The History of the Great Saltpetre Cave According to Richard Mullins
As told to Sheryl Hilton and Lou Simpson 6/24/90.
From the July 1990 Electric Caver of the Greater Cincinnati Grotto
Richard Mullins, caretaker and manager of the Great Saltpetre Cave during the last 16 years of its public operation sits on his porch spring less than a half a mile from the entrance to the cave and talks about the problem that they've been having with a red fox who's been stealing their chickens. "Chickens are worth a whole lot," Mullins says. "The eggs are good and fresh. These lay enough for me and my wife and my kids' family too."
Finally the conversation turns to the cave. The Great Saltpetre Cave was on Calloway Mullins' original 7500 acres of land 150 years ago. Calloway Mullins, (Richard's great- grandfather) was a blacksmith for the railroad, and divided his vast expanse of land into smaller parcels for his ten children and their families. Calloway died at 73. "Back then old fellows worked themselves to death." Calloway had ten or eleven children and divided the land up among them. Calloway had lived three miles from the cave, on Crooked Creek, on land that Burgess Abney owns now. "There's lots of caves around there, too, he says."
Richard's great-uncle John Mullins, was fortunate enough to inherit the portion with the two entrances to the Great Saltpetre Cave. Unfortunately, John Mullins' luck did not protect him that terrible day when a rope broke. The huge 36-feetlong log beam that was being hoisted into place at the top of a house he was building for his brother came crashing down on his spine, leaving him paralyzed for the rest of his life. After John died, his daughter Ella, an older woman finally married an old widow man, Bill Carpenter. After Ella died, her husband moved back to his old house and tried to sell the property (cave included) for $1,500. Then came the small legal problem. John had never signed the deed over to Ella so there was a question of ownership and homesteading rights since Bill was no longer living on the property. When the courts finally ruled, the cave reverted back to the Mullins family, to Richard's grandfather Charles Anderson Mullins, a tower of a man nicknamed "Biggie."
Biggie sold the cave the John Lair, the father of country music in Renfro Valley, who arranged for some of his famous barn dance talents to perform in the cave. John Lair also encouraged the local churches to hold as many services in the cave as they wanted, free of charge. Lair was a World War I veteran who had been a disc jockey on a radio station in Chicago before coming to the Renfro Valley area. John Lair was well liked and it was during this time that Richard managed the cave and campground and gave guided tours, while his wife Francis Isabel Mullins sold tickets, soft drinks, and souvenirs in the shop close to the main entrance. "Many grey-haired women who took the tour of the cave said that they remembered square dances, and even church services that had been held in the cave when they were young girls," said Mrs. Mullins. "They really enjoyed seeing the cave again because it reminded them of how much fun they'd had there." Richard says that the admission for a guided tour was $2 for adults, $1 for children, and the little ones (under eight years of age) were admitted free. "We gave them a guided tour, but some had been in so many times we just turned them loose. They didn't need a guide."
The great iron gates to the cave are remnants of the old Mt. Vernon jail. "Many a prisoner has been behind those gates," Mullins says. Bill, a stone mason who built the gift shop, installed the gates. Bill lived there for about three years, but liked to drink, and didn't stay long. Before the electric lights were installed (about 20 years ago) 15 kerosene lanterns hung on posts to provide light for the cave. Even after the electric lights, the guides carried at least two lanterns in case of a power failure.
Mullins has seen more than a half a dozen houses rise and fall on the Great Saltpetre cave property and almost as many different owners. During Mullins' management, the campground had pit toilets, and a nice block shower house was added with water supplied by the same spring that provided his own water.
There was a charge of $1 per tent for camping in the campground.
The huge shelter house was also added. "We even had a woman who cooked and sold food near the back of the shelter for a year or so," Mullins says. But that didn't go over so well, so it didn't last long and I turned that part into a tool shed and work area."
John Lair also built a clay dam with a concrete bridge over the top of it to expand the campground to the other side of Crooked Creek. Richard says, "I told him that it would washout and sure enough, three years later, when the water was really high, it came crashing down, and the water just washed it away."
The cave was open to the public from April 1 to November 1 each year, and closed about five years ago when John Lair died. The new owner, Steiner Rain, just didn't want to fool around with the public enterprise aspect of cave ownership, so Richard moved back to his original homestead a half a mile away.
Mullins was not sure about exact dates in the older history of the cave, but knew that the cave had been mined for saltpetre to make gun powder during the Civil War. During that time he said that the Union soldiers slept on a couple of ledges in the North end of the cave near his property. You can still see the soldiers signatures there. The soldiers found the cave more comfortable that the extreme temperatures outside "because it stays about 58 degrees all year," he says. "It's warm in the winter and cool in the summer."
"According to history," Mullins says, Dr. Sam Brown from Lexington, was the first one to start the mining when he was awarded a contract from the government. Later another fellow, John Baker from Tennessee, took the mining business over. "Baker, his wife, and kids are buried in a cemetery down there where Calloway, his wife, and several other Mullins are buried as well."
Link with Daniel Boone? Most Kentuckians agree that Daniel Boone helped make America the great country that it is today. And his name is written in Great Saltpetre Cave, says Richard Mullins, whose family owned the land around the cave for over 150 years. "Daniel Boone's name is in there. I can show you right where to find it, in the North section of the cave near Fat Man's Misery," Mullins says.
"You have to know where to look-in a little cove area-up about as high as your head. It used to be very easy to see if you had a good light."
"The last time I saw it-it was faded so bad I could hardly see it," he says. It was spelled 'D Boon'." Mullins doesn't speculate about what might have happened to the "e" on the end of Boone. But it's well known that the legendary Boone knew more about wilderness survival skills and how to deal with Indians than knew about reading, writing, and arithmetic.
"My grandfather swears that there was a hemlock tree near the entrance of Mullins Spring Cave with 'D. Boon' carved into the bark. Everyone said that was where the Indians captured Daniel when they found him hiding in the cave," Mullins says. According to local folklore, Boone was tied with rawhide strips, then the Indians started a fire and went to gather more wood so that they could bum him. While they were gone, he held the rawhide strips binding his hands near the fire until they gave loose, untied his feet, and was gone before the Indians returned.
Whether Daniel Boone was the originator of the letters in the cave is something for historians to decide. Born in Pennsylvania in 1735, he moved to North Carolina where he was married and tried to settle down. But in 1769, at the age of 35, the wilderness of Kentucky lured and kept him until nearly 1800.
He retired to Missouri at the age of 65, and died in 1820. Most of the cave graffiti dates back to the early 1800s. Boone could have written his initials just before moving to Missouri. I'm looking forward to finding the faded inscription and looking for a date.
The weather is sunny, but cool and breezy. Two wild beehives hang from the large porch roof that protects the swing. A calico kitten and tiger striped cat wander down the path between Mullins' home and his daughter's next door. Lou and I thank him for taking the time to meet with us and give us so much information in so little time. He tells us of another larger cave, Mullins Spring Cave, that is only a half a mile from the concrete bridge that crosses Crooked Creek. It has three waterfalls, 50 foot pits, and the most beautiful formations you ever looked at," he says.
Evidently the Great Saltpetre Cave also used to have formations, but it was open to the public so long, without gates, that people broke the formations and carried them out. Some would even lag behind on the guided tours to write their names on the walls. "You couldn't keep them from it," he said.
"Lots of caves in this area, beautiful country," Mullins says. We'd like to stay and find out more, but still have the three hour drive to Cincinnati. We promise to come down again during the annual meeting on July 13 to talk further.
Scanning and OCR work done by Andy Niekamp