Cultural History

It is easy to think that what you see in and around Fisher Cave is timeless. Far from it. The gate was installed only in October 1999. It is probably the fourth entrance gate, but nobody knows for sure. The concrete pad north of the parking lot was the site of a concession stand. And Fisher Cave Building used to be the quarters for seasonal naturalists (consider yourself lucky!)

Inside the cave, you can see the remains of an old gate near the rimstone dam room. The breakdown room used to contain supplies when it was used as a bomb shelter. Graffiti in the cave dates from the 1840s, and vandalism of stalactites and stalagmites from later decades of the 1800s. Naturalists have discovered gun shells, a cigar box, and a mussel shell and other historical bits and pieces from the ballroom. There are still hairpins in the old maids room (which is no longer on the tour route). The walkway, steps, and bridges were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The gravel in the large rooms was carried into the cave in the 1950s to make walking easier. Change caused by humans, in other words, is nothing new for Fisher Cave.

But let's start with a recent discovery. When the 1930s gate was under construction, workers found the skeleton of a Native American. The skull, jaw, and ribs were in good enough condition to identify it as a child. A bed of mussel shells was also found at the entrance. Excavations in 1999 for the gate exhibit found ash, probably from a refuse pit. Besides that, however, Native Americans left little evidence of habitation in the cave entrance, though they certainly occupied it at times, probably during late summer and early fall when the cave stream flow is minimal. In other seasons, Fisher Cave was not attractive from the Native Americans' point of view. The floor is gravel, and the entrance area is too low and wet to serve as a good shelter. It's also prone to flooding by the Meramec River.

Nearby Indian Cave, with a high entrance ceiling and spacious, dry floor, was much preferred. It is reached by any morning sun. Winter winds are usually from the northwest, and thus can't reach the cave mouth. Indian Cave is close to the river, and yet high enough not to be easily flooded. Many artifacts have been found there: arrowheads, spearpoints (in the technology of the time, spears were thrown in tandem with an atlatl to increase distance and power), bones from animals that were hunted and eaten, and pottery sherds from the Late Woodland Period about 1000 years ago. The pot-making process of that time took full advantage of local resources. Local clay was mixed with sand, finely crushed limestone or mussel shells to strengthen (temper) it. Pottery of the time was also finished by a paddle wrapped with cord and tapped against an anvil stone on inside wall of pot. This technique may have had several purposes: for decoration, property identification, or to provide an easy-to-hold surface.

Native American history of the area is a long story. The short version is that Native Americans have lived in Missouri for about 12,000 years. Graham Cave State Park (north of Hermann on Interstate 70) has the most complete evidence of this habitation. A series of cultures followed, named Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian, all with Early, Middle, and Late stages.

These stages are somewhat arbitrary, and the most important point to realize is that a gradual change in existence, from hunter-gatherer to agricultural, was happening. The height of Mississippian civilization was between 900 and 1300, and reflected in the great city of Cahokia. Cahokia was a mound-building culture (and the reason St. Louis is nicknamed Mound City), and the center of a trading network from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Appalachians to the Rockies. (A visit to the mounds of Cahokia, in Illinois just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, is well worth your time. Cahokia is a United Nations World Heritage site.)

For multiple and ambiguous reasons, Mississippian culture collapsed. De Soto ascended the Mississippi River valley in 1540 and brought war and disease to the remaining residents. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Osage dominated southern Missouri, with another large culture, the Illiniwek (or Illinois), occupying Illinois and eastern Missouri south to Cape Girardeau. The Missouris lived north of the Missouri River, though it is important to note that tribal borders were never exact. In 1789 the Delaware and Shawnee were moved into Missouri by the U.S. government.

With the missionary Father Marquette, and his companion, Louis Joliet, completing the first European exploration, it was the turn of the French to claim the area. As early as 1700, a lead mine was active at the mouth of the Meramec River. Gold was never found, but miners discovered traces of silver. (Throughout Meramec State Park there are pockmarked area where miners dug into the ground looking for lead, copper, and iron. These park pits date from the early and mid-1800s.) Philippe Renault started mining the area in 1723, and transported lead to the Mississippi River for shipment to France. It was likely a member of his party, a freeman or slave, who entered Fisher Cave as the first non-Native American.

Missouri caves have been important sources of saltpeter (calcium nitrate; sometimes spelled saltpetre) for gunpowder. The French and Spanish made gunpowder. Renault and Ferdinand LaMotte made gunpowder at their lead mines around Potosi in 1720. Early European settlers also made gunpowder; the War of 1812 was one impetus. Meramec Caverns, known as Saltpeter Cave, along with Fisher, Green's, and Copper Hollow caves, were used for gunpowder production from 1810 to 1820.

A landowner named Fisher (Alexander is thought to be his first name) settled in the area of the park in about 1818. His homestead near the cave eventually gave us "Fishers Cave," as it was first known. The precise location of this homestead is unknown, unfortunately. Local industries took full advantage of the Ozark resources. Besides copper mining, there was Hamilton Ironworks, farming, and logging. Stephen Sullivan, after whom Sullivan is named, bought land where Hamilton Creek enters the Meramec. He also helped build the San Francisco railway from St. Louis. As a confederate sympathizer, he was hanged along with John Stanton (after whom Stanton is named), for operating the gunpowder factory at Saltpeter Cave (Meramec Caverns) during the Civil War. Some say, however, that Sullivan was saved and lived to an old age.

