‘Missouri’s Buried Treasure’ - The Missourian: Feature Stories

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‘Missouri’s Buried Treasure’

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Posted: Saturday, June 8, 2013 6:32 pm | Updated: 9:07 am, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Here’s a bit of trivia — did you know Missouri is sometimes referred to as “the cave state”?

Yes, the land many Missourians know as the Show-Me state is also home to more than 6,000 surveyed caves. Each one is a unique site to see with its own special features formed by Mother Nature.

Meramec Caverns in Stanton, about a 30-minute drive from Washington, is the largest commercial cave in the state of Missouri.

Lester and Mary Dill purchased the property and opened the caverns up for public tours in 1933 — 80 years ago.

“The property adjoins the state park property, and back in those days they didn’t have radios or TVs or anything, so for entertainment, they used to explore caves,” said Lester Turilli, the Dills’ grandson who operates Meramec Caverns today with his wife, Judy, and their son, Lester.

“My grandfather just loved caves. He loved geology,” Turilli recalled, noting he had been the first concessionaire at Fisher’s Cave, ran that for a couple of years before he opened Meramec Caverns.

“He’d been in every cave in the country, including this one. So he knew about it. He knew it was bigger.

“He used to tell my grandmother that someday he was going to open up a cave and take thousands of people through. And everybody thought he was crazy. My grandmother thought he was crazy. And when he went to the bank to borrow the money to buy the property, the banker told him he was crazy. Said, ‘You’ll never make a living out of it. It’s a hole in the ground.’

“But he loaned him the money. And he did go broke a couple of times, but he never gave up. He had a bulldog determination about him. When he latched on to something, he wouldn’t give up.”

Still, it certainly wasn’t easy turning Meramec Caverns to the tourist attraction that it is today, drawing people from all over the world.

“When they first started, they lived in a tent for three summers out there on the Meramec River,” said Turilli. “My grandfather would take people through with a coal oil lantern. There were no utilities here, not even a road. It was a wagon trail. They literally blazed a trail.

“Grandfather would take people in, and grandmother would keep people entertained on the outside until he came back out to take another tour in.”

It was risky, for sure — there were no walkways, no handrails, no lights except for the coal oil lantern.

“But it also was very adventurous, and people really liked that,” Turilli remarked.

And it was cool.

“The mouth used to be open, and grandfather billed it as the world’s largest drive-in cave,” said Turilli. “People would park old Model T’s in the entrance way and cars would cool off while people took their tour.”

Initially, the family didn’t make enough off of just the tours, so on Friday and Saturday nights they would have dances. They laid down a wooden dance floor and they had square dances.

“Great-grandfather played the fiddle and called the dances,” said Turilli, noting this was mostly a summer pastime.

“Back then people didn’t have air conditioning, so they flocked to the caves to stay cool.”

Turilli began working at the caverns when he was just 10 years old. His first job was a bumper sign hanger. Stickers hadn’t yet been invented, so Dill had his grandson tie signs to car bumpers for advertisement. These evolved into hanging signs and later what people now know as bumper stickers, said Turilli.

Dill also is known for being one of the first to use another clever marketing tool — barn roofs as what we now know as billboards.

“Grandfather was a carpenter by trade, and so were his brothers,” said Turilli. “So after the Depression, there was a building boom in Florida, in Miami, and a lot of the carpenters from this area in the wintertime would go down there to work.

“On the way down there, because he always had this dream of opening up this cave, he saw some barn signs — Mail Pouch tobacco and Coca-Cola, I think — and he said to my grandma, ‘I wonder if that would help to promote the cave.’ She said, ‘Well, when we get back, why don’t you try a couple and see.’ So he did. He knew the local farmers and he painted one in each direction.

“It wasn’t 44 then. It was Route 66. And it was a gravel road,” Turilli noted.

“But as soon as he did that, more people came to the cave. So he did a couple more, and every time he would add one, more people would come. And the rest is history.

“He was one of the first persons to put up billboards in the state of Missouri.”

Black and white photographs hanging in the dining room of the Meramec Caverns restaurant show what the cave entrance looked like in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

“It used to just be the cave,” said Turilli.

Then in the 1950s, they added a two-story building that had a restaurant on the lower level and the gift shop above, but flooding was an issue (Meramec Caverns is located just feet from the Meramec River). So eventually Dill filled in the lower level of the building with gravel and built the restaurant on the same level as the gift shop, said Turilli.

Flooding has been a problem at Meramec Caverns many times over the last 80 years. Floodwater has reached the current restaurant three times in its history, he said. The last time was 2008 when the water reached over 5 feet high in the dining room.

Already this year, the parking lot at Meramec Caverns has been flooded three times.

Cave Tours

On Fridays and Saturdays in the month of June each year, Meramec Caverns offers people a chance to tour the caves like people did in the ’30s — by hand-held lanterns. Each person carries his or her own. To add to the experience, guides are dressed as historical characters, like an Osage Indian, a Civil War soldier, and the infamous Jesse James, said Judy Turilli.

A limited number of people (about 30) are allowed on the tour, and they do sell out each weekend, she noted.

Regular guided-walking tours of the cave are offered every day of the year except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tours depart every 20-30 minutes starting at 9 a.m. The tour runs an hour and 20 minutes and covers 1 1/4 miles round trip.

What You’ll See

The tour opens with information about a minor Civil War battle that took place in the cave, which had an abundance of saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, which, hundreds of years ago, was a key ingredient in making gunpowder.

