Bluff Dwellers Cavern, one of McDonald County’s vintage show caves, has been welcoming visitors since 1927.
NOEL – In McDonald County, beauty is more than dirt-deep: At least 100 caves dot the county’s geological landscape, each offering unique views of the world from within.
In the early half of the 20th century, those glimpses were more readily available than they are today. The “show-cave” business used to boom in that part of the state, and local caves — Mt. Shira, Mystery and Wind, to name a few — drew visitors to what are known as the Elk and Spring River basins.
Of those vintage show caves, only one still allows visitors to tour. That cave is Bluff Dwellers Cavern, which has been open to the public since 1927 and is operated by the same family who discovered it more than 90 years ago.
Discovery and development
Bluff Dwellers Cavern in its early years (Courtesy of Bluff Dwellers Cavern)
Bluff Dwellers Cavern was discovered by accident: The man involved was Arthur Browning, and the year was 1925. “He was out setting a trap one day, and a small hole opened up, and when he felt cold air he knew there was a cave,” says MaryJane Fischer, manager and tour guide at Bluff Dwellers.
After enlarging the hole enough to wriggle inside, Browning became the first white man to enter the cave — and what he found impressed him so much that he decided the public might like to see it, too.
The next two years were spent getting the cave ready for visitors. Walkways were created, bridges were built and lighting was added. Great pains, however, were taken to disturb the cave as little as possible. “In their minds, they were thinking, ‘Keep it natural,'” says Fischer.
During the cave’s excavation, arrows, stone implements and animal bones were discovered — and as they dug deeper, the bones became human.
“Pieces of skull bone, sufficient to give the pattern when placed around a clay mass, indicated that a flat-headed man had sheltered beneath this cliff at the time it stood open,” said Katherine Browning, daughter of the cavern’s discoverer, in the book “Missouri the Cave State” in 1980.
Those discoveries led to the cavern’s christening as Bluff Dwellers. And after two years of work, “they opened this on June 2, 1927 and it’s been open ever since,” says Fischer.
While Bluff Dwellers has been operated by the Browning family since its discovery, some accounts also tie a man named J.A. Truitt to the cavern.
Nicknamed “Cave Man of the Ozarks,” Truitt wasn’t an Ozarks native: He moved to Noel with his wife, Lenah, in 1914. After discovering a cave in his back yard, he spent the rest of his life developing more than half a dozen show caves in McDonald County.
The details are hazy, but Truitt became connected with Bluff Dwellers in some capacity along the way. What is obvious, however, is that media loved Truitt. His caving ventures were well documented in newspapers nationwide, and several even listed him as an owner of Bluff Dwellers:
“… Mr. Truitt, owner of the Bluff Dwellers Cave is not interested in hidden treasure,” reported a newspaper article featured in “From the Cave to the Cradle,” a 1954 book about Truitt. “Several times he has been asked to assist in treasure hunts but has always declined to take part in such an adventure. He attaches little significance to the stories of treasures concealed in Ozarks caves. The only wealth they hold for him is possibilities of development as attractions to tourists.”
Perhaps the media’s fascination with Truitt was fueled by his inherent knack for public relations. “He had a way of gathering publicity no matter what he did,” says H. Dwight Weaver, author of the aforementioned “Missouri the Cave State.”
Weaver is a local authority on geology: In addition to penning five books about caves, he retired from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources where he was the geological division’s public information officer.
However, even he is unsure of the details surrounding Truitt and the Brownings’ relationship. Regardless of the circumstances (and despite media claims) it’s clear that the Brownings have continuously owned the cave — and that the arrangement between the two parties didn’t last.
(Note: Come back next Monday for a deeper look at Truitt’s connection with local caves in an article featuring his namesake cavern, Truitt’s Cave.)
Exploring Bluff Dwellers
“This is a water-formed cave,” says manager MaryJane Fischer. “That means that 300 million years ago, give or take 100 million, this was the bottom of the ocean.”
Bluff Dwellers is unique for a number of reasons. Author J. Harlen Bretz wrote in “Caves of Missouri” that the cavern is “one of the few Missouri caves with a ground plan of intersecting passages which are somewhat like streets in a town.” Other features include the presence of dome-pits and lapies, the latter which Weaver describes as grooves in the cave’s domes.
It takes a little less than an hour to tour the public portion of the cave. The lobby is the first room to see, which is topped by a large dome composed of several smaller ones.
