Rural Missouri - August 2013 - (Page 8)

Hideout heaven Meramec Caverns has gone from an outlaw hideout to a must-stop tourist attraction by Diana West photos by Alyssa Goodman info@ruralmissouri.coop Dill, his wife, Mary, and their children were kept busy readying and maintaining the cave for tours by day and dances at night and on weekends, but they were still poor. “My great60-degree breeze invites grandparents lived in a tent outside visitors into its deep, dark the cave for two years,” says the and damp interior with its 42-year-old Turilli. rushing waters and fantastic By 1934, many days saw 100 tourformations. The underground wonder ists taking the tour. It was the Depreshas an interesting history as a hideout sion years, money was scarce and for outlaws, a gunpowder factory durpatrons often paid in pennies. ing the Civil War, a dance hall and the Dill was an innovator and master first tourist attraction on historic Route promoter who used various advertising 66 in Stanton. strategies to reach customers. He develSome thought Lester Dill, then 34, oped the forerunner of the bumper had a hole in his head when he bought sticker — a hand-painted cardboard a hole in the ground in 1933 with the sign that attached with fishing line. idea of turning it into a tourist attrac“He had employees whose job was tion. He expanded it to include the to attach them to every vehicle while Stage Curtain, with its massive 70-footvisitors toured the cave,” Turilli says. tall, 60-foot-wide and 35-foot-deep Dill was a director for Crawford drapery and stunning stalagmites and Electric Cooperative, which serves stalactites. He called it Meramec Cavthe cave. In 1949, Crawford became erns, dubbed the area La Jolla Natural the first electric co-op in the nation Park and opened for business on Memoto serve a cave after Dill added 16 rial Day leading six visitors on a tour by miles of wire, “enough to light a small lantern. town,” as he put it. “I’ve been interested in caves and He hired artist Jim Gauer to paint rocks and nature ever since I can barn roofs advertising Meramec Cavremember,” Lester said in 1986, recallerns along busy highways. Altogether, ing that he had conducted cave tours in the Meramec Valley Jim painted 446 in 14 states — all since he was 16. freehand. “Initially, I used oilbased paint, but they faded With its location along Route 66, he soon realfast,” Jim says. He changed to ized cars would play a major latex paint that lasted longer Stanton• role in the cave’s success and withstood the weather but adds he still had to and touted it as the world’s touch them up every only drive-in cave. He often three years. parked cars in the cave’s Turilli says only 44 of 50-foot-wide by 20-foot-high entrance the iconic signs remain today after the to advertise that fact. Highway Beautification Act in 1965 “Visitors who parked inside were outlawed any new barn advertising. known to roll up their windows when He adds that at one time, there also leaving to keep the cool air inside the were signs in Germany and Japan. car since there was no air conditionIn 1941, Dill discovered old guns, ing then,” says Lester Turilli Jr., Dill’s a rusty strongbox and other relics in great-grandson who manages the cave a previously unexplored part of the complex today. A 8 Visitors enjoy the stalagmites and stalactites of Meramec Caverns. One of the barns painted to advertise Meramec Caverns stands west of Linn. cave that were traced to Jesse James from an 1874 train robbery at Gads Hill. The James-Younger gang hid in the cave after the holdup and escaped lawmen through an underground river that James knew about from being there during the Civil War. Dill advertised Meramec Caverns as James’ hideout far and wide. Now, Meramec Caverns also owns the Jesse James Wax Museum located roughly 10 minutes from the cave. Lee West, 55, a tour guide for six years, says he wanted to be a guide since he first visited the cave on his fifth birthday. “It held a fascination WWW.RURALMISSOURI.COOP for me.” He says touring the cave is a generational thing. “People bring their grandchildren today and talk about how they were brought here when they were a child.” He begins the 80-minute tour at the Ballroom that easily holds 1,000 people and where meetings are still held. He points out Onyx Mountain, one of the largest stalagmites in the world at 500 feet wide and 28 feet tall, with parts of it still growing. He explains the Echo Room has thousands of miniscule stalactites dripping from the ceiling called soda straws because they http://WWW.RURALMISSOURI.COOP

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - August 2013

Rural Missouri - August 2013
Table of Contents
Comments
Columns
Hideout heaven
Mining a lead-lined history
Adrenaline adventures
Outdoors
Out of the Way Eats
High-flying fun
Hearth and Home
Blood-stained dawn
Swarm chasers
Around Missouri
Marketplace
Neighbors
Just4Kids

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