Silver Dollar City saw dozens of current and former cave guides return to celebrate the 125th anniversary of cave tours at Marvel Cave.

“I think ‘guide’ isn’t the appropriate word to describe these folks,” Silver Dollar City co-founder Jack Herschend said. “A 6-year-old kid could learn how to guide you in the cave, but our people were, and still are, storytellers. This team of folks is what sets us apart from other theme parks because they told the story of the cave and the old mining town that was here in the 1880s, and that makes us real, as opposed to a theme park that sets up close to a metro center. 

“They are the real Silver Dollar City storytellers.”

The story of Silver Dollar City can’t be told without first telling the tale of Marvel Cave. Discovered by the Osage Indians in the 1500s, the “hole in the ground” was first called Marble Cave, due to the limestone walls were thought to be marble. 

It would be more than 350 years before the cave would be described by geologists, then explored by adventurers who lowered themselves on ropes 200 feet into the main chamber. 

The cave began gaining notoriety and a group of Civil War veterans formed a mining company to mine tons of nitrogen-rich bat guano from the cave in the 1880s. They found no marble. Scientific American magazine described the cave in 1885, and word of the natural wonder spread throughout the continent. 

Canadian mining expert William Henry Lynch read of the cave, purchased it sight unseen, then traveled to the Ozarks  with his two daughters. The family soon opened the cave to public tours in 1894. Their cave tours continued into the early 1900s, and “Shepherd of the Hills” author Harold Bell Wright was one of its visitors. Following the release of “The Shepherd of the Hills” novel, nationwide interest grew even more, and the Ozarks began drawing visitors who wanted to see the people and places described in the book.

In 1946, Mary, Hugo, Jack and Pete Herschend, a nature-loving Chicago-based family, came to visit Marvel Cave and almost immediately fell in love. The following year, they leased the cave from Genevieve and Miriam Lynch in hopes they could begin a summer business. When the Lynch sisters decided to retire, they offered the Herschends a 99-year lease.

In April 1950, Hugo and Mary and their teenage sons, Jack and Pete, took over the management and tours of the cave. 

That summer, Marvel Cave drew 8,000 visitors. Over the following 10 years, Jack and Pete Herschend, along with a small crew, replaced the wooden stairs and walkways with concrete, re-opened several closed areas, and added electric lights. 

Hugo Herschend died in 1955, leaving Mary, Jack and Pete to keep things going. 

“The biggest thing that stands out to me in those early years is how we didn’t really know our future, whether we’d succeed, or have to go back to selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Chicago,” Jack Herschend said. “Everything we did had to be done in order for us to succeed. The cave was 500 feet deep, and if we expected the guests to go 500 feet down, then up 50 stories of stairs, we weren’t going to make this business a big success. So the cable train had to work, the same with the concrete steps. The old wooden steps we inherited from the Lynch sisters rotted out every two years, and it was a major thing to tear all those wooden steps out and bring new oak in. You can’t sustain that and have a successful business.

“It all had to work, and thank God, it did.”

By 1958, the family purchased and installed a European train, which was designed to carry people up to the surface. According to Jack Herschend, business jumped 40 percent the year the cable train was installed.

“That was really our first profitable year,” he said. “It was those 10 years of hard work and cave-guiding that eventually made Silver Dollar City possible.”

As the cave tours grew more popular, Hugo’s original vision of featuring some of the native craftsmen demonstrating traditional Ozarks crafts began to take center stage. Mary, Jack and Pete began building an 1880s Ozarks village so folks would have something else to do while waiting for tours. Silver Dollar City opened at the north end of the Marvel Cave parking lot May 1, 1960, and featured a blacksmith shop, a general store, an ice cream parlor, a doll shop, and two 1800s authentic log structures which had been relocated and restored, the McHaffie homestead and the Wilderness Church. 

For entertainment, a small troupe of Silver Dollar City “citizens” dressed in 1880s costumes performed street theater, presenting humorous feuds between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The staff, including Herschends, was about 17 people. The first year, Silver Dollar City drew more than 125,000 people, four times the visitors than the number who toured Marvel Cave. 

“We discovered we were in the theme park business,” Pete Herschend once said.

While Silver Dollar City began growing by leaps and bounds, that meant there was much more work for the family, which allowed the younger Herschends to take full advantage of the park and all its features.

“I grew up in the cave, and in those early days, Mom and Dad were pretty busy getting the park to run with only 30-something employees, so I had my run of Silver Dollar City,” longtime cave guide Bruce Herschend, son of Pete Herschend, said. “Growing up in a theme park was pretty cool, but the bad new was my mom gave all the employees, ‘If you see our kids doing something bad, punish them,’ so as you may imagine, I hid in the cave a lot. I’d go in with a tour, or sneak off in a tour, and I just fell in love with the cave. Oh, the stories I could tell you.”

According to Herschend, most of those stories revolve around good times he had with his fellow guides.

“Cave guides are a rare breed of people, and interviewing cave guides is an interesting prospect because they just might launch into a seven-minute monologue at any time,” Bruce Herschend said with a laugh. “Marvel Cave is such a very special place, and they probably should have never opened it up for tours because it’s just too much work. 

“What they found down there was so amazing, they knew they had to be able to share it with people. Everyone in this room has felt a responsibility to share something that is special ... and that’s why, even though the cave guides don’t work together often, that’s why we have that closeness, love and camaraderie.”

That closeness was still on display during the reunion.

“I taught school for 30 years, became an administrator, then retired from College of the Ozarks 14 years after that,” said Ron Martin, a longtime cave guide and author of “Jewel of the Ozarks Marvel Cave” in 1974. “I’m not trying to be negative, but these folks here in this room are more my friends than any of those professional people I met over those years.”

The guides also take responsibility for being the stewards of the park’s history.

“I was 4 years old when I went through the cave the first time with my dad, and I remember seeing ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ being filmed, so this is home to me,” said Vivian Ireland, the current head of cave guides at Marvel Cave.“ The cave is such a unique environment, and once you start giving tours and relating the stories of all the people who came before you, the more in awe you are at what they all accomplished.

“The cave is the heart of this place ... and I get to keep all those great stories alive, which is an honor and a privilege.”

According to Bruce Herschend, even though they had 125 years to plan a reunion, this one didn’t get started until a few months back. He said they hope to have another reunion next year so folks unable to attend could make it for Silver Dollar City’s 60th anniversary next year.

Speaking of the park’s 60th anniversary, when asked about next year’s milestone event, Jack Herschend sat back, took a deep breath and smiled.

“Everybody talks about next year’s 60th for Silver Dollar City, but for me, it’s the 10 years before that were really the more important, and harder-working years,” Herschend said. “Those were the years that made Silver Dollar City possible. So Silver Dollar City’s 60th is a big deal, but as an old man, I’m thinking folks have no idea what we had to do in the 10 years before to get ready for it (laughs).”

An Old Time Christmas opens Saturday at Silver Dollar City. 

Visit silverdollarcity.com.

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