Former tour guide recalls life at caves
Donald Dell’s earliest childhood memories could be described as dark, chilled and, at times, soggy, something Dell was never upset about because they all involved Wyandotte Caves.
With his father as the head tour guide and his mother working in the kitchen and dining room and as a maid, Dell grew up playing inside the caves.
‘From my earliest memories, I can go back to about 6 or 7 years old,’ he said. ‘I was there during the summer months when they worked and I was out of school. I used to ride my bicycle down into the cave before they added steps. That was quite a thrill because you had that real steep hill and then you had to stop before you hit the wall down there where the gate was.’
Keeping it in the family, Dell, who still lives a few miles from the caves, got his first job at the park in 1951 when he was 11 tying bumper stickers on automobiles.
‘Back then cars had bumpers you could tie stuff onto,’ he said. ‘The piece said ‘Wyandotte Cave’ on it and had about six holes that you had to use binder twine to put through those holes, and we could tie that onto the front and back bumpers.’
However, it wasn’t long before Dell started moving up the ladder in hopes of becoming a tour guide like his father.
‘And, of course, by hanging around there and going through the cave with my father and the other guides I got a lot of knowledge on how to be a guide,’ he said. ‘As I grew older and bigger, I would go through the cave with my dad and the other guides and do what we called ‘tail guiding’ with larger parties.
‘Because of the value of the formations in there, people liked to take a souvenir, and there was a $500 fine if you got caught doing that,’ he continued. ‘So, I started out there as a tail guide, not paid, just helping my dad and the other guides out. That was very important, because those formations take hundreds of years to form a cubic inch.’
After tail guiding for a year or two, Dell became a full-time tour guide at age 15. The job paid $3.50 a day, resulting in about $22 a week after taxes, while his father, as the head guide, made about $47 a week.
‘I was fairly large for my age, and I had learned the spiel from my dad, so Sam Riley, the manager at that time, decided to put me to work since I was hanging around all the time. That’s how I got started as a cave guide,’ he said.
Working during the summer months, Dell not only led tours inside the caves, but also policed the grounds and took care of the equipment, including the Coleman lanterns.
‘That was the only light we had in the large cave, so we were required to make sure there was enough fuel in the lanterns,’ he said. ‘Each guide had to keep a small pouch to keep our equipment in, which consisted of various items such as matches, mantels, red flares and a three-cell flashlight for pointing things out. Now, with these laser beams, that would have been ideal if we had those.’
Even when Dell was off duty, he was still enamored with the cave.
‘Sometimes at night some of the younger guides would get together and we’d go exploring in the cave,’ he said. ‘There are places back in there, out-of-the-way places, where the people wouldn’t see them, where you’ll find our initials.’
However, Dell also has watched as the grounds and caves themselves have transformed throughout the years.
‘Back then that was a major attraction in this area. I remember when that place was packed without hardly anywhere to park,’ he said. ‘The main building, made out of western cedar, had a lobby, a great big fireplace, hotel rooms upstairs and all across the front of it was a great big front porch.
‘It was a rustic setting. People would come from Louisville and all over,’ he continued. ‘The dining room specialized in cooking ham and fried chicken. Imagine the smell wafting all over the place.’
Dell said the dining room on the weekends was comparable to the Overlook Restaurant in Leavenworth.
‘That was a drawing card because of the ambiance of the building and the grounds, but, after the building burnt