Crystal Cave is now simultaneously Missouri’s second-oldest show and the newest one in the state to see. On March 23, the Greene County cave opened for visitors for the first time in years.
“We’ve already sold a handful of tickets for Wednesday,” says Duncan Lang, the cave’s manager, on Friday afternoon prior to opening.
The cave site offers activities for visitors, including paid guided tours, putt-putt golf, trackless train rides, and an expanded gift shopping experience.
The opening is tied to the sale of the cave, which was long in coming. Dirk Dole, who lives on the West Coast, purchased it after being on the lookout for a unique tourist stop. While the businessman is primarily involved in the self-storage industry, the cave is not the first attraction Dole and his family own. They also developed Mr. Putters Putt-Putt Mini Golf course in their California hometown.
“When I toured the property and saw the magical cave with its rich history and wonderful formations, I decided this is the one,” says Dole via email. “It has been a pleasure getting it ready for opening. The community has been very supportive of our efforts. We look forward to sharing it once again with Springfield families and visitors alike. We hope that folks will come see what Crystal Cave has to offer.”
The decision to reopen resumes a legacy that has been known to generations of Ozarkers. Crystal Cave’s history obviously predates its opening to the public in 1893, but that year is significant in the landscape of Missouri show caves: It makes Crystal Cave only the second to open in the state.
The history of Crystal Cave
The cave was opened — and long run — by the Mann family. The family’s intriguing story began in England and ended with three elderly sisters who operated the cave on their own.
One person who knew the sisters was the late Dwight Weaver, cave expert and researcher, who communicated with Ozarks Alive in 2020 about Crystal Cave. He shared his memories of visiting with the sisters on a visit he believes to be one of the last they hosted.
“As I approached that late 19th-century house, which in some respects looked like an unpainted haunted house at that time, I saw dogs and cats watching me from every window and wondered what would happen,” he said. “I had been told they probably would not talk to me as we had not on that occasion asked for a tour of the cave. But they not only invited me into a house that was like a place out of time, but they had shut all the animals out of the living room.
“They were as gracious as any people could ever have been, sat beside me on their sofa and paged through one of their photograph albums which my photographer would have killed to copy pictures from. They had a brother who was shot and killed … when the boy was about 7 years old and they were still bitter about it many decades later, blaming the city for lack of action when it came to the shooter. Yet they went on and treated me wonderfully.”
Ozarks Alive did a story focused on the cave’s history in 2020, which may be seen here. Its legacy as a destination was paused some years ago, but the exact number is unclear. The former owners of the cave, Loyd and Edith Richardson, passed away in 2011 and 2014.
Ever since, signs for the landmark, located about 10 miles north of Springfield in Greene County, have pointed to a place where the public couldn’t go. Until now.
Inside the cave
Lang took a break from the work on Friday prior to opening to share a preview of the cave. A walk through an old wrought-iron gate (identified with signs as from Springfield’s “historic cemetery”) and down through the mouth of the cave (where another says a second gate was from Springfield’s “historic jail”) officially starts the tour — as do reminders for caution.
“We’re going to talk about safety and taking the handrails,” says Lang. “There are a few passages in here that have a low head clearance, so be mindful of that.”
It’s true that Crystal Cave has a few places that may be difficult for those with flexibility or mobility challenges to navigate. There are some rough natural stone steps and low clearance spaces — but they give access to the cave’s natural beauty, such as a room filled with helictites, which Lang says shows a defining element of the cave.
“It is one of the most rare features you’ll see in the cave,” says Lang of the helictites, which are tiny, smaller-than-finger-sized formations. “It’s the only one I know of in Missouri that has it, and there’s just a handful in the country that have had these specific formations.
“They’re very unique formations that do not grow vertically. They come out horizontally and almost curly. There’s not a single unified theory in geology that I know of that explains these formations.”
He would know, as Lang comes from a family immersed in the legacy of Ozarks show caves. His stepfather, Bruce Herschend, owns Talking Rocks Cavern in Branson. That family legacy also includes Marvel Cave at Silver Dollar City.
“(My stepdad) contacted Dirk Dole, the current owner, right after he purchased it,” says Lang. “Bruce had been kind of watching the price fluctuate on this and considered buying it for a while. Then when he saw Dirk bought it, he just reached out and said, ‘Hey, if you need any help with it, I’m part of the cave association, and we collectively try to keep the show caves at a certain standard — so if there’s anything I can do to help you get there, reach out to me.’”
Eventually, that led to a conversation and a job offer for Lang to work at the cave as its manager. He’s been in the role for around a month, helping get the cave ready for its opening.
“Luckily, I had a little bit of experience, with my family being who they are, with the ins-and-outs of getting a show cave put together,” says Lang. “It was very serendipitous.”
Unique to Crystal Cave
Walking through its paths and passages, he shares about other parts unique to the cave. There’s a formation called the Washington Monument, which was replicated by the Smithsonian in the late 20th century. Upside-down wells that may have sheltered Native Americans. A place known as the “Lost City” is illuminated with black lights to better see the intricate formations that remind of buildings on a hillside. And the “Witch’s Bathtub,” features shallow pools that will fill up with an inch or so of water.
“As it drips, it almost sounds like a bubbling cauldron,” says Lang.
Salamanders are often seen, and fossils and other notes that make great legends — like a “carving” of a coiled snake that know one knows for sure its story.
“It’s apparently been there since the Manns purchased it and opened it as a show cave in 1893,” says Lang. “It could have been one of the native tribes here. I can’t validate that story, though.”
Tours of the cave will take approximately 35 minutes, Lang says, with extra time left for questions. Groups will be limited to around 12 people.
Lang also mentions that the cave’s reopening will include more than just going underground. Attractions include a “trackless” train ride tours of the above-ground property, an indoor nine-hole miniature golf course, a gift shop and space for events.
“We’ve had lots of people that grew up in the area be very excited about coming back out here because they spent their childhood going through the cave,” says Lang. “I’m really excited to show off the changes that we’ve made here.”