The size of Devil’s Den doesn’t translate well via photos, but the placement of these people — just as they stood nearly 115 years ago — gives an impression. It’s so deep that “Missouri Pacific Railway engineers, hearing of this place many years ago, tried to plumb its depths and reported that no bottom was reached.” — The Marshfield Mail, July 12, 1934
FORDLAND – Some say it’s bottomless. Others think it’s a portal to faraway places. And then there are people who don’t even know it’s there, driving by daily without any idea of the lore and legend just a few feet from the road.
“It” is Devil’s Den, a longtime local landmark hidden in a grove of oak trees.
Scientifically speaking, Devil’s Den is simply a water-filled sinkhole. But it’s big: Some accounts liken its depths to nearly a football field in length, and about a third of such in width. According to “The History of Webster County,” published in 1955, Devil’s Den is “natural curiosity — a lake of oval shape, covering an area of about half an acre. This lake…lies in a limestone basin, the walls of which stand perpendicularly for about 100 feet…This mysterious lake has never been sounded. The crevices of the rocks surrounding the lake are filled with a substance resembling sperm, that burns like a candle.”
A better look at the ledge around Devil’s Den: circa 1900 on the left, and in 2006 on the right. (Vintage photo courtesy of the Webster County Historical Society)
No one knows for sure when or why Devil’s Den came to be, although some old-timers tied its creation to an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault Line in the 1800s. A 1934 article in The Marshfield Mail says that “the Devil’s Den is probably the result of a cataclysm in the earth’s surface caused by the caving in of a limestone cavern, a network of which underlays the whole Ozark region.”
But Devil’s Den was much more than just a geological site for early Ozarkers, especially since people just couldn’t explain various aspects about it: The water level never seemed to change with others in the vicinity, yet there was a difference between “high” and “low” levels by around 30 feet. In 1915, “Missouri, The Center State” discussed the natural oddity:
Many years ago there was an oak tree leaning over the lake. It was cut at a time when the water was low and fell nearly one hundred feet before it struck water. It passed below the surface and never came up. Several engineers state that the level of this lake is higher than most parts of the Ozarks and that the underground supply of water must come from great distance. One of the stories told of the Devil’s (Den) is that two or three cedar logs appeared upon the surface. They were larger than any cedar trees which grow within a hundred miles.
Regardless of the how or why Devil’s Den originated, it evolved into a local social spot. Perhaps the mystery surrounding it helped grow its popularity. Longtime Fordland resident L.G. Rabenau recalled that in the late 1800s, “young people would go to the Devil’s Den, northwest of Fordland, on Sunday outings and everyone would take picnic dinners. Some time during that period a wealthy Easterner leased the Devil’s Den, cleaned up the grounds, had a ledge built around on the inside several feet above the water with a bannister around it. Then he had a ladder built down to the ledge so that people could climb down to it. At the west end of the ledge he had a platform constructed where the band would gather and give concerts.”
That band was comprised of a wide range of instruments — e-flat cornets, drums, tuba and trombone filled the lineup — and was organized by the owner of Fordland’s first newspaper, who also owned a shoe shop. The man was apparently one of many talents, as he “let the boys gather in his shop where he taught them to play different instruments…and to read music.”
92-year-old Marguerite Yandell wasn’t around for the concerts, but she does remember visiting Devil’s Den as a child in the 1920s and ‘30s. “It was mysterious,” Marguerite recalls via phone from her home near Fordland. “Everyone wondered where it came from and what the source was.”
Although Marguerite estimates it’s been at least 70 years since she’s visited the site and she’s “done quite a bit of living since then,” those childhood visits have stuck with her. One trip was made when they had family visiting from Indiana, who they took to see the site. “People (went) when they had someone visiting,” says Marguerite. “It was just kind of the showplace.”
Devil’s Den wasn’t the only noteworthy feature nearby: “There was an old mine down at the foot,” recalls Marguerite. That old mine, according to “The History of Webster County,” was the old Snake Lead Diggings. Little is known about this site today, but the Missouri Department of Natural Resources notes that lead was first mined in Webster County in the 1850s. And in general, “the periods of highest production were from 1858 to 1918 and during World War I.” Pictured (left) is the entrance to the mine and (right) an external opening from inside the mine.
Besides those visits, Marguerite also remembers people swimming in the cavern — but it was the “hardy souls” who did that, since it was thought that the current would pull people under. Thankfully, “no one ever got drowned, so I guess it was OK,” says Marguerite.
People looking for less of a thrill could walk down to the water’s edge with the help of a pole with toe-holds. “It was kind of like going down stairs,” recalls Marguerite. “You held on for dear life.”
Marguerite knows that from personal experience. As a child, she made one visit down to the ledge with her cousins and Uncle Quitman, who asked Marguerite if her mother would object to her walking along the ledge.
“Well, I knew what she would say,” recalls Marguerite, sure her mother would never allow such an adventure — but hadn’t forbidden it, since she never dreamed it was something her daughter would do. That lack of instruction prompted Marguerite’s honest response: “I said, ‘She never told me not to.’”
