Stark Caverns History
The first humans to occupy the cave were Native Americans. An ancient fire-pit is located at the furthest point back in the cave where natural light can still be seen, the clay surface turned into terracotta after thousands of years of use. Pottery and other artifacts have been found as well. Perhaps the most attention-getting evidence is the Human skeletal bones found in the cave. The bones, which have been verified by the University of Missouri, date back to early native Americans from the Hopewell Tribe, who lived during the Woodland Period (2000 to 1000 B.C.) The remains of a Hopewell baby, a 14-year old girl/mother, and a Chief (with a dark reputation) has conjured up many a tall tale as to how they got to be there.
Early American Settlers
There is also evidence of American settlers using the cave as a cattle barn and for food storage. According to millercountymuseum.org, when it was first seen by European and American settlers isn't known, but the cave became well known locally after the property was purchased around 1836 ???? by William Bunker, a veteran of the War of 1812. He lived above the cave in a log cabin with his six children. The property was later bought by Charles Stark, father to 18 children, whose name became permanently associated with the cave. According to millercountymuseum.org, his family tree can be traced back to Scotland to a John Stark I, who was born in 1639.
The cave was also a meeting place, and supply depo, for Confederate Guerillas during the Civil War. According to civalwar.mo.org, guerrilla warfare went on in Missouri for most of the Civil War. Bands of pro-South men would hunt and kill Union soldiers and pro-Union civilians. One most notable attack happened 90 miles north of Starks Cavern, in Centralia, Mo. and was led by a man named Bill Anderson. Anderson earned the nickname Bloody Bill. In 1864 Bloody Bill broke away from a larger band of bushwhackers after a dispute, and went on to terrorize Missouri with an independent band. One day these guerillas supposedly ran into 20 Union soldiers on leave. They had them stripped, murdered, and mutilated. The brutality of Bloody Bill’s gang, with such infamous members as Frank and Jesse James, continued and became legendary after the war’s end .
Speakeasy and Dancing
Adding to the cave’s colorful history, during the early 1900 prohibition era (ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages) the cave became popular as a moonshine distillery and speakeasy, complete with a dance floor.
Other uses over the years have included a roller and ice-skating rink, a merry-go-round, and a trout farm, created by three pristine creeks that flow into the property. A stream was damned in the mid 1970’s to form a lake outside of the cave.
Show Cave Operations
A group of businessmen, led by Floyd Hammitt. They chose to keep the name the cave had been known as. The purchase records going back in time (through at least the 1900s) do not include any Stark names.
A group of businessmen, led by Floyd Hammitt opened Stark Caverns, as a tour cave, in 1950. They kept the name it was known as locally, Stark Cave. Since then, the cave has been operated under several names including; Fantasy World Caverns, Enchanted Caverns, Aurora Cave, Aurora Springs Cave, Miller County Cave and the Mammoth Cave of Miller County. Jeff and Amy Hargroves took the cave back to its original tour name, Stark Caverns, in 2017, and reopened the cave for tours.
Jeff was a tour guide at the cave for four years, while in high school. “I always wanted to buy the cave,” Jeff said. “So, when the previous owner passed away, and the cave came up for sale, we saw the opportunity and bought it.” Jeff also owns a pharmaceutical consulting company in Kansas City, Mo. Amy just left her job of 32 years at Sprint, to work as the cave operations manager. “I would not have imagined this in my future,” Amy quipped. “But, I have found it to be extraordinarily exciting and fun! Her job at Sprint was in environmental stewardship. “This allows me to keep supporting the environment, but now as a steward of a great geological treasure.”
Many of the formations in the cavern grow no more than one inch in one hundred years. “Prior to a time when preserving caves was important, visitors didn’t think twice about breaking off formations that took thousands of years to form,” Amy said. “In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s it wasn’t unusual for cavern visitors to expect to be able to take a piece of the cavern with them after a visit for a dance party or other group event.”
The entire cave tour is paved and lit up, stays a mild 57 degrees year-round, and is 90 percent handicapped accessible. It is a good size cave, with many spectacular natural formations including soda straws, flow stone, stalactites, stalagmites, helictites (bent soda straws), and big beautiful columns. Stark Caverns is well-known in the science world for its predominate fossil: stromatolite. Stromatolite is a form of blue green sea algae that has fossilized all over the ceilings. It is a very rare fossil to find, as conditions must be just right for their fossilization.