Squire Boone Caverns Offers Families a Descent into History

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Squire Boone Caverns Offers Families a Descent into History

As the parents of active eight-year-old triplet boys, my wife and I tend to get a little nervous about school field trips. Case in point: Their elementary’s recent outing to Squire Boone Caverns near Corydon, Indiana. I have tremendous confidence in the teachers and staff at our school, and yet, it’s just so easy to imagine the phone call. The teacher’s anxious voice. The attempt at being honest, yet reassuring. The name of one of my children, followed by the phrases “separated from the group,” and “somewhere in the cave.”  

I volunteered to chaperone.

I highly recommend field-trip chaperoning (it’s less maddening than, say, doling out candy corn at the Halloween party), particularly if it involves a visit to somewhere as quietly fascinating as Squire Boone Caverns.

What I found most striking about the place wasn’t the stalactites that looked like sculptures or the frozen rivers of rock that lined the cave’s ceiling and the walls. Those were eye-popping enough, but more powerful was the opportunity Squire Boone Caverns provided to look into the both the geologic and human history of this part of the country.

Squire Boone and his older, more famous brother, Daniel discovered the cave in 1790 while on the run from a group of Indians. ‘Discover,’ in this case, is apparently the operative word, because even though there’s evidence of human activity in Indiana dating back roughly 10,000 years, researchers have found no evidence of any previous visitors exploring beyond the entrance to this particular cave.

Today, that same cave sees about 30,000 visitors a year, many of them schoolchildren. After making candles, and panning for gemstones and fool’s gold above ground, the Shelby brothers and their classmates descended into a cave that was well-lit, with walkways, stairs and handrails. During the one-hour visit, we all knew that soon the guides would lead everyone back up the long spiral staircase and into the gift shop.

The Boone brothers explored the same space, not knowing what awaited them in the shadows beyond their flickering torches. Did they flinch when they saw the Rockbat (a cave formation that casts a shadow straight out of Gotham City)? Did they gasp at the cave’s underground waterfalls? Or shiver, like we did, when drops of cold water fell onto their necks from the cavern’s 45-foot ceiling?   

To give us a taste of the Boones’ cave experience, our guides told us to hold still while they turned off the lights. There followed a moment of startled silence as dozens of eight-year-olds realized that, compared to the dark of an unlit cave, their room at night might as well be a tanning bed.

Squire and Daniel explored the cave and went on their way, though years later, Squire returned, finding himself in the same situation as before. According to W. Fred Conway’s biography of the explorer, The Incredible Adventures of Daniel Boone’s Kid Brother – Squire, “…with the Indians in hot pursuit, he swung on a stout vine into the cave, quickly covered the entrance with branches and began to pray earnestly that he would not be found.”

Squire escaped the Indians, but decided to stay put. In a thought process that’s hard to understand from the more risk-avoidant perspective of today, Squire made a home for himself and eventually his family, there in the place where the locals had twice tried to kill him. And yet, it worked out. He and his family built cabins and eventually opened a grist mill.   

Upon his death in 1815, Squire’s family laid him to rest in the cave, a place Squire, a devout Baptist, considered holy ground. His coffin and headstone are a key stopping point on the cave tour.   

We left Squire Boone Caverns without incident, though I had to ponder the irony that it was Squire Boone’s restless curiosity and love of wildness that had led to the taming of places like the one that bears his name, a place I would never have discovered if I hadn’t been afraid of the echoes of those same traits in my own sons.

When I asked the boys what they had liked most about their visit, it was clear that they'd left with a sense of connection to a world where discovering something beautiful or valuable or just plain cool was a physical (rather than virtual) possibility.

 “The waterfall,” said Nate.

“Panning for gold,” said Harry.

The most emphatic response came from Roy: “The Rockbat,” he said.  “Definitely the Rockbat.”

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Cave entrance
About Graham Shelby
A writer, professional storyteller and public radio veteran, Graham's work has been published in various newspapers and magazines and heard on NPR news and on programs like Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion. He recently performed an original story in New York as a guest of The Moth. Follow Graham on twitter @grahamshelby.
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