From bunker to burger joint, Truitt’s Cave has a new lease on life

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In 2011, Chris Black bought a cave in McDonald County because believed that society was destined to collapse. When it didn’t, he turned his hideaway into a bar and grill. Today, he owns the restaurant — and a herd of goats.

LANAGAN – Chris Black came to the Ozarks to live in a cave. Despite its dark and dreariness, it was a place in which to take refuge; a safe haven from a world that he felt was on the brink of collapse.

“The term is ‘waking up’ to things,” says Black of his beliefs. “One of the first things you go through is fear when you start seeing all these things. You’re hit with all of these realities of things you thought were something totally different then what you’re being told they are.”

For Black, some of those things involve NASA, 9/11 and even the shape of the earth.

“No, I don’t believe we live on a spinning ball at this point in time,” he says. “I don’t know what exactly realm we live on, but what the powers that be are telling us, I believe is a lie. And it’s been perpetuated for over 500 years.”

Such feelings, accented by a belief that societal collapse was coming in November 2011, caused him to leave his life in Indiana and move to Missouri. He quit his job as an IT specialist with the U.S. Department of Defense, and said goodbye to his longtime girlfriend, Teresa, who decided to stay behind.

“I didn’t leave her, but I said, ‘alright, I’m going,'” recalls Black. “I pretty much came out on my own, and linked up with a bunch of people that I didn’t know.”

Then they waited. But when the collapse didn’t come, the bills still did — and it didn’t take long before Black needed to make some cash. “And after that, I sat around and looked and was like, ’OK, I’ve got to do something,’” he says.

And that’s how Black used his cave to get into the restaurant business. He still believes the collapse is coming: But until then, just look for him in the back. He’s the one making burgers.

Repeating history

Truitt himself
J.A. Truitt’s picture appeared in “From the Cradle to the Cave,” a book about his life that was published in 1954.

When Black bought the McDonald County cave, he wasn’t just acquiring a piece of property: He was investing in history. Although the establishment is known as The Cave Bar & Grill these days, for most of its existence it was simply Truitt’s Cave.

J.A. “Dad” Truitt — the cavern’s first developer — was known as “Cave Man of the Ozarks.” He came to Noel with his wife, Lenah, in 1914, but his love of caves stretched back to his youth when he was a guide at Cave of the Winds in Colorado.

“That’s where he got his real early interest in caves,” says H. Dwight Weaver, cave enthusiast, author and former public information officer for the Department of Natural Resources’ geological division. “I guess he got a summer job there, and it just clicked for him. He liked caves.”

Weaver’s research reveals that Truitt tried to make money a variety of ways after moving to Noel — even going so far as looking for buried treasure in his back yard. Then, one day, he found it: His first cave, which he developed and eventually named Ozark Wonder Cave.

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Hope Star, Dec. 16, 1930

Over the next few decades, Truitt discovered and worked to transform more than six caves into tourist attractions.

“He would develop a cave, run it for a while and try to get it built up, and then he would sell it,” says Weaver. “I think that was his gimmick. I don’t know that it made him a lot of money, but it kept him going.”

Truitt had a reputation for his caves that was known nationwide. An article in a California newspaper in 1932 even reported that Truitt “claims the title of original and only true caveman of the Ozarks underworld.”

But when Truitt opened his namesake cavern at 76 years old, he believed that his caving days would soon come to a close. “Everyone was certain it was his last cave,” wrote Weaver in “Missouri the Cave State,” which was published in 1980. “Even he was halfway convinced. So he named the attraction after himself.”

(His prediction wasn’t correct — he later went on to develop Mystery and Wonder Caves, both of which are also in McDonald County.)

Former dealings in food service

Black’s usage of the cave as a restaurant isn’t a new concept: It’s been in food service on and off since it opened in 1940. A brochure from before 1954 (when Truitt passed away) notes that the cave’s underground dining room is “a delightful place to enjoy eating. The fireplace has a natural flue up through the mountainside, and under the fireplace is a spring and running water — only one in the world according to Ripley of ‘Believe it or not’ fame.”

Truitt Ripley

This postcard’s description proclaimed that “the flue is a natural fissure in the stone, extending from a point just above the fireplace to the surface of the stone many feet above.”

The fireplace wasn’t the only aspect that drew visitors: The cave itself was also an attraction. According to that promotional brochure, visitors would see formations including the Madonna, which was said to be a “true likeness, hair falling over the shoulder and the babe in her arms,” Cave Man’s Wash Board, and Rock Candy Mountain, with “pure crystal formation exactly like the rock candy you purchase.”

