Waldo Powell poses in the entrance to Fairy Cave. (Courtesy of Talking Rocks Cavern)
BRANSON WEST – Branson’s tourist boom fundamentally began because of a giant hole in the ground.
After all, it was a cave that called Truman Powell to the area — and it was he who served as inspiration for the namesake shepherd in “The Shepherd of the Hills.” The novel, published in 1907, drew huge numbers of visitors to see the sites and people they read about in Harold Bell Wright’s vividly penned pages.
One of the places those visitors frequented was Fairy Cave. “The shepherd” was one of the cave’s first explorers in the 1890s, and it was his family who opened it to the public in 1921. At the time of its opening, the Springfield Leader newspaper wrote that Fairy was said to be “the most beautiful cavern in the Ozarks,” even outranking three-mile-away Marvel Cave.
Nearly 100 years later, the cave is still seeing visitors. Its fairy-like formations show visitors unique Ozarks beauty, views very similar to what its first explorers saw way back when.
Most people nowadays, however, know Fairy Cave by a different name: Talking Rocks Cavern.
Coming for a cave
Even though Fairy Cave became the Powell family’s longest-lasting contribution to Branson’s tourism scene, it wasn’t that cave that brought Truman Powell to Branson. Instead, it was what is known today as Marvel Cave — the heart-and-start of Silver Dollar City — that he came to see.
A newspaperman from Lamar, Mo., Truman Powell was lured to the area by the giant cave on doctor’s orders after he began feeling “puny,” says grandson Walker Powell, who today lives near Branson West.
“(The doctor) told him, ‘You better get out of that newspaper office, you’ve been in there too long and you need to get some outside air,’” says Powell.
After renting a horse and buggy, Truman Powell came to the area and explored the cave, which had been dubbed Marble Cave in 1869. Eventually, he would own the land through his part in the Marble Cave Mining and Manufacturing Company.
“A group of Union Civil War veterans, including Truman S. Powell … had formed the company for the purpose of exploiting the resources of the cave,” according to “The Story of Silver Dollar City,” a book about the theme park’s history. “It is not known what their expertise in minerals was. They may have even believed the folklore that Spanish gold had been buried in the cave.”
A town, initially dubbed Marble City but later changed to Marmaros — the Greek word for marble — sprang up near the development. At the time, it was hoped the area might blossom into a resort area similar to Eureka Springs, Ark.
Things didn’t go quite according to plan.
Truman Powell spent the next several years mining the cave — not for lead or marble but bat guano, which was a key ingredient in gun powder way back when. The operation lasted around six years, his grandson says, before it closed and the town became a ghost. Later, it was destroyed by fire in the late 1880s.
But Truman Powell’s connection wasn’t finished. After it seemed the cave’s resources had been depleted, he was tasked with finding a buyer for the cave.
It was beneficial that the newspaperman hadn’t completely adhered to doctor’s orders when he moved. He continued in that business as well, and used it as a medium to write about the cave.
“Historians believe it was through one of (Truman) Powell’s stories that William H. Lynch, a Canadian, heard about Marble Cave,” according to the book “Missouri Caves in History and Legend.” “(Lynch) made a visit to the wilderness site and was so taken by the cave’s mystique that he bought it.”
The Lynches opened Marble Cave — eventually renamed Marvel Cave — as one of Missouri’s first show caves in 1894.
However, the area was so remote in those days that very few visitors came to the cave. Just a few years later, however, the atmosphere changed.
The White River Railway began bringing visitors to the region in 1906, just in time for “The Shepherd of the Hills” phenomenon. Published a year later, the book gave people a reason to visit and the train gave them a way to get there.
To put it in perspective, “the only thing that outsold ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’ was the Bible back in 1917,” says Walker Powell.
Opening Fairy Cave
The “Shepherd” hoopla also inspired the Powells to get into the show cave business. It was likely an easy decision, especially since they already owned a cave of their own, Fairy Cave, which had been discovered by two boys out hunting in 1883.
