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Rural Missouri Magazine
Buried Treasure
Loyd and Edith Richardson's Crystal Cave offers a glimpse of Missouri's underground wonders

by Bob McEowen

Loyd Richardson leads a group of visitors to an iron gate and pauses to prepare his guests for what they’re about to see. He speaks in short, declarative sentences as he begins to tell the story of Crystal Cave.

Loyd Richardson points out cave features to Rose Mary Casteel, who toured Crystal Cave while traveling from Searcy, Ark., with her family. All tours of the cave are led by Loyd or his wife, Edith.

“The cave is natural throughout — no man-made stuff except the lights and the pathway,” he says. “We ask you not to touch it, feel of it, rub it — does a little damage. Just look at it. If you’ve got a camera, take pictures anywhere you like.

“I’m deaf on this side so if you say something and I don’t answer, I didn’t hear you — old age getting to me.”

This humble apology is the only indication of Loyd’s advancing age. At 86, he effortlessly heads down a steep flight of stone steps, leaving his much-younger visitors to precariously find their footing. He opens an antique gate, salvaged from an old Springfield jail, and passes into the first room of the cave.

Together with his wife, Edith, Loyd has been leading these tours since 1982 when the couple bought the cave from Estle Funkhouser, Edith’s sister. Funkhouser inherited the cave from the last surviving daughter of Alfred Mann, who developed the cave as an attraction in 1893. Located 5 miles north of Springfield on Highway H, Crystal Cave was the second commercial cave in Missouri, opened seven years after Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal.

“When they first started showing this cave they charged a quarter,” says Loyd, who collects $9 for adult tours today. “Ten cents,” Edith corrects him. “But see that’s been a lot of years ago. And that would have been a lot of money then.”

An early postcard promotes Crystal Cave.

Edith grew up nearby the cave and the couple visited often during trips home from Kansas, where Loyd ran the paint shop at Beech Aircraft.

“We’d come down here from Wichita and visit with her folks. Then we’d come by here and howdy with them,” Loyd says of time spent with the three Mann sisters. “Maybe stay an hour or 15 minutes or whatever. We never had any idea we’d ever own the cave.”

Once, when Highway 65 passed nearby, Crystal Cave was a popular tourist spot. But the highway moved 7 miles east and business dropped off along with the traffic. Today, few tourists are aware of Crystal Cave. Those who do come usually follow the hearty recommendation of a previous visitor.

“People just traveling along the highway or briefly stopping in Missouri to visit a cave tend to go for the larger ones. They’re probably not going to go to Crystal Cave,” says Dwight Weaver, a retired public information officer for Department of Natural Resources and the author of five books about Missouri’s caves.

“But I’ve always regarded Crystal Cave as one of those little gems sitting back in the woods that a lot of people are missing.”

The state’s better-known caves paint their names on barn roofs or put up huge billboards to attract tourists to their underground spectacles. Once inside, visitors often find an unnatural underworld, aglow in colored lights and lined with paved walkways. One cave even touts the comfort of its Jeep-drawn trams.

Visitors examine formations inside Crystal Cave.

Named for its sparkling calcite deposits, Crystal Cave offers no such artificiality. A simple string of electric lights barely illuminates each room. Passages are often narrow and occasionally low. “You grown ups will have to bend in a few places,” Loyd tells a family touring the cave. “Don’t raise up too quick. The rock is real solid.”

What Crystal Cave lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for in geologic wonders, each assigned a descriptive name by the Mann family and highlighted in the beam of a rechargeable flashlight as Edith or Loyd guides groups from cavern to cavern.

The cave’s Washington Monument formation is a pair of giant stalagmites that leave no doubt whether they “might” reach the ceiling. They’re almost there. Massive vertical columns in the Cathedral Chamber have been broken in two and offset by some prehistoric seismic episode. Another room contains helictites, soda-straw-like stalactites that mysteriously twist and grow sideways.

“How they grow I can’t explain,” Loyd says. “It’s real strange stuff.”

Missing from the tour are the legends that so often come with other caves. There’s no stories about Tom Sawyer or Jesse James here.

“We try to tell as true a story as we can,” Loyd says. “There’s so much stuff down there there’s no use stretching the truth. Just tell it like it is.”

Weaver, whose book, “Wilderness Underground: Caves of the Ozark Plateau,” includes photographs of Missouri’s most spectacular caves, agrees. “It’s a very pretty cave. It’s got some beautiful things in it,” he says.

“So many of the caves in Missouri it just seems like they run down a long stream passage. This one seems to be more compartmentalized. You feel more like you’re in a well-decorated rooming house the way you move from room to room.”

The decorations are definitely the focus of the tour, as Loyd directs his guest’s attention to visually interesting things along the path. While Loyd briefly touches on how caves are formed, the tour is not a science lesson. “I don’t pretend to know anything about geology. I know a little but not enough to explain,” he says.

Loyd opens an old iron gate to begin the tour. Visitors have been touring the cave since 1893,

Instead, Loyd recalls the cave’s history. He shows pictographs on the ceiling and explains that Osage Indians once sheltered inside. Mostly, though, he delights his guests with whimsical interpretations of the formations found in the cave.

“Some of the rocks along the wall kind of resemble animals — birds, fish, one looks like a chicken sitting in a nest,” he says. “You have to imagine a little but that’s the way it looks to me.”

Weaver, who has written about the history of show caves in Missouri, says the personal touch the Richardsons and other small cave owners bring to their tours makes for a special visit.

“When people go through the larger caves they tend to get a canned tour. But when the owner himself takes you on the tour you get a whole different kind of look at the cave,” he says. “You get a look at the personality of the owner too. You get to learn things about the cave that you’d never learn otherwise.”

Clearly, meeting Loyd and hearing his plans for the cave are among the highlights of this tour. At an age when most men settle into rocking chairs Loyd continues to take pick and shovel to create stairs and open passageways to cave rooms previously accessible only through narrow crawl spaces. He still builds railing, strings lights and hauls chat into the cave to lay down on passageways.

Visitors make their way down a narrow passage. At age 86, Loyd still digs new passageways, opening more chambers of Crystal Cave to the public.

“I’ll be opening some more cave,” he tells a recent tour group. “I’ve got a whole lot of cave open but there’ll be more open by next year if I can stay active and I think I can.”

Loyd, who also tends cattle, cuts firewood and cares for 120 acres, appears as fit as men half his age. Edith, 85, also seems unfazed by the rigor of cave tours. “We enjoy it or we wouldn’t do it,” she says.

Together they carry on a tradition begun more than 100 years ago, sharing this piece of Missouri’s underground with tourists.

Whether it’s the beauty of the cave or the inspiration of the Richardsons themselves, Loyd says people seem to like what they see.

“We get lots of good comments,” he says. “Hardly a person that goes in there don’t come by shaking hands with us and thanking us and they’re going to tell their friends.”

For more information about Crystal Cave call (417) 833-9599.

 

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