The group progressed along the edge, which began broad but narrowed drastically. “There was just barely room for a foot, I think,” recalls Marguerite, nervous as they walked — “but I wasn’t about to admit it.”
Suddenly, Uncle Quitman decided to terminate the trek and got the girls back to the top of the cavern. Later, she found out why: “His foot slipped.”
Car tales: touted as truth
Another long-perpetuated part of the Devil’s Den’s history is its use as a car disposal. This was reported as far back as 1934, when The Marshfield Mail proclaimed — in a near-sensational article — “new mystery at Devil’s Den as car goes in.”
Marguerite does remember a time when locals thought a car had plummeted to its demise, although it’s uncertain whether or not her recollection is the same as as reported by The Mail. She remembers a loud noise — like that of a car crashing — and “a gathering over there for a few days,” people convinced that a car had fallen into the pit.
But even though the article said that “one car is definitely known to have been pushed off into this huge perpendicular cave,” and that “many residents of this section believe that several other cars have met similar fate,” Marguerite doesn’t remember any cars actually being found there.
What the devil?
Those familiar with the Ozarks region will be quick to note that the term “devil” was common in everyday life. That’s likely due to locals’ long-held traditions, ones which often stemmed from Scotch-Irish culture and Protestantism. “Some (people) were very focused on the idea of a real Lucifer,” says local historian Todd Wilkinson. The word was used to describe things like a walking stick — known in not-so-olden days as a “devil’s darning needle” — and in music, where a fiddle was known as a “devil’s box.”
“For years, some people could’ve considered…itinerant musicians as agents of the devil,” says Todd. After all, music led to dancing and “the association of dancing (and the devil) goes back years and years and years,” says Todd.
Of course, banning something with labels of evil doesn’t aways work out as intended. “You think you’re going to scare them away, but nine times out of 10, it has the opposite effect,” says Todd. “The younger generations want to do it even more.”
As with Devil’s Den, the word was also routinely used to describe destinations: Devil’s Den State Park, Devil’s Elbow, Devil’s Kitchen and Devil’s Icebox are all local examples that survive today. Vance Randolph addressed one of those sites in “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
In various parts of Missouri and Arkansas one hears the story of a great hole in the ground, surrounded by rugged cliffs, where hunters have heard strange sounds and smelled unusual odors. Some say that the Devil lives in that hold, imprisoned under a heavy fall of rock. There are strories of old men who claim to have visited the place as children. Some of these men swear that they hard the Devil’s groans and curses and smelled burning flesh and brimstone. Strange people live on the escarpments, it is said, and throw odd things into the pit at night, particularly when the moon is full. There are tales of dark-visaged “furriners” traveling at night, who make regular pilgrimages to the place from distant parts of the country.”
Vance wasn’t able to definitely locate where this place was. There were ties to Hot Springs and Mena, both in Arkansas, but elements of the story didn’t completely line up with either of those locations.
Of course, parts of that story sound exactly like Webster County’s Devil’s Den, too. So who knows, maybe he was talking about the local spot. But there’s also a chance that like today, such stories get told and retold — morphing into tales that no one can explain but everyone shares.
One of Devil’s Den’s recent owners was Curtis Wilkerson, a locally known educator and legislator in the Missouri House of Representatives. His familiarity with the site was a long one, as he’d frequented the site as a child. “No kid grew up in this part of the world without visiting Devil’s Den,” he said in an article for The Webster County Citizen years ago.
Although it’s difficult to distinguish fact from folklore when it comes to many of the stories surrounding Devil’s Den, Curtis was able to recount one event firsthand. It happened when he was in the legislature: One of his steers, weighing a whopping 500 pounds, somehow wandered into Devil’s Den and got stuck partway down.
For several weeks, Curtis rolled hay down to the steer while trying to figure out how to solve the problem — and endured weekly razzing from his legislature buddies, who constantly asked for updates on the predicament.
Finally, afeared of what animal right’s activists would do if they discovered the steer, he sold the animal for $1 to a man who agreed to facilitate its rescue. The attempts, to the relief of Wilkerson and the steer, were successful.
But that may not have been the only odd goings-on Curtis experienced while owning the site. The same article mentioned that in 1981 or 1982, a car stolen at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was towed out of Devil’s Den after being pushed over the edge. This was presented in a section of the article specifically labeled as fact. However, other newspaper searches — conducted to confirm this incident at the time it supposedly happened — didn’t yield any results.
It’s another of Devil’s Den tales where it’s hard to figure fact from fiction.
Hidden in history
While Curtis loved Devil’s Den as a child, the world had changed by the time he purchased the site in 1980: The fear of liability was too great to allow visitors. “I wish there would be some way I could say, yeah, go on,” he said back then.
Curtis passed away in 2010, never having found a way to do that. So while there have most assuredly been (unwelcome) visitors in recent years, the numbers — and awareness — have decreased dramatically. With little traffic in today’s world, it’s likely that Devil’s Den will continue to become more of a story than a destination — even though, according to The Ozarks Mountaineer in 1961, Devil’s Den “is one of the unusual sights in the Ozarks and deserves more recognition.”
If you like local lore, check out this story about three longtime urban legends: Springlawn Farm, Winoka Lodge and Hatchet Man’s Bridge!