Several years later, Truman Powell was one of its first explorers and even christened it. After coming back to the surface, “He said, ‘All I can tell you is it’s like an underground fairy land,'” recounts his grandson.
One of Fairy Cave’s first buildings. (Courtesy of Talking Rocks Cavern)
It’s not immediately clear when the Powells acquired the property, but it was quite some time before 1921. That was when Waldo Powell, Walker Powell’s father and Truman Powell’s son, improved it enough to let the public take a peek.
“(Waldo Powell) lowered timbers into the cave and built up a scaffolding, one section on top of another, until it reached the entrance,” recorded the St. Louis Star and Times in December 1921. “Then he constructed runways around the cave and invited the public.”
Visitors came for their first look on September 2 and 3 of that same year.
“The cave was viewed by 150 people, including 50 tourists,” reported the Springfield Leader in September 1921. “Among the tourists was a group that had visited the Cave of the Winds in Colorado, and they said their impression of Fairy Cave was that it was larger and more beautiful than the Colorado cave.”
Walker Powell, now nearly 100 years old, still recalls those opening events.
“I was about 4 years old. I got out on that platform and I did a jig dance. They had a merry-go-round pulled by a donkey,” says Powell. “This is all stuff I remember. You would think I don’t remember that stuff, but I do.”
Waldo Powell stands in front of one of Fairy Cave’s early buildings. (Courtesy of Talking Rocks Cavern)
One factor that likely improved Fairy Cave’s chances of success was new roads, on which more government focus was being placed.
“Mr. (Waldo) Powell called attention to the fact that with the improvement of highways in southern Missouri the number of tourists is increasing from year to year, and predicts that the greater portion of resorts in this section will be forced to increase their capacity within the next few years,” reported the Leader in August 1926.
Those improvements probably wouldn’t seem like much by 21st-century standards — but they made quite a difference back then. “The best Stone County could boost of, in terms of an improved road system, was a twelve-mile stretch of State Highway 43 (later 13) with a graded earth surface; the rest of the highway remained unimproved,” noted “Shepherd of the Hills Country,” a book about Branson’s early tourism development. “Such improvements did shorten travel time considerably. By 1921 the trip from Springfield to Fairy Cave, west of Marvel Cave, a distance comparable to the mileage from Springfield to Branson, could be made in just over two and one-half hours.”
By 1927, the Powells were expecting 10,000 tourists to stop by the cave.
“Mr. (Waldo) Powell said he had expended a large sum of money building concrete stairs to replace wooden ones, improving the road to the cave and otherwise preparing for a big season,” recorded the Leader in March 1927. “Last year, nearly 5,000 persons visited the cave and he expects twice that many during the coming season.”
Formations inside Fairy Cave
And Walker Powell was there in the middle of it all. He recalls a childhood spent growing up in and out of the cave, and the responsibilities that went along with a family business.
As a youngster, some of his jobs included parking cars — and at the same time helping with advertising. In those days, that consisted of attaching “bumper cards” promoting Fairy Cave to visitors’ automobiles while they toured the cave. Aluminum wire fit the ads over bumpers — but “some people didn’t like them, they’d tear them off and throw them away,” says Powell. “That made me mad. I didn’t like that.”
He recalls the visits by Pearl Spurlock, one of Branson’s first tour guides. “Well, I parked her car in a certain place,” he says. “She came, I believe, on a Monday. And I had a place right next to the steps.”
Fairy Cave’s parking lot is shown in the 1930s. Pearl Spurlock’s taxi is shown at front left. (Courtesy of Talking Rocks Cavern)
Spurlock brought visitors to the cave each week as part of a “Shepherd of the Hills” tour. “Well, that was a big thing back in those days when we had the cave open,” says Powell. “‘Course, my dad, he’d try to straighten people out, that the story wasn’t true and all that stuff.”
After all, the Powells’ connection to the book wasn’t limited to Truman Powell. His son, Waldo, also inspired the character Ollie Stewart. They were connections Spurlock capitalized on, as preserved in “Over the Old Ozark Trails,” her tour lecture that was printed in book form:
“Waldo Powell, owner of Fairy Cave, tells us as well as many old-timers do, that he is the Ollie Stewart in the Shepherd of the Hills story. He was supposed to have been Sammy Lane’s sweetheart. He says Sammy and he went together only when she had no other company, and then it was only as many friends would be together; they had no thought of marrying as the story says.
