For nearly 100 years, the history at Mark Twain Cave and Cameron Cave has been discovered and made by generations of a family that still care for the historical sites.

For nearly 100 years, the history at Mark Twain Cave and Cameron Cave has been discovered and made by generations of a family that still care for the historical sites.

A family member who witnessed many of those pieces of history revisited childhood memories with some of the little-known tales surrounding Mark Twain Cave, Cameron Cave and Cave Hollow.

Robert Coleberd talked with curious audience members about how his grandfather, Evan T. Cameron, used to guide weekend tours of the cave. Cameron operated a dairy farm on the land where Sawyer's Creek sits today. And decades of interesting events were sparked by the Hannibal Streetcar Company's plan around 1880 to establish a route that would circle down to Cave Hollow and stop at an amusement park. But the popularity of the automobile and the completion of the new River Road changed that tact — by 1923, Cameron purchased the caves after the passing of John Mainland, owner of the Hannibal Streetcar Company.

Coleberd recalled humorous stories and cherished memories he witnessed as a child and discovered through research. During the early years, his grandfather had a steam engine for the dairy farm, but was unsuccessful in getting it running, he said with a laugh. After receiving some help, the steam engine was chugging away to fill the silo. Technology would soon be on its way to the region and Mark Twain Cave.

Tours grow in Mark Twain Cave

In 1938, the Roosevelt Administration passed legislation that would bring electricity to farmers and other rural areas — offering electrical lighting for Mark Twain Cave. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation efforts brought electricity to the Cave Hollow area from Monroe City. Coleberd said with amusement that the cost for lighting the cave in those times was $10 per month.

As Coleberd talked about the historic John East Entrance, he said East used to take people into the cave, telling them there were bears inside if he wanted to conclude the tour and return to his farm.

“People would say 'get me out of here,'” Coleberd said with a chuckle.

Famous visitors have been coming to the cave for countless years. Coleberd recounted a story about a boy driving livestock through the hollow. The boy saw Jesse James near the cave — he was likely planning a bank robbery in Saverton or Ilasco. James asked the boy if he could bring a box of biscuits from his mother. The boy obliged.

“Then in an hour or two, he came back, and Jesse reached in and pulled out a roll of bills,” Coleberd said.

Cameron Cave discovery

An observation of steam coming out of the nearby hill led to the discovery of Cameron Cave in 1925. Coleberd's Uncle Arch and his father discovered the cave, and Coleberd's mother was the first woman to visit the cave. In 1940, a crew used a pick, shovel and bucket to manually dig a tunnel into the cave. J Harlen Bretz and his crew mapped Mark Twain Cave and Cameron Cave, described the latter cave as “Missouri's greatest labyrinth” in his book “Caves of Missouri.”

Coleberd said that Cameron Cave was open by reservations only for years, until it opened to the public in the 1970s. That decision offered a markedly different experience, as visitors enter and explore the cave entirely by flashlight.

“Of course, it was left in the natural state,” Coleberd said. “The beauty of it is that people come out and say 'I discovered a cave.'”

The stories behind the names in Mark Twain Cave

Alvin Billingsley signed his name near the “Five Points” section of Mark Twain Cave. He was a belly gunner in World War II who did not return.

Nearby, N.L. Brady signature is clearly visible. He was one of Samuel Clemens' childhood friends and the son of Hannibal's first mayor, James Brady. Coleberd said that two other names were in the same section, and they were likely added at the same time.

Coleberd and his brother, the late James C. Coleberd, later purchased the caves. Coleberd's sister-in-law, Linda Coleberd, owns and operates Mark Twain Cave. She said she found the signature of Norman Rockwell inside the cave by chance — it has eluded her in subsequent searches. She and her brother-in-law agreed that Samuel Clemens' signature is somewhere inside the cave — he and his good friends regularly played inside. And Laura Hawkins, Clemens' childhood sweetheart and the basis for his literary character Becky Thatcher, signed her name on a cave wall.

“I love to tell people Ernest Hemingway said 'all American fiction begins and ends with Huckleberry Finn,'” Robert Coleberd said. “And kids are going to read this forever.”

Preserving, sharing history with visitors

Coleberd and his wife, Barbara, live in Granada Hills, Calif. When they return to Hannibal, they enjoy sharing the history intertwined with the generations of their family. He said he likes seeing groups of visitors from other nations and groups of school children when they come to visit — they are all familiar with Mark Twain's literature.

“Hundreds of school children come and the parking lot is full of buses — they've all read Tom Sawyer and they want to see the cave,” he said.

As the 100-year milestone approaches, Linda Coleberd, Robert Coleberd and fellow family members pursue every chance to share the area's rich history and uncover new stories. The annual Harvest Hootenanny and Bear Creek Rendezvous events hosted in Cave Hollow reflect that many time-honored traditions will continue for generations on the history-rich grounds.

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com