Great Saltpetre Cave - The Cave Shows
Renfro Valley Bugle
The Cave Shows
On several occasions over the years, special Renfro Valley shows were performed inside the Great Saltpetre Cave located near Renfro Valley in Rockcastle County.
A man of vision, Renfro Valley’s founder, John Lair, bought the southern half of the Great Saltpetre Cave around 1940 from the Richard Mullins family, who retained ownership of the northern half. Richard Mullins great-grandfather, Calloway Mullins, bought the cave around 1860, for a horse, a rifle and $50.
John Baker is credited with discovering the cave in 1798, though legend has it that Daniel Boone left his name on the cave walls in 1769. After its discovery, the Great Cave of Crooked Creek, as it was known then, was mined for several years for its rich deposits of saltpetre, an element of gunpowder.
Mr. Lair saw many possibly uses for the cave and since the early ‘40s, was instrumental in its development and commercialization. By 1944, after building a gravel road to the entrance, John Lair advertised the Great Saltpetre Cave as... accessible 8 miles by car or 16 miles by horseback from Renfro Valley. Manley McGuire, sometimes assisted by his 6-year-old son, Robert, worked for Mr. Lair as the cave’s tour guide in the ‘40s.
Over the years, Mr. Lair held several special shows in the cave. The first live broadcast from the cave was sponsored by Ballard and Ballard over the CBS Network. On Thursday, February 21, 1946, at 7:15, the Renfro Valley Folk’s morning program was broadcast from the cave as part of the 155th anniversary celebration of the Renfro Valley Settlement.
Mr. Lair, Al Staas (announcer for the morning broadcasts), seven of the Renfro Valley boys (the girls didn’t go) and three Louisville radio operators, spent the previous night in the cave. With the cave’s ghost stories on their minds, sleep may have been hard to come by in the dark cavern. But they survived the night and everyone was still on hand for the broadcast the next morning. Quoted from the March 15, 1946, Bugle, “However, even without the haunts, the morning’s program had a slightly spooky sound, coming as it did from the depths of the great cave with strange echoes creeping in through the mike, especially while Fairley Holden was singing, ‘Keep Them Cold, Icy Fingers Off Of Me.’”
Mr. Lair attempted to expand the cave as a tourist attraction. He even built a lodge near the cave for guests. Unfortunately, only two days after it was finished, the lodge burned to the ground. The commonly told story around Renfro Valley said it was the work of local moonshiners. They supposedly set up their illegal operation inside the safety of the cave and didn’t take too kindly to it being turned into a tourist attraction. For years, the commercial use of the cave ceased after this incident.
In 1966, Mr. Lair began to work in earnest on the development of the Great Saltpetre Cave. It took several months to complete the project, but with Mr. Lair’s persistence many improvements were made. The road leading to the cave was blacktopped. Camping and picnic areas were built. A better approach to the cave was leveled. The main entrance was enlarged to get a bulldozer inside the cave to level the floor of Echo Auditorium, the cave’s largest room. Iron-barred doors from the old Rockcastle County Jail were installed to replace the wooden gate that had been burned by vandals. In 1967, the cave was open to the public again and guided tours of the cave’s 2-1/2 miles of passageways continued for several years.
Mr. Lair saw Echo Auditorium as probably the most natural underground theater in America. At 155-feet long by 65-feet at its widest point with a 50-foot-high domed ceiling, the room’s acoustics are perfect. Microphones are never needed for any stage performance. With a seating capacity of over 1,500 people and a year-round temperature of 58 degrees, it’s little wonder this “auditorium” was a favorite meeting place since its discovery. There were occasions when church-style “Camp Meetings” were held in the cave as well as dances, barbecues and cookouts. Local clubs often met at the cave and in October 1969, the Shriner’s Club held a dinner-dance in Echo Auditorium.
The first performance of the entire cast of Renfro Valley entertainers in the cave took place on Sunday, June 29, 1968. The Sunday Morning Gatherin’ audience was there at Mr. Lair’s invitation. The show was performed for the purpose of getting photos for an advertising brochure Mr. Lair had planned. Photos
The biggest event at the cave was held July 4, 1971, when Mr. Lair celebrated his 77th birthday, along with the official grand opening of the Great Saltpetre Cave. An estimated 4,000 people attended the festivities, which included free guided tours. The Renfro Valley entertainers, together with some of the old-timers, put on two shows inside the cave that same afternoon. Colonel Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, was also there to help cut the cake and wish his old friend, John, a happy birthday.
By 1976, tours of the cave became self-guided. Later, the cave closed to the public all together. After Mr. Lair’s death in 1985, the cave was sold at auction to Stanley Rain of Mt. Vernon, Kentucky. When Mr. Rain passed away in 1989, the Felburn Foundation of Robbinsville, North Carolina, purchased the property. Today, the Greater Cincinnati Grotto, part of the National Speleological Society, oversees the care of the cave for the privately owned historical foundation, which specializes in preserving exotic locations. The cave and its surrounding area is now a natural preserve. By special permission, spelunkers can explore the cave, but it is open to the public only once a year.
This year, the Great Saltpetre Cave open house will take place Saturday, May 14, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, May 15, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. We hope you will take advantage of this once-a-year opportunity to visit the cave with its colorful history and stories of legends and ghosts. It would be well worth your time and an enjoyable way to spend the day. Admission is free.
If you go: Located just south of Renfro Valley, the Great
Saltpetre Cave can be reached by following I-75 to Exit 59, then south on US
Highway 25 to the first left turn. Directions to the cave are marked along the
way. For more information, contact the Rockcastle County Tourist Commission,
1-800-252-6685 or visit their website at
Article Submitted by Andy Niekamp
Photos & Article Courtesy of Renfro Valley Entertainment Center