“The Shepherd of the Hills and Ollie Stewart, as the characters are portrayed in the story, are no kin, but in real life they were father and son.”
And grandson, as Walker Powell still remembers today.
“Well, she’d get up (the stairs) about halfway and say, ‘Folks, here is the grandson of “The Shepherd of the Hills!”’” recalls Powell.
The connection offered the young Powell a personal one with Harold Bell Wright. “I shook … Harold Bell Wright’s hand twice,” says Powell. “And I’m probably the only man alive around here that ever shook his hand.”
Walker Powell, pictured at Silver Dollar City’s Founders’ Day celebration in 2016.
When the Powells decided to start feeding visitors — after all, there were scant few places for tourists to eat in those days — Walker was also responsible for finding out if folks wanted to stay for lunch.
Adults were $1 and kids were 50 cents for the likes of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. “So they’d tell me how many would be eating, and I’d go tell my mom so her and my sister Marjorie would have an hour or so to fix that for so many people.”
Those individuals likely enjoyed the homemade fare — as did, on one particular day, Powell’s pet bobcat. “Well, this bobcat somehow, he got loose. And as Marjorie took the plate of chicken through there, he caught that door and away he went,” says Powell.
“She set that platter of chicken right in the middle of the table and that cat … went right in the middle of the chicken. Scared (the tourists) to death and they ran out of there.”
As he grew, Walker Powell’s roles at the cave did, too. When he was 17, he even started “guiding” himself.
“I worked for $1 a trip (and) I’d make sometimes nine trips a day through there,” says Powell, noting that if they had a $100 day, he’d get an extra dollar. “Once in a while, I’d have to carry a little child — I didn’t trust the mothers going down the steps.”
While in the cave, he’d point out its unique features, including the angel-like formation and the musical stalactites. “I made a rubber mallet out of the inside of a golf ball … to tap them with,” says Powell. “My sister’d say she could play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on it. It was a beautiful tune. They don’t show that anymore. They’re afraid somebody might break it.”
In the cave’s early days, guides would even allow guests to break off parts of the formations to take home as souvenirs. That ended by 1929, however, when the federal government passed new regulations forbidding the removal of anything from caves.
Hazel and Pansy Powell, Walker Powell’s sisters, also “guided” in the cave. (Courtesy of Talking Rocks Cavern)
It was a lucrative business in those days. “The cave and its visitors take so much time that we don’t do much farming or ranching any more,” said cave guide Hazel Powell, one of Walker Powell’s sisters, in an article in the Leader from 1927. “All the land is in pasture, we keep only a few goats and cattle. Why should we worry with crops when 3,000 visitors or more come here within a single month, each paying us girls a dollar to show them through Fairy Cave?”
Fairy Cave’s angel-like formation is shown circa 1940, and in 2017. (Vintage photo courtesy of “Over the Old Ozark Trails”)
Despite Fairy Cave’s success, it wasn’t the only underground playground in the neighborhood. All the while, the Lynch family — sisters Genevieve and Miriam — were still operating Marvel Cave around three miles away.
Looking back, Walker Powell says that there was competition between the operations — but it wasn’t talked about. He mentions drives into Branson that would occasionally result in a stop by Marvel Cave and a chat with one of the Lynch sisters out by the mailbox.
“‘Oh, Mr. Powell, Mr. Powell, so glad to see you!” recalls Powell of the sister’s reaction to seeing his father, Waldo. “You’d think they were long-lost lovers. So they’d have a nice conversation and discuss business. They got along OK, but they really didn’t like each other too much I don’t think.”
The presence of both caves, however, didn’t seem to impact their success. Both operated strictly as caving operations for decades. It wasn’t until 1950 when things began to change.
