“If you’re claustrophobic, or have difficulty squeezing through small spaces, climbing numerous stairs or arduous walking over rough and slippery conditions, this is not the place for you.”
This admonition from our tour guide at the Ozark Mountains’ Marvel Caverns gave me some pause. Having been through several smaller caves, I thought surely the tour operator was exaggerating the cave’s difficulty. Nothing I’d previously experienced, however, prepared me for what I was about to endure.
Squeezing through spaces that would challenge a Hobbit, I managed to fit my large 6’2” frame through the cavern, lumbering down and then up 700 stairs.
The near two-kilometre trek within this slick subterranean cave was complemented by immensely beautiful stalagmites and stalactites created from centuries of accumulated mineral deposits from underground streams. I even managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of one of the tens of thousands of endangered grey bats that inhabit the cave. This spelunker’s paradise is but one of nearly 5,000 documented Missouri caves, with another estimated 2,000 yet to be discovered.
Marvel Caverns was initially thought to contain large quantities of marble. Originally dubbed “Marble Caverns,” late 19th-century miners disproved this theory, instead extracting hundreds of tons of bat guano for use in the production of gunpowder.
The cave is within the charming city of Branson, Mo. Commonly known as the “Vegas of the Bible Belt,” Branson is nestled among the rolling hills of the Ozarks. Home to dozens of live theatres producing more than 100 stage shows and musicals annually, Branson provides the glitz and glamour of a mini Las Vegas within a wholesome environment. Country music sing-alongs, rock ’n’ roll acts and Bible story productions vie for patrons in huge theatres worthy of Broadway. The predominantly Christian religious atmosphere ensures a family-friendly experience throughout the city. Vegas casinos are replaced with family entertainment centres and showgirls with country line dancing.
The immense scenic beauty of the Ozarks extends north to the “Queen City” of Springfield as well.
Known as the birthplace of the historic highway Route 66 that connected Chicago and Los Angeles, Springfield has had a tumultuous history since the battle of nearby Wilson’s Creek during the U.S. Civil War.
Lawlessness throughout the region during the years that followed the war resulted in numerous “Old West” villains settling the region. At various times, Frank and Jesse James, the Dalton Gang and “Wild Bill” Hickok lived in the area.
Perhaps the most tragic incident in the city’s history took place in 1906 when three black men were publicly hanged by lynch mobs, without trial, two on charges of sexual assault of a white woman and one on suspician of murder. All three were later found to be innocent. A plaque in Park Central Square commemorates the event.
Today, Springfield has shed its unruly past in favour of education and tourism.
Home to Missouri State University, Springfield boasts numerous museums and cultural institutions, including the flagship Bass Pro Shops store. Occupying a space of over half a million square feet, the attraction includes several large indoor aquariums, an alligator reserve, waterfalls and the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum and Archery Hall of Fame.
Springfield is also home to the largest drive-through cave in the United States. At different times over the last century, Fantastic Caverns served as an outlaw hideout, Depression-era speakeasy and country music theatre. The constant 15 degrees Celsius temperature allows visitors year round, a respite from the harsh Midwestern climate.
During the early 20th century, Springfield had a modest-sized Jewish contingent, made up of mostly German and eastern European refugees. During a period where Jews were excluded from most professions, the community turned to commerce, establishing retail operations that continue today.
Springfield was also a centre for Ku Klux Klan activity for decades. Exclusion and persecution resulted in shrinkage of the Jewish community’s numbers, while others hid their Jewishness. In a recent interview with the Springfield News-Leader, Temple Israel’s Rabbi Rita Sherwin remarked, “If you want to be Jewish [in Springfield], you have to make it happen.”
As synagogue attendance and community involvement dwindled over the last 50 years, the Reform-affiliated Temple Israel emerged as the lone synagogue.
Despite the somewhat turbulent history of its Queen City, the Ozark Mountains’ pristine natural environment remains largely untouched by urban sprawl. It’s an ideal locale for a fishing getaway, family road trip or simply to get your kicks from Route 66.
Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the Branson and Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureaus in arranging his family’s visit to the Ozarks.