In 1720, an Ozark Indian guide led French explorer Philipp Renault to a large hole in the ground that was 50 feet wide and 20 feet high. To his disappointment, the veins of glittering yellow metal that covered the walls were not gold. Not a total loss, it turned out to be saltpeter (potassium nitrate) which was a key ingredient for making gunpowder in those days. Renault named the cave Saltpeter Cave.
During the Civil War, this same cave was used by the Union as a gunpowder facility until Confederate troops destroyed it, which effectively ended the mining.
During the 1890s, a time of hot summers and no air conditioners, Saltpeter Cave was put to good use for the people in and around Stanton, Missouri. The locals began having “cave parties” in a room about 300 feet from the entrance. The area was large enough for a huge crowd and still have a 50x50 foot dance floor.
Charles Ruepple purchased the cave in 1898 and, along with other local men, formed a dance committee that kept the parties and dancing going into the next century. That same year Lester Dill was born.
Dill was only six the first time he and his father explored Fisher’s Cave which was across the Meramec from their farm. By the time he was ten, he was using a kerosene lamp to give guided tours.
In 1928, Dill and his wife signed a contract with the state to start a cave-guiding business complete with souvenirs and homemade food in the newly created Meramec State Park. When his contract expired in 1933, he leased Saltpeter Cave which was just three miles off Route 66, the main highway between Chicago and Los Angeles. The first things he did were change the name to Meramec Caverns and hire a local sawmill crew to construct a road to the cave. He opened on Decoration Day (Memorial Day) 1933.
Over the years, more rooms on upper levels were found and Dill eventually bought the cave. He found a “Stage Curtain” which was 70 feet high and made the “Theatre Room” the main feature of his show cave. Artifacts were found in another area that were traceable to Jesse James. This he named “Jesse James’ Hideout.”
Dill was a master of promotions. Signs (billboards) were placed along roadways, ads were painted on barns in 14 states, and bumper signs, (bumper stickers had not yet been invented), were attached to every car that visited the cave. He promoted and the people came.
Meramec Caverns is known as the largest cave west of the Mississippi River and the only five-story cave in the world.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she syndicated her column statewide in September 2018 and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.email@example.com