In fact, the cave was originally named Saltpeter Cave by French explorer Philipp Renault in 1720.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers had a gunpowder facility inside the cave, but “this was Confederate territory during the Civil War,” a tour guide explained. “They didn’t like Union soldiers coming in here making gunpowder, so on Sept. 30, 1864, Gen. Sterling Price sent in a group of raiders called Quantrill’s Regulars, he came in and flushed the Yankees out.”

That’s how Jesse James became familiar with the caves, Judy Turilli noted. He rode with Quantrill’s raiders.

Other early sights on the tour include the area where a newlywed couple spent their honeymoon dressed up as caveman and -woman as part of a gimmick for the 1960s Art Linkletter TV Show, “People Are Funny;”

“Loot rock” where Jesse and Frank James hid out and divided up their loot after robbing banks; and

The areas where Hollywood came to the caverns — once in 1966 to film a two-part episode of “Lassie” and again in 1974 when United Artists filmed a segment for the movie, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

The stars of the tours are the cave formations, the shapes and structures created by mineral deposits left from flowing water.

“This cave was formed by water coming off the springs,” Judy Turilli noted.

“The geologists have told us, all throughout the entrance way and the ballroom area where they had the dances and the gunpowder room, that’s called sponge work. That formation that you see on the walls, is really unique and very rare. You hardly see that in any cave.

“It was formed by water bubbling up . . . from ancient artesian wells,” she explained.

“The formations were formed by the water descending, but the main cave was formed by water ascending.”

About 10 or 15 years ago, the Turillis had the caves remapped. Their original maps had been lost in 1982 in a flood.

“So the Missouri Speleogical Society came in and remapped the cave, in the process, they discovered several more passageways that we didn’t know were back there,” said Judy Turilli.

One of the first stops on the tour is “The Jungle Room,” so named because of formations, mostly on the ceiling but also on the floor.

The smaller formations here are called soda straws. They are long and hollow and filled with water, just like a straw.

They are formed when rainwater seeps down from the soils above, the tour guide explained. The minerals the soil contained are left behind and the water drips to the floor.

“After about 80 years, the hole in the bottom of the straw will close up. That will cause water to drip on the outside of the straw leading to the formation of the carrot-shaped stalactites.

“Those continue to drip to form stalagmites on the floor. At a rate of about 60 to 120 years per cubic inch, both continue to grow until they connect to form a column, pillar, post.”

Along the tour walkway is a body of water known as Mirror River, which earned its name because when the lights are turned on it creates an optical illusion. The river that in reality is only 1 to 2 feet deep appears to be 75 feet or more because it reflects the vast cave ceiling above.

Next is the formation known as Onyx Mountain, which is 26 feet tall and 500 feet in circumference. The guide points out that this formation has both an active side and an inactive side, where it has grown into the ceiling, blocking off the water supply.

You can tell them apart because the active side has dripping water and three color minerals. Reddish-orange is iron ore, white is calcite, and black is manganese, aka black onyx.

“You can see the water drip off the ceiling down the mountain, puddling up at the bottom, splashing across the walkway to our Crystal Lake,” the tour guide said.

The wine room is one stop on the tour that would be unreachable to any one who cannot climb the steep 50-plus steps to reach it. This “room,” as you might guess, is named for the grape-like cluster formations, as well as a stalagmite that resembles a table, which guides refer to as a wine table.

Leaving the wine room tour-goers who pause on the steps to look up will see more striking formations on the ceiling.

The final stop on the tour is the theater room. This part of the tour includes bleacher-type seats where tour-goers can sit to take in the dramatic “stage curtain” formation as the guide conducts light shows in time with the songs “Missouri Waltz” and “God Bless America.”

It’s one of the many reasons the Turillis have dubbed the caverns “Missouri’s Buried Treasure.”

Celebrates 80 Years

To celebrate the 80th anniversary of Meramec Caverns, the Turillis will host Franklin County Days in September with discounts and free items for kids. The exact date hasn’t been set yet.

Until then, people can get a discount on admission by bringing in empty soda cans from the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company in New Haven. The company, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, honored Meramec Caverns by putting a discount on its cans.

There’s more to do at Meramec Caverns than just go spelunking (cave exploring). There’s also camping, a boat ride on the Meramec River, panning for “gold” and, the caverns’ newest attraction, a zip line across the Meramec River.

Added three years ago, the zip line was Lester Turilli Jr.’s idea. He helped build it and engineered it.

“There are four zips, each one has its own personality,” said Lester Turilli Sr., “660 feet long, two shorter zips and, we saved the best for last, the one coming back is 1,100 feet long, 85 feet in the air.”

A “chicken boat” brings you back if you can’t finish.

The zip line has been a popular addition, Turilli said. There is no age restriction on who can participate, he said, noting one woman celebrated her 93rd or 94th birthday on the Meramec Caverns zip line.

Weight is the only restriction, said Turilli — 80 pounds mininum and 270 pounds maximum.

“If you weigh too much, you go too fast, but if you don’t weigh enough, you don’t go anywhere,” he said.

Turilli isn’t sure about any future additions to the Caverns.

His grandfather had always wanted to develop property the family owns on the other side of the river, but that dream is complicated by red tape of putting up a bridge over the river.

So for now the family feels the Caverns has everything it needs.

“We’ve got the underground covered, the water covered, and now the air covered,” Turilli remarked.

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