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Travel Logs September 2014

Cave Boy from Missouri

By Geno Lawrenzi, Jr.

In 1941, he found a cave and artifacts left behind by Jesse James and his gang of outlaws. Dill was thrilled and used the discovery as a publicity gimmick that would cause him to build the Jesse James Wax Museum.  He also uncovered additional miles of caverns and ancient passages that added to the lure of Meramec Caverns.

Born in Stanton, Missouri, just two years before the start of the 19th century, Lester Benton Gill was about as typical a Missouri boy as you could find. He fished, hunted, teased girls and explored caves. Boy, how he loved to explore caves.

In his later years, even after Gill had begun development of Missouri's incredible underground treasure, Meramec Caverns, he had the neighbors talking about him. “That Lester Gill is sure a fanatic when it comes to caves,” mumbled one man, shaking his head. “That just ain't normal.”

Gill, the second of nine children, had just turned six when he and his father, Thomas Benton Gill, decided to venture into Fisher's Cave just across the Meramec River from their family farm.  That first adventure into the unnatural coolness of the underground caverns set off a spark in him that continued until the day he died.

He found the caves as mesmerizing as a scuba diver might find the ocean floor. From that day forth, he didn't need his dad to take him into the cave that would become Meramec Caverns. Carrying a lamp fueled by coal oil or kerosene, Gill would go as far back into the cave as he could safely travel. He sometimes brought candles to light the way.

As he grew into his teens, he made a few dollars bringing town people or city slickers from St. Louis or Kansas City into Fisher's Cave. He also began a study of the cave formation with its spectacular stalagmites and other rock formations and discovered some fascinating information.

Sometime before the 17th century, the Osage Indians found the caves and began using them for protection from adverse weather. In the sweltering Missouri summers, the Indian families would go into the caverns to cool off from the heat. During winter when blizzards blanketed the area with snow, the Indians would hole up in the caves for protection from the elements.

In 1720, a French explorer named Philip Renault visited the area and hired several Osage scouts as guides. They told Renault about the unusual cave formations. At first, he showed little interest in their tales. But when they mentioned a glittering yellow metal inside the entrance, his interest picked up considerably.

“It may be gold,” he told the other explorers with him. The guides loaded the French men’s board canoes and paddled down the Meramec River until they came to a giant fissure that measured 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide. With hearts beating in anticipation, the French explorers entered the mouth of the caverns.

They were somewhat disappointed over what they found. The yellow metal was not gold. It was saltpeter which contained potassium nitrate, an ingredient that was used to make gunpowder. The discovery turned out profitable for Renault and his friends. For the next 140 years, they used the saltpeter to manufacture gunpowder.

Over the next two centuries, various factions fought for possession of the caverns. During the Civil War, a bloody battle erupted between the Confederates and the Union Army. The Rebels won that conflict, ousting Union an outpost and gunpowder factory inside the cave.

When Dill came on the scene, he found a large room 300 feet inside the yawning cavernous entrance. It was big enough for a ballroom and was given that nicknamed by a man named Charles Ruepple who owned the caverns. 

Ruepple used the ballroom to host dances for a number of years and many farmers, their wives and their children came to the cave to enjoy a naturally air conditioned dance inside the rock walls of the caverns. Dill managed to talk Ruepple into selling him the rights to Saltpeter Cave, planning to turn it into a showroom for the public.

Lester didn't like the name and immediately changed it to Meramec Caverns.

In 1933, after celebrating his 35th birthday, Dill made a major discovery. He was on one of his early morning trips into the caverns when he found a small hole with cool air blowing through it. He shouted into the opening and echoes came flying back at him.

Dill realized that meant there were more caves to be discovered. He hired workmen to tear down the wall and was amazed to find a gigantic upper room with several levels. One was the spectacular rock formation he christened the Stage Curtain. It stood nearly 70 feet high and eventually became the Theater Room, one of the most popular attractions of the caverns.

Over the next eight years, Dill built up a following of visitors by advertising the caverns on barns and abandoned farm buildings along roads and highways leading to his part of Missouri. The area was stricken with a terrible drought, causing the water level to plunge. As the river went down, Dill made another major discovery when he found another opening that led to still other caves and more levels.

In 1941, he found a cave and artifacts left behind by Jesse James and his gang of outlaws. Dill was thrilled and used the discovery as a publicity gimmick that would cause him to build the
Jesse James Wax Museum.  He also uncovered additional miles of caverns and ancient passages that added to the lure of Meramec Caverns.

Dill traveled to 14 states to help build the caverns' attraction. When he found an appropriate barn, whether it was abandoned or being used, he would approach the owner and talk them into letting him advertise Meramec Caverns on the roof or walls of the building. He rarely offered them cash.

The smiling Dill, a shrewd Missouri trader that continues to his grandson today who operates the caverns, would hold forth a pocket watch, a box of chocolates and a free lifetime pass to visit the caverns in exchange for the publicity. He was rarely turned down.

Dill came up with another innovative idea – bumper signs.  He created the nation's first bumper stickers when he had his employees affix signs advertising the caverns to the bumpers of the cars of tourists. To the visitor, this was a free souvenir. To Dill, it was free advertising that would help bring in more customers.

Following Dills' retirement, his grandson, Lester Terrilli, Sr., took over management of the Caverns which annually draws 100,000 cars to the attraction three miles east of I-44 off Exit 230. Not content with the estimated $1.5 million the visitors bring in each year Terrilli upgraded the property, adding a Caveman Zipline that soars above the river and includes three swinging rope bridges and ziplines that soar from 250 to 1,200 feet in length with speeds up to 50 miles per hour. To cover the estimated $300,000 he poured into the property, he increased the fees for the 80-minute zipline experience to $49 per adult and $39 for children under the age of 11.

That's not a bad legacy for a Missouri kid who had a passion for exploring caves.

 

Geno Lawrenzi, Jr. is an international journalist, magazine author, ghostwriter and novelist who lives in Springfield, Missouri. His email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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