Seeking retirement, the sisters leased the cave to Hugo and Mary Herschend. The transition resulted in another legacy — and another story — that defines Branson today. It marked the start of Silver Dollar City.
But even after the Herschends took over Marvel Cave, the two attractions continued operating just as they had been for years. Walker Powell became friends with Jack Herschend, one of Hugo and Mary’s sons, and even recounts the time when Herschend asked if he could pay to erect a sign advertising his attraction on Powell’s land. “I said, ‘You don’t owe me a thing — put your sign up there free of charge.’” recalls Powell. “And he appreciated that.”
By that time, Powell was personally managing Fairy Cave. His father had passed away in 1949, leaving the entire operation in his care. Conflicting personalities made it a challenge, but it was something he stuck with for 20 years.
In 1969, however, things changed: Silver Dollar City acquired Fairy Cave.
“The purchase, amounting to a six-figure sum, was made from Mrs. Waldo Powell of rural Reeds Spring, her son, Walker Powell, and daughters Miss Hazel Powell, Mrs. Pansy Albers and Mrs. Margie Phitzer, all of rural Reeds Spring,” recorded the Springfield Leader & Press in October 1969.
According to an official with the cave today, the Herschends’ decision to acquire Fairy Cave was simply based on passion. “Jack Herschend was a cave explorer and fond of caves,” says Chris Gertson, who manages the cave. “When the opportunity came available to purchase the cave and the property, they did so to run as an independent attraction.”
The change in ownership, however, resulted in the change of something else: Its name, which switched from Fairy Cave to Talking Rocks Cavern.
Powell says the decision was made because of connotations of the word “fairy” in that era, but Gertson says it was simply an opportunity to rebrand.
A mural tells the tale of Fairy-turned-Talking-Rocks.
Regardless of why it happened, the name change still tied to the cave’s history. “(Waldo Powell) would sit down there for hours, and he said that the rocks spoke to him,” says tour guide Mark Collier. “That they told him a story.”
The cave owners took those sentiments seriously. “They added speakers behind everything, and had a big, loud booming voice, and it was kind of biblical sounding,” says Collier. However, some people just thought it was a little much, resulting in the speakers being pulled six years later. “We hid them so well that it scared a lot of people.”
The more than 37,000 guests projected to visit Talking Rocks Cavern in 2017, however, still hear the story from guides — and literally walk into part of it. Today, visitors enter the same place where its first ones did nearly 100 years ago.
“It’s the same thing,” says Collier of the entrance. “We just dug it out a little bit.” Showing an early photo of Waldo Powell in the cave, he identifies a distinguishable feature of the rock and compares it to the entrance today. “You can see that crease in the rock there?” he says. “It’s that crease. The same spot.”
Want to visit?
Talking Rocks Cavern (423 Fairy Cave Ln., Branson West) is open Monday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information, connect with the cave via its website, on Facebook or by phone at 417-272-3366.
“10,000 visitors at Fairy Cave expected,” Springfield Leader, March 29, 1927
“Fairy Cave is latest freak of nature in Ozark country,” Springfield Leader, Dec. 20, 1921
“Fairy Cave Park to be opened in near future,” Springfield Leader, Sept. 12, 1921
“Fairy Cave is purchased,” Springfield Leader & Press, Oct. 9, 1969
“Marvel Cave is again in control of W.H. Lynch,” Springfield Republican, July 10, 1913
“Missouri Caves in History and Legend,” H. Dwight Weaver, 2008
“New route found in Missouri cavern,” St. Louis Star and Times, Dec. 18, 1921
“Novel character says all others are dead,” Springfield Leader, Oct. 18, 1927
“Numerous tourists visiting Ozarks, Waldo Powell says,” Springfield Leader, Sept. 11, 1926
“Over the Old Ozark Trails,” Pearl Spurlock, 1942
“Shepherd of the Hills Country: Tourism Transforms the Ozarks, 1880s – 1930s” Lynn Morrow, 1999
“The Story of Silver Dollar City, Crystal Payton, 1997
“Youthful sisters are guides for tourists at Fairy Cave,” Springfield Leader, Aug. 28, 1927