Monday, March 31, 2014
Lee & Fritz
Three Short Summers: The Story of Hiawatha Caverns (written for the Journal of Spelean History, July, 1974)
by Gary K. Soule
Hiawatha Gaverns is a formerly commercialized cave located in the hilly farmland near Witoka, in southeastern Minnesota. Although the cave was discovered as recently as 1962, and operated commercially during the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966. today the only thing remaining is an old shed with the words "Hiawatha Caverns" in big red letters painted on it. Inside the shed a few of the old directional signs to the cave may be found, and a short distance down a brush-covered hill one may find the entrance to a steeply slanted metal tunnel that disappears into the side of a hill. Although the farmer Ed Meitzke, who owns the land tries to keep the tunnel door locked, vandals have partly succeeded in destroying what at one time was a very pretty commercial cave.
One Spring Ed Neitzke noticed that a narrow shaft open ed up on the side of a hill that was being used as a cow pasture. He was afraid of losing a cow into the opening. so he filled it with fence posts. Shortly afterwards a neighbor boy. Carl Douglas, tied a piece of rope to a fence post and worked his way down a narrow partially blocked opening. He discovered a cave, that according to the Winona Daily News reports, reached a depth of 70 feet and had a length of about 1/4 mile. (After seeing the cave myself I would say the total depth is about 30 to 40 feet, and the cave has a little bit less than l/8th mile of passage which had been opened to the public.)
The cave went largely unnoticed until the following year, when two Illinois business men became interested in the cave. They talked the owner into giving them a 99-year lease on the cave so that they could commercialize it. In turn, they would pay him $2,500 a year, plus 10% of all admission fees collected. They spent all of 1963 and the first six months of 1964 developing the cave at a cost of $20,000.
The development included removing about 1/2 million pounds of clay and rock, and digging a new horizontal entrance into the cave. Colored electric lights and graveled walkways were put into the cave.
The commercial cave tours were priced at $2.00 for adults and lasted about one hour. At one time, there had been another entrance to the cave some 15 yards from the main entrance. but today it is sealed shut. All the cave guides were girls and at one. time ten of them were employed.
The third summer, a man named Blanchard took over the management of the cave. The managers realized that the cave was not going to be a success. One summer night during the 1966 tourist season, this second owner packed up and left in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again. The cave was crudely run until the fall of 1966, and then closed for good, thus adding another name to the never ending list of commercial caves that are no more.
For those who are interested in old commercial cave literature and related memorabilia, it should be pointed out that in addition to several newspaper clippings and ads, the cave had two different types of red, white and black brochures, a car bumper sticker., and lettered T-shirts that had the cave name printed on them.
The bumper sticker was of the adhesive -type and featured red letters on a black background. A row of simulated stalactites was sketched on the bottom third of the sticker, which read "Newly discovered Hiawatha Caverns". Witoka, Minn.
While it is true that this cave is not historically old like the Decorah Ice Cave and Wompi Cave in Iowa, it still has a fascinating, although short history of its own -- one that should be recorded for the sake of spelean history.
Label location: Minnesota
Pressed by: Kay Bank
The Ballad Of Hiawatha Caverns
Ease My Aching Heart
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