From monsters to madmen

John Brown's Cave lies nearly hidden just off a public trail, and is named for the abolitionist known for hiding slaves on the Underground Railroad.

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September 14, 2020 - 10:35 AM

There’s something satisfying in that there’s no marker for John Brown’s Cave by the roadside, or even on the trail itself.

The path forks in multiple directions upon one’s approach, flanked by worn farm buildings and limestone fences, so without a map or prior knowledge, it’s possible to walk right by without knowing it.

It makes this landmark that supersedes all human history into a clandestine treasure, something that requires a bit of intimacy to encounter despite being in a public space.

The stone that comprises this “solutional” cave is perhaps over 250 million years old, and the structure itself about one-fifth that age, which means its memory is vast beyond what human memory and imagination can comprehend.

Instead there are only trembling echoes of ancient indigenous peoples and fearsome creatures swimming in the inland depths.

Over eons, the layers of soft sediment flowed into place granule by granule, hardened and hollowed, then became exposed.

What sacred significance was given it by the people of the wind and plains?

By how many other names has it been called?

A map of John Brown’s Cave reveals a complex structure 200 yards in length, with many spieliographic features.Photo by Kansas Speleological Society

EVEN before stepping inside the diagonal vault of the cave, you can feel the temperature start to drop and time begin to rapidly rewind.

Recently, I attuned myself to the precise moment so as to feel it — I had crunched through the recently fallen leaves, descending toward the mouth, when stealthily it struck me, enlivening my skin and filling my lungs.

That mineral smell of cold rock and earth that signals the cave is not merely an interior but an entire surrounds, something with the power to envelop.

The cave is a phenomenon that reaches out to greet you, as it has to its guests for an epoch, and its magnetic force actively draws one to its uncanny mystery.

A world of ghosts erupts therefrom, surrounds you and fills you, questioning:

Do I dare to touch the stillborn stalactites, with their alien, crystalline veins?

Do I dare to crawl the distance in the wet, rocky dark to emerge beneath bluffs in daylight?

Or do I hide, and disappear within the geometric folds of time?

At 1650 Street, between Nebraska and Montana Roads, on the Lehigh Portland Trail system south of Iola, is the natural feature known as John Brown’s Cave. The view from inside John Brown’s Cave reveals a prehistoric setting. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

INDEED, the cave evokes images of hiding and disappearance, and not merely because it is a place of concealment.

It’s all in the name.

Abolitionist John Brown, who came to Kansas about the same time as the founding of Allen Woodson Counties, had been a conductor on the underground railroad, ferrying former slaves to freedom.

Though it may only be “mere” legend, one dreams him there all the same.

Sitting near the mouth of the cave, I first heard an almost inaudible voice along with the parting of the undergrowth nearby.

They emerged almost noiselessly, the young Black family, accompanied by an older white woman in masculine dress.

I watched as she whispered instructions, then left almost as soon as she’d come, disappearing to the south in tattered overalls.

Exhausted, the parents and children collapsed against the cave’s mossy olive walls nearby, their breathing still labored.

Then everything became motionless, save the buzzing gnats and purple butterflies tossed about by the wind.

. . .

When the middle-aged man with sharp features arrived at the cave that evening, I immediately remarked on his gray eyes, and how he seemed to stoop when walking.

He bore no feature that would mark him out as a saint or madman, devil or visionary.

Nothing to say he was an armed killer who “bled” Kansas.

He wasn’t even a giant in stature, despite enormous deeds that would earn him the reputation as a terrorist.

John BrownCourtesy photo

His ghost simply appeared, gathered the young family, and dispersed into the waiting stars.

ABOUT half a century later, other people began visiting the cave, though mostly for pleasure and leisure as opposed to subverting the scourge of slavery.

One early exception, however, came during the prohibition years (1910), when the cave’s reputation as a hiding place was once again earned:

“Chief of Police John J. Creed, Undersheriff Hoover Kerr and Marshal Jim Frederickson of Bassett, secured information yesterday that a barrel of whiskey was being hauled from a Gas City depot to the John Brown cave.”

“They got into a wagon and drove out to the cave but there was no liquor there. They did, however, find an empty barrel in the vicinity, and it is possible that the owners of the booze anticipated trouble, emptied the barrel and made away with the goods.”

Indeed, the cave seems to bear a fascinating link to illegal activities, and in the previous two cases, those bound to legal changes and social upheaval.

It’s almost as if the cave is a gestation-place, where that which is not yet ready to become the norm, must first undergo a period of growth.

Speaking of gestation, many young people over the years have enjoyed coming-of-age experiences at the cave, especially the girl scouts and boy scouts.

They hiked and fished and camped and cooked s’mores over open fires, in a time before American culture entombed itself in caves of air conditioned, digitized housing, away from the peskiness of neighbors and Nature.

Like scout troops, Sunday schools used to make regular excursions to the cave as well, perhaps premised on trying to envision a certain brown-skinned Palestinan carpenter making his postmortem emergence therefrom.

For instance, during the early 20s, young girls from the Methodist Episcopal church not only picnicked there, “they cooked a breakfast of bacon and eggs with buns.”

“Each one carried a pillow along and plenty of magazines were read during the rest hour.”

“Swimming in Rock Creek was a popular feature of the outing and explorations of the cave made interesting occupation.”

Deep inside John Brown’s Cave, one finds formations akin to those that eventually transform into stalactites.Photo by Trevor Hoag

AND it occupies us still: this strange formation indicated by a tunnel through time.

It carries one from sunbonnets to whip scars to bison-hunts. From the love of Jesus to Freedom to the Land.

To a time of monsters, predators under the Kansas sea.

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