Feature-wise, Bluff Dwellers showcases stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and draperies, as well as saw-tooth drapes, flowstone, cave popcorn, cave coral, and cave sponge. And, with a flick of Fischer’s flashlight, food. “Look at this bacon,” she says, shining through a strip of formation that, in her words, resembles “big Ozarks fatty bacon.”
Other sights mimic forks, ghosts, buddhas and angels. And besides those atypical cave features, Fischer points out a footprint-like spot that “proves” Bigfoot walked through the cave.
Perhaps doubting Thomases will be more inclined to believe that other critters — sight-seen this time — have called the cave home. Some varieties include bats, salamanders, albino crayfish, cave crickets and Northern Spring Peepers, a type of frog.
There’s also another creature that can only be found at Bluff Dwellers: the elusive Cave Duck, which has resided in the cave for at least 70 years. “Kids would be afraid when they came in here,” says Fischer. “And so once they saw the duck, it was better. And I had it happen. A little kid was crying, he didn’t want to be in here, and when he turned the corner and saw the duck, he started laughing and he forgot he was scared.”
Bluff Dwellers’ Cave Duck — dubbed Ducky — has been around since at least 1945, preserved through lack of sunlight and temperature shifts.
The tour is accented by “musical chimes,” a formation that sounds like a marimba when lightly tapped. There’s also a large, thin slab of ceiling rock that is known as the cave’s “balanced” rock, since it rests on a smaller stone below it.
However, although that rock is a novelty, it’s not natural. “As a fallen slab, it may be many centuries old, but as a balanced rock it is not more than 30 years old,” wrote Bretz in 1956.
The tour’s next-to-last stop is a body of water dubbed Crystal Lake. The water is so quiet that footprints — made by Browning’s first trip into the bluff — are still visible. And as one exits the cave, there’s another nod to history: A sign identifying the cavern as a fallout shelter.
Crystal Lake (top left) still shows where Arthur Browning walked through the cave in 1925; the cave was also designated as a fallout shelter (top right).
When Bluff Dwellers opened in 1927, the show-cave business was a relatively new phenomena. At the time, Bluff Dwellers was only the 14th such cave in Missouri: However, between 1930 and 1949, 20 new caves opened throughout the state — and by 1990, the number of attempted ventures had grown to nearly 55.
Part of those openings occurred for economic reasons — for some, caves seemed like a good way to make money during the Great Depression — but their popularity was accelerated by the conclusion of World War II. “Travel was easier, GIs were coming home and they were going, seeing things,” says Weaver. “Tourism became prominent in Missouri. So that led to a lot of show cave development…”
However, for many of those caves, success was short-lived. “The cave business is really a tricky one to make a living at,” says Weaver. “They come and go as far as their operation is concerned because you can lose your shirt in one of those operations pretty quick and easy.”
Weaver notes that a lot of work is required to make a cave successful — especially nowadays, with limited access highways and stricter billboard regulations. Today, “we only have about … 15 caves that are shown to the public, maybe fewer than that,” says Weaver.
That’s only a drop in the bucket when compared with Missouri’s 7,000 recorded caves. But Weaver notes that nearly 70 percent are located on private property, and various factors such as archeological research, special projects and the presence of endangered species also restrict access to some. One example is Riverbluff Cave near Springfield, which contains some of America’s oldest fossils and is closed to the public.
That said, show caves are still an option for the people wanting a peek. Some well-known local names include Marvel Cave at Silver Dollar City, Fantastic Caverns near Springfield and Talking Rocks Cavern in Branson West — and, of course, Bluff Dwellers in Noel.
Want to visit?
In addition to the cave, visitors can also tour an adjacent museum, which contains a variety of artifacts, vintage photos and antiques.
After Browning passed away in 1958, several of his children took turns leading Bluff Dwellers’ operation. The last was daughter Reita, who passed away in 2015 — leaving the next generation to run the cave.
During most of the year, it’s open seven days a week, with a slightly shorter schedule during January and February. Besides the cavern, there’s also a museum that showcases a variety of antiques and artifacts — including a petrified bird’s nest and 646 arrowheads and tools. However, all of the natural-found specimens were bought and brought in. “(That’s) because (Mr. Browning) said take nothing out of this cave,” says Fischer. “We’re invading it, so we have to follow Mr. Browning’s (wishes).”