Around this time, local caves began to achieve fame for their beauty and size. The Fisher Cave ballroom used to be known as the Governor's Ballroom because, according to legend, Missouri Governor Thomas Fletcher held an inaugural ball there in 1865. This is almost certainly a myth. While the ballroom was used from time to time by St. Louis's wealthy and elite class, the idea that an inaugural ball took place at the close of the Civil War in a bitterly contested border state in itself strains credibility. There is no mention in the newspapers of an 1865 ball. Governor Fletcher, however, may have attended a ball in Fisher Cave in 1867. It appears that Lester Dill, in his tours from 1927 to 1932, was responsible for the story of the inaugural ball.

Turn-of-the-century explorers from the Washington (Missouri) Cave Club needed five or six days to explore local caves. They came by train to Stanton, took a horse team to a nearby campsite, and explored Saltpetre Cave (Meramec Caverns), Fishers Cave, and Bat Cave (now Bear Cave) by kerosene and candle (see Figure 28).

In the early 1900s, Henry and Leo Fisher, the new property owners, allowed Thomas Benton Dill to lead the first commercial tours of Fisher Cave. Both Fishers served as Bank of Sullivan presidents: Leo from 1904-38, and Henry for a few months in 1938. It is likely that the Fisher brothers were not related to the original Fisher landowner of the 1820s (see Figures 29 & 30). In any case, Thomas Benton Dill's sons, Hugh and Lester, later became guides. Lester said he kept several lanterns in a box near the cave, and laid down boardwalks inside because the cave was so muddy.

The state began acquiring land for a park in 1926, which was dedicated on September 8, 1928 in a large ceremony attended by about 10,000 people. Fisher Cave Park was one name suggested for the new park. Thomas Benton Dill became the first superintendent.

Lester Dill, Missouri cave showman (see Figure 31) and once the owner of Onondaga Cave and Meramec Caverns (now operated by his grandson Les Turilli), held the Fisher Cave tour concession from 1927 until 1932, when the state assumed control. His brother Hugh ran the Mushroom Cave tours (as well as Old Beach, the main beach area where Shelter 1 is now located).

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) set up two camps in the area in the 1930s. The CCC was created during the first hundred days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. In essence, unemployed young men were enrolled into a peacetime army for conservation. Three million men participated, and the Army helped to organize the program because it was so vast. Many CCC buildings throughout the United States still stand, most designed by National Park Service architects in a style called rustic park architecture. Meramec State Park has a number of historic CCC structures, including Shelter 1 and the nearby restrooms, the lodge and cabins, and the octagonal lookout behind the lodge.

Meramec had 220 enrollees. The first winter, in 1933, was spent in tents in the field near the nursery building. Later, the two camps were established where the dining lodge now sits, and across the river on what is now Missouri Conservation Department land. The walkways and bridges in Fisher Cave were built in 1939 and 1940, according to Ray Adams, a CCC foreman. Just inside the cave, a side passage was used as storage for equipment and materials. The CCC probably also built the stone dam in the cave stream (park naturalists removed the dam in 1985). There was a failed attempt with electric lighting in the cave in 1937.

There is confusion about how many gates Fisher Cave has had, and when they were built. The gate that lasted until October 1999 (see Figure 32) was located nearer the cave entrance than the current gate. The uneven line of the walkway shows where it was. The gate has been saved, and there are plans to mount it parallel to the right wall of the entrance and exhibit period photographs and historical information. Mounting will probably take place in 2001. The current gate allows more natural airflow and larger flight spaces for bats. This design is essential if Fisher Cave is ever to become a gray bat maternity cave again.

A 1931 Fisher Cave map shows a gate 40 ft. in from the dripline, but a CCC mess sergeant interviewed by park staff claims the cave had no gate in 1933. Roy Adams, a CCC foreman who arrived in August 1938, said in an interview that a gate existed at that time. So when was the pre-1999 gate installed? Possibly between 1934 and 1936. And when was the wooden gate in the 1913 photograph built (and then removed)? And who built the iron gate in the narrowest part of the cave before the rimstone dam? Park naturalists are examining the original CCC records to find answers.

Eddie Miller, a Fisher Cave guide in the late 1930s, has told some of the best stories about early tours. He says even in his day, tour groups experienced the ballroom in total darkness by putting lanterns in a box. The largest tour group taken into the cave was over 200 people! One of many stories the early guides told is that the bat guano in the ballroom was said to be coffee grounds from the governor's ball. Eddie Miller's story of the bear loose in Fisher Cave during a tour is legendary.

In 1958, Tex Yokum's cave-survey team found the Hugh Dill Room beyond a long stream crawlway. This has turned out to be the largest room in Fisher Cave, with approximate dimensions of 500 by 100 ft., and an average ceiling height of about 12 ft. Hugh Dill, son of Thomas Benton Dill and Lester's brother, was not only an early cave guide. He served as park superintendent from 1941-45, and again from 1956-19xx. Halfway to the Hugh Dill Room is the Bear Claw Marks Room, which more than lives up to its name.

In 1978, the DNR gave funds to reestablish a permanent, fulltime naturalist in the park. This was an important step for Fisher Cave. From that point on, park naturalists took over Fisher Cave tours. Earlier cave guides had been hired by the park concessionaire, and were often unqualified.