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Collecting Cave History and Memorabilia

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

Recently on a cave survey outing to Cima Cave, I had the opportunity to ride "shotgun" with Bernie Szukalski of the Southern California Grotto. During the course of our ride through the desert towards Baker and the "Worlds Largest Thermometer," our conversation turned towards collecting cave memorabilia and cave history. It occurred to me later that this subject may be of interest to others in the grotto, and I thought I would take you through some of my collecting experiences. Perhaps they might provide you with a few ideas for your own searches and hobby interests.

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An early Howe Caverns Brochure

I've had a median interest in caving since high school days growing up in Schoharie County, New York. Nearby were Howe Caverns with its underground river, and the wildly promoted Secret Caverns with its 100-foot waterfall. I made the school trips along with the rest of the kids, and longed ever since to explore the underworld without the benefit of tour guides.

I will not go so far as to call myself a caver yet, as my experience consists mostly of visiting commercial caves, a good number of mines, and more "coyote holes" in the San Gabriel Mountains then I care to remember.

While doing some research on treasure legends of the southwest, I stumbled across Kokoweef and the "underground river of gold." This peaked my interest, and along with a good deal of research, I was fortunate enough to visit the area and explore to my hearts content, but that will be a story for another time.

What I wanted to share with you today is some of the ways you too can gather bits of history and memorabilia for research, collections, or just plain old fun. It was Kokoweef that really got the cave-collecting bug going for me. Sure the story was an interesting legend, but as you start researching it's amazing how many twists a story can take and you begin to wonder what really is the truth.

It became a passion to find everything in print, from those early mentions of the place in the 1930's Touring Topics, and a 1935 Westways Magazine, on through those fantastic tales in the sixties treasure hunting magazines, I left no stone unturned. Checking the indexes and bibliographies of any southwestern book I could find for caves and Kokoweef, I turned up quite an interesting list of books and magazines to chase down.

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Member's Card for the Howe Cavern's Club, dated 1950 on the reverse.

And the hunt was on. Starting with local libraries I was able to find a good number of the books I wanted, and those that were not available could be obtained through an interlibrary loan. Finding some of the rarer books, took me into rare and used book stores all over southern California, a near caving expedition in itself searching through some close quartered areas and dusty volumes too long hidden from the light of day. "This was fun," searching for scraps of evidence and history.

Magazines were a little tougher, but with garage "sailing," estate sales, and swap meets you can get a good amount of material together and usually at a reasonable price. Now I must warn you here, that this latter experience also exposed me to other items that then also consumed me, namely memorabilia. It was at the swap meet that I bought my first remembrance of my childhood cave days, a brochure from Howe Caverns. "Hey that sure was neat," I thought as I strode away from the vendor three dollars lighter. Soon there was another and yet another to cross my path on more then one occasion.

Information became scarcer, and it was about that time that I took to the Internet and the information highway. There is a bottomless pit of information on caves and caving on the Internet and you can also communicate with the most amazing folks that have similar interests. I was fortunate enough to find the son of one of the original developers of the Crystal Cave Mining Co., also a volunteer who had worked the tunnels at Kokoweef on and off for fourteen years, and eventually the owners of the new corporation that leases the patented land. The old timers, if you have the opportunity to talk to them, have some of the best stories, information, and they love to chat about the old days.

On the Internet I then became aware of abebooks.com, a book search, connecting thousands of bookstores and their inventory. For those of you who love books, and stop at those desert museums, this is the place to visit on those nights of reruns on the discovery channel. It was here that I found Bill Halliday's book Adventure is Underground in very fine condition for only $12.50. I was a happy camper.

About that time, I discovered the worlds greatest shopping playground for just about anything you can imagine, Ebay.com. Now since becoming involved with Ebay, I have had to limit the caving items I collect, to Howe Caverns, and interesting turn of the century articles about caves and caving, because of the large volume of the cave and caving items that are available. It is real easy to get caught up in the swell, so treat it like entering a cave for the first time, slow and easy. Now, the nice part about Ebay, is that it doesn't cost to look. You can look to your hearts content, as most dealers provide scans of what an item looks like along with descriptions. You can certainly fill up your curio cabinet rather quickly if you are so inclined.

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Howe Cavern vintage license plate attachment

My Howe Caverns collection has since grown to include, a score of different brochures, three turn of the century souvenir plates, souvenir ashtrays, license plate frame from the twenties, coins, postcards, books, maps, matchbooks, pen knife, banners, and an 1870's print of the original entrance and more.

Needless to say, I have had my fun along the way collecting this subject as well as others. It's usually an interesting addition to any sport or hobby. If anyone would like any help with a collection, or getting started on one, don't hesitate to ask, as I'll be happy to assist. As for me, my curio case is filled as far as Howe Caverns goes, but I am still looking for any scrap of information on Kokoweef, be it story, photo, or something in print to add to my collection. If you have anything you would care to share, please contact Land-Sea Discovery Group on the home page of this website.

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