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At 75, Cave of the Mounds celebrates its rock-solid history

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BLUE MOUNDS — Here in the far reaches of western Dane County, things tend to exist in pairs.

Two mounds make up the area’s landscape, with beauty so vast it requires two parks in two counties to take it all in. On top of that, Blue Mounds itself can mean one of two communities, the village or the town.

So it goes with the area’s most famous landmark, Cave of the Mounds. As it celebrates the 75th anniversary of its discovery, the cave and its staff are really commemorating two things.

“It’s got an interesting human history and interesting natural history,” said Joe Klimczak, who manages the cave with his wife, Ann Wescott. “It’s good to have an appreciation of both.”

On Aug. 4, 1939, dynamite being blasted at a quarry to create gravel for road construction revealed entry to a cave that would change the lives of many people. It also would help nudge that area of the state into the road-trip destination it remains to this day.

The cave at that former quarry sits just below Brigham County Park, on the East Mound, and on the site of the property that remains in the family of the area’s first permanent white settler, Ebenezer Brigham. It’s near Blue Mound State Park, which is on the West Mound that straddles Dane and Iowa counties. Brigham, a lead miner, arrived in 1828.

“If you wrote that story in a novel, it would be hard to believe,” Klimczak said. “This old settler lived for years on top of a cave that had been here for millions of years and no one ever knew it.”

On Monday, the cave will also host an event celebrating the moment of discovery, with a minor “blast” at 11 a.m.

In the 75 years since that original explosion, the cave site has grown and adjusted, providing activities and education to show that the natural world can compete with all that technology has created for the modern world.

“When walking down inside the Earth, special effects and video games pale in comparison,” Klimczak said. “I love water parks and things like that, but natural experiences, you can’t beat them.”

Natural classroom

Klimczak and Wescott, a former grade-school science teacher, took over managing the cave in 1999. They’ve worked to make it more of an educational facility, with camps for kids and hands-on learning projects outside of the cave, as well as grounds filled with prairie and savanna restoration.

“The cave is such a hands-off experience, but geology is such an accessible science,” Klimczak said. “You can’t expand the cave, but you can expand the activities at the cave.”

The busy activities around the cave are a far cry from 75 years ago. What is now Cave of the Mounds Road was a quiet route with so little traffic you knew everyone who drove by, said Vergeane Martin of Mount Horeb. That all changed on Aug. 4, 1939.

Martin’s family was renting a house on the Brigham farm at the time the cave was found. It was a hot summer, and a dusty one because of all the blasting that was going on at the quarry. The limestone semicircle was already a place college classes would go to study fossils and locals would go to roast marshmallows or hot dogs.

Hearing explosions and having the house shake wasn’t unusual that summer, Martin said, but having her father, a farmer, not come home over the noon hour was.

“We waited and waited,” Martin said. “Mom was so worried because it was so unlike him to miss a meal. Finally, he came home.”

Her father, Stacy Collins, ended up being one of the first to see the cave. He went in with Charles Brigham Jr., the son of the land owner, well-driller Lance Dodge, and Dodge’s nephew, Wayne Lampman.

‘Your fortune is made’

Brigham family diaries record that moment, too. Anna Brigham, who lived on the farm with her husband, Charles, described the moment in an entry from Aug. 4 about the cave that mentions her son and husband in shorthand.

“At 11 a.m. Lance Dodge blasts off front of quarry into a limestone cavern. C Jr. comes up saying, ‘Your fortune is made.’ It is 27x15x4 ft. Everyone crazy to get into it. Stalactite and stalagmites of limestone. Lovely. C. so excited.”

Those in the area knew something big had happened. Various individuals came to the Brighams with offers of what to do with the site. Charles Brigham accepted an offer from Carl Brechler, a Mount Horeb banker, and Fred Hanneman, the high school music teacher, to develop and run the site as a business to create tourism and provide jobs.

“In town, everybody thought it was the dumbest thing they ever did,” said Shirley Martin of Mount Horeb, Brechler’s daughter. “People were sure they were going to fail. Well, they proved them wrong.”

Martin was going into sixth grade when the cave was discovered and was working there by the time she was in eighth grade. Even in the offseason, she and her family worked cave-related tasks such as sorting through the coins that had been tossed into a cave pond called Brownie’s Wishing Well.

“We lived with it so long. It was 24/7 for so many years,” she said. “My dad was a banker with banker’s hours. He’d come home and it was time to work on the cave.”

Less than a year after its discovery, the cave opened to the public on May 31, 1940.

“You think of how fast that opened — with manual labor,” Martin said. “They got the rubble out, then built the steps, the lighting and the building. It was pretty amazing.”

100,000 annual visitors

It was a huge attraction right away, sometimes drawing crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 a day. Klimczak said 1,000 people now is “a really busy day.” The cave draws about 100,000 visitors a year and Klimczak estimates 5 million have visited since it opened. It was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1987.

The cave also has been a longtime employer for local young people, with many area families having multiple generations who had summer jobs as guides. Forty people work at the cave, which is still owned by the Brigham family.

Early guides took visitors on a tour that included “guided imagery” pointing out formations with names such as Paul Bunyan’s Footprint.

The Wishing Well is gone; coin corrosion damages the cave. Now, the cave stands on science alone, and the adventure of being in a part of the Earth where cellphones don’t cooperate.

The cave is more than 1 million years old, made of a limestone called Galena dolomite. The rock was formed more than 400 million years ago when the area was under warm, shallow seas. Fossils have been left behind for visitors to see, including a 6-foot one of a squid ancestor. Surface water that seeps into the limestone starts a process that creates stalactites from above or stalagmites from below. It can take 50 to 150 years for a cubic inch of “cave onyx” to form.

“We walk inside the Earth and when we talk about fossils, formations and erosion, they believe us because they can see it all right here,” Klimczak said.

Walking outside takes educational groups up the hill from the cave to an 1883 barn that has been converted into a classroom. In the barn, Wescott and Klimczak made a discovery of their own: artifacts such as the cave’s first ticket booth and other mementos of the early days.

“In many businesses like this, you have the family members who would be stepping in and know the story,” Wescott said. “We want to make sure we don’t lose too much of the story.”

Vergeane Martin has been writing down the story for younger members of her family but hadn’t really stopped to consider what a big deal it was to them. One of her grandchildren had to write a paper in school about someone famous that she knew, an assignment that puzzled Martin.

“I thought, ‘Well, who does she know who is famous that she can write about?’ ” Martin said. “But she was going to write about Grandpa Collins because he was one of the first men in the Cave of the Mounds.”

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