Saturday, October 4, 2008

De Soto Caverns

There was not enough time for the quick weekend run to the beach we'd hoped for (April and October are the BEST times to go there, I say) so the kids and I settled for another place they have never been: De Soto Caverns. And it worked out that we had just as much, if not more fun, with WAY less road time. Race weekend seemed to have kept the crowd to a minimum.

I am sort of wont to call the place DeSoto Caverns. Sure, it's what the owners call it, and we think Spanish "explorer" Hernando De Soto and his party passed by at least sort of close to it in 1540. The original name whites called it is Kymulga Cave, which was how English-speakers pronounced the Indian word for 'mulberry', a reference to the vegetation first found near the natural entrance. Anthropologists stuck with Kymulga as the designation for the time during the Woodland Period which we believe the area was most heavily used and populated by Indians.

But you'd never pick up on any of that nowadays apart from the historical marker and words from the cave tour guide, but somehow that is appropriate given the considerable impact humans have had on the place over time.

We think Indians used it as a burial place and as a seasonal shelter. The Confederates gathered calcium nitrate from natural mineral deposits there, as well as nitrate-rich bat guano, for use making crude gunpowder since the South lacked industry for such production. Toward the end of the 20th century the property was bought for its vast deposits of onyx marble, which was fashionable in the day and fetched quite the price. But the plan was derailed following a short but destructive time during which its formations were ravaged by the would-be gem miners. An even larger and much cheaper source of the onyx was found in Mexico (if you have black onyx now, that's where it comes from), and around the same time fashions changed, making the gemstone of little interest to the public.

Later, during Prohibition, the cave was used for production and consumption of illicit booze, complete with a bar and dance floor. The 'establishment' was known as The Bloody Bucket, and people from Childersburg, Talladega County and Shelby County knew the name was due to the frequent fights and occasional homicide there. Over the years many of the stalactites and stalagmites were destroyed by recreational pistol fire. Other fragile formations that had taken millenia to form, were bashed and broken for fun.

During World War II, the nearby Alabama Ordnance Works and its 20,000 workers ran full-tilt making explosives, gunpowder and other munitions for the Allied war effort. Twenty miles away, many more thousands worked in Brecon near Talladega loading bombs and shells with explosives. It was during that time that the cave was most heavily used for the shortest time.

A Childersburg native and local history authority I interviewed about five years ago, George Limbaugh, would not admit to frequenting The Bloody Bucket, but his knowledge of the place was extensive. He said The Bloody Bucket ran non-stop around the clock to cater to shift workers at the bomb plants, and offered them everything from whiskey to amphetamines to whores. Gambling was offered aboard boats on the Coosa River, a short bus ride away to Bullock's Ferry, with stops at McGowan's Ferry and Harpersville before the return trip commenced.

Whoa, that is one hell of a digression from our trip Saturday! I hope y'all can cut a bored and lonesome history junkie some slack...

I'd not been to De Soto Caverns in more than 20 years, and was pleased to see it has been developed into a much more well-rounded, family-oriented place to spend the day. Gone were the borderline treacherous steps at the entrance, replaced with a massive concrete wall and gently sloping corrugated steel tunnel way. Also nowhere to be seen was the exposed wiring and pipes, garish displays, and laughable blinking colored light bulbs I remembered. This cave is nowhere near pristine, but despite all the ways humans have used and abused it, it remains one of a very few of its kind anywhere and is not to be missed.

De Soto Caverns also has stuff to do that really has nothing to do with caves but which add considerable appeal to the average tourist. There's rides and games for kids, mazes, a chance to pan for "gems" (well-polished and tumbled pieces of colored glass and pyrite) carpet golf, a small water splash pad, well-stocked gift shop, and camping. Here's a link to its web site.