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Exploring Mystery Cave, Minnesota with Warren Netherton

As told by Warren Netherton
Preston, Minnesota

Story Narrative:

This story was collected as part of a collaborative effort to record the state of American lakes, rivers, and waterways as well an attempt to uncover what water means to Americans. Listen to other stories recorded by the Minnesota Humanities Center for the Stories from Main Street project, an initiative created by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service for its traveling exhibition "Water/Ways."

"Do you guys have jackets, right? We need to spray the bottom of your shoes. That is to kill the spores of fungus that causes the white-nose syndrome in the bats. My name is Warren Netherton and I am the Cave Specialist at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. Mystery Cave was discovered in 1937. OK, let me pull this 1,500 pounds of steel back. This flood door is in place here because of this huge flood in 1942. I like a lot of things about caves. I like the three dimensionality of them, the drama that exists there, the astounding things I have seen in my life, a good portion of those were tied to events that occurred underground. Let me turn some lights on here so we can see what’s going on. We are going to need our eyes to adjust a little bit.

Let’s stroll down here. Use this handrail and don’t touch the caves surfaces. This is an example of a room that has really changed over time, the floor has changed. Now, this work was done in 1937 and people were thinking we want people in here as fast as possible for tourism. At the time I arrived here--in 1988--the way the floor looked was--this big gapping whole in front of us—was all filled in materials and we dug that out to restore the cave passageway. We believe this is the original floor of the cave or really, really close to it and one of the indications of that, is--if I shine my light over here--this black deposit right here. That’s basically top soil that was washed in here upstream from the 1942 flood. So that reflects the farming practices that were going on then. That was before conservation practices that exist now. The erosion was unreal that occurred.

This is farm ground that is lost forever, most of it is probably in the Gulf of Mexico by now and some got ruined here in Mystery Cave. One of the frustrating things for an interpreter working at this park and working in the cave is that water is a huge deal here. Like everything here is a result of water. To the deposits that were here to the walls being dissolved away and this little crack turning into a bonafide cave. But getting people to the location where the water is flowing though is really hard. I mean, you would not be happy with me if I took you down to that spot. We couldn’t even fit into it actually.

OK, come up here to Turquoise Lake which is one of about 10 different bodies of waters in the cave that would be referred to as a lake. It’s the most remembered feature of any of Mystery Cave for our visitors. Back in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, there was a post out here with a nail in it and it held an enamel cup and people went on the tour would take a drink of the Turquoise Lake water on their tour – nice, cool, refreshing and then they can be on their way.

This would not be a good time to drink that water from research work that was done here, oh, back in the early ‘90s bacteria levels increased in the winter and they diminish and are gone in the summer. So actually, the summer months are a good time to drink the water. I wouldn’t want to drink it without testing it but I wonder about all of those people using the same cup – that’s what I mainly worry about."

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