Ozark caves served as shelters for several before the Civil War

My daughter, Christy, and I took a little trip over to the Big Piney River in mid-April, where I grew up.  I wanted to show her some caves I remember, caves that my grandfather had shown me more than 50 years ago.

He found many of them just because when he trapped the river in the winter, he would look for overhangs on the river and feeder tributaries where he could build a fire and be a little warmer through the night.

I forgot my hip boots, something I wouldn’t have ever done when I was a kid on the Piney. Of course when I was a kid, my hip boots always were hand-me-downs and they usually leaked. But you only used them half the year, the other half of the year you waded in old shoes or sneakers.

So I did some wading again in the Big Piney.

I did good, though, to remember my camera, boat and paddles… and some lights!

Looked a long time for that one cave I remember that grandpa said only he knew about back decades ago. Found the first one easy and a third one he hadn’t told me about, but the one that had big rooms back in the back and a waterfall took some looking.

The entrance to that one is small and well hidden, and I found that day a couple of weeks back that what I could crawl into so easily in 1962 was one heck of a challenge today. I think that entrance has grown smaller!!

Those caves had some little orange salamanders back in them a ways, but there were formations that were absolutely beautiful in size and shape and color. When I was a kid, folks would go into a cave in various areas of the Ozarks and break off stalagmites and stalactites and carve on the walls.

But that is exactly why grandpa Dablemont told me to never take anyone to see the hidden ones, or the hard-to-find ones. I thought about blindfolding my daughter so I could protect the location of those we saw that day, but I decided I could trust her.

She was in awe of what we found, and like me, a little apprehensive about going back into a cavern through small openings with small lights. But she was awed by all we saw.

I want everyone to see some of the pictures we took, so I put 8 or 10 of them on my website and if you have a computer or have someone who does have, for pete’s sake take a look, you will be amazed. You ought to be able to see them at larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com.

We found one thing that I don’t remember seeing, something that looks like a petrified jawbone with teeth sticking out of a rock wall. Formations in caves form usually up or down according to the drip or the flow of water, but the teeth on this thing stuck out at a 90 degree angle to the floor.

I would like to think it is a petrified jawbone but I would hate to bet one way or the other. Take a look and see what you think.

When I was only about 14, I and a couple of cousins dug down into the floor of a huge dry cave and found an assortment of artifacts that I have on my office wall today. One was a four-inch piece of ivory with a hole drilled in it. Those items are pictured in my book, “Rivers To Run.”

As we sat resting at the mouth of the first cave, Christy remarked that a family could wall it off and live inside the cave. I told her that it was likely that the only time it had been without dwellers of some sort was the last 200 years.

We found a piece of clay pottery a couple of inches across and a quarter-inch thick, back in the dark recess of that cave. It was made of baked clay and tiny ground up pieces of mussel shell. The outside was decorated a little with striations, the way so much of the pottery that bluff dwellers used was adorned.

I have spent much time thinking about those people who were there, maybe 500 years ago, maybe thousands of years before. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to see what they were like, to hear their language and see what a day of their life consisted of, what they ate, how they slept, what games they played.

Yes, I told my daughter, people lived here before and some of the grandparents and great-grandparents that many of us have were born in caves in the Ozarks, because they were shelters for those who came here before the civil war hoping to clear a small place along the river or creek for a cabin. If it took a couple of months to build that cabin, they had shelter in the yawning mouths of caves.

I spent many a night sleeping in caves on fishing trips on Ozark rivers. And when my dad was a boy, they always had a vacation during the hottest months of the year, living, sleeping and eating in the cool protection of a dry-floor cave on the Big Piney, one big enough to place a semi and trailer in.

But is that over forever, never to be again? I wouldn’t bet on it. Those who believe nuclear weapons will never be used again do not know about Iran and North Korea.

If there comes a time when turning back to the earth is the best way to survive, those caves may be shelters again.

It might be that the few who survive some catastrophe like a war or a meteorite, will be those who know how to find a deep rock shelter that once sheltered primitive people way back before we had electric plug-ins and the only light at night was a bright warm flame.

(Larry Dablemont lives in southwest Missouri. He can be reached by email at lightninridge@windstream.net, or by phone at 417-777-5227.)

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