And if one needed any more convincing, visitors were reminded that Dad Truitt made the experience a pleasant one with electric lights — and that he’d worked hard to make the attraction affordable.

“It might be appropriate at this time to state that Dad Truitt has not only pioneered in cave explorations in the Ozarks, he pioneered in making the price of a cruise through his cave at 25 cents,” proclaimed the brochure. “You can take your family or a number of friends through and the cost will be painless.”

TRUITTS CAVE circa 1970s

Truitt’s Cave in 1976 (Courtesy of H. Dwight Weaver)

But as times changed, so did the cave: By the time Black purchased the property in 2011, the operation had been shuttered for some time.

“I actually spent probably a month cleaning in here,” he says of the cave’s dining room. “When I first bought it, I had no idea the rocks actually looked like this. (It was) just caked with this fine layer of silt, dirt, dust from years and years and years and years.”

These days, the tour-portion of the cave isn’t open to the public: It might be someday, but Black says right now there’s enough to keep him busy with just the restaurant. That load, however, is shared by his wife — the aforementioned girlfriend — who decided to follow him to the cave in 2013.

“We weren’t married at the time or anything, but I care about him,” says Teresa Ezell. “Through supporting him, there’s been a lot of sacrifices I had to make … but I still support him.”

Today, supporting him means helping run the cave. Like Black, she doesn’t have a background in food service — in Indiana, she was an intercity high school principal — but the couple has managed to make a go of the restaurant.

“I take a lot of pride in the fact that (food service was) not my life,” says Black. “I never did any of that. I wasn’t a chef, but yes, I run the grill in there and I’d say very seldom, if ever, do we have a complaint about our food.”

While the menu consists of a variety of options, it primarily focuses on burgers. All of those are hand-pressed, and named after various cave features — as are other selections, such as the Spelunkers Side Salad and Troglodyte’s Turkey BLT Wrap. “It was really fun that first summer, people asking about the names,” says Ezell.

Ezell has had a lot of first-hand experience with the customers: Especially during their slower, winter season, she’s often out front taking orders and bussing tables. That’s what she did on a recent Saturday morning, dressed in cold-weather gear — the cave isn’t heated — as she brought food to tables.

But when it warms up, the cave’s owners expect to see a lot of motorcyclists rolling in for a rest. “We didn’t imagine that this was going to be a place where motorcycle riders would visit,” says Ezell. “But it did very quickly, becuase it’s just different. It’s been dubbed Truitt’s Ultimate Mancave.”

Looking forward

The cave’s unique atmosphere is accented by a herd of around 20 goats right outside its entrance. “Actually, (the goats are) a big draw,” says Ezell. “And they’re friendly.”

She notes a big black and white one — Harley — that was named by some of their regular biker crowd. “He greets them when they come up.”

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Chris Black pets some of the goats he and his wife, Teresa Ezell, own. The animals are a draw for their restaurant, and often greet visitors upon arrival.

But the goats, friendly as thought they are, weren’t solely brought in for the tourists. “They were part of the scheme of economic collapse,” says Black. It’s a reminder that while the restaurant may be a success, Black still believes that the end is coming.

Does religion play a part in Black’s views? Perhaps, but in a roundabout way.

“…I wasn’t religious until I started really looking into the things I was lied to about,” says Black. And today, he still doesn’t believe in organized religion. “Organized religion is just a means to be able to control people,” he says. “No matter what it is. But, is there a creator? Absolutely. What that purpose is, I’m not sure. I don’t think this is a prison planet. It wouldn’t make any sense unless you told the inmates they were here for a reason.

“I can’t believe this (world) was created to protect us, because why would the creator sit there and allow such devastation and such evil to go on this realm like they do?

“…And on this world, it seems like the devil is ruling everything. Now whether there’s a being on this realm doing that, I don’t know. He ain’t come and knocked on my door. I do know they have him on TV shows, trying to make sure everybody has that in their mind. This is called a television for a reason. Tells you what they’re wanting you to know.”

He realizes that his views on things are perhaps not the norm.

“I’m not as crazy as I’m making it out,” he says. “I know I do say some crazy things, but I’m fairly sane.”

And besides that, he’s happy. “If the collapse wasn’t going to come, I wouldn’t go anywhere,” says Black. “I’m happy where I am. I made a life choice, and so did she. This is our life choice.”

Want to visit The Cave?

The Cave Bar & Grill (313 S. Main St., Lanagan) is operating on its winter hours, which are Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Connect with them via Facebook, or by phone at (417) 454-5933.

If you’re interested in McDonald County caves, check out this story about nearby Bluff Dwellers Cavern. The cave has been in the same family since 1927 (when it opened to the public!) and offers tours every day of the week.