of genuine tourist cave kitsch, and not bristle at it. It is an educational tour, it’s a whole lot of fun, and keep in mind: It’s a great thing to do here when the weather is so dang hot.

Here’s the info:

Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for kids age 4–12. Group rates are available.

The cave is handicap-accessible; in fact, wheelchairs, as well as baby strollers, are available for those who need them.

Hours are seasonal: From Memorial Day through Labor Day, they’re open 9–5. During the off-season, the hours are 9–4.

Though I think they are open every day, except for major holidays, I recommend calling ahead to make sure they are open on whatever day you intend to go.

An easy day trip for Central Missourians, this cave is located between the towns of Versailles and Gravois Mills, not far off of Highway 5, on Route TT. There are signs for it, and their website has a map.

Contact info:

Jacob's Cave LLC
Frank J. Hurley, CEO
23114 Highway TT
Versailles, MO 65084

Phone: 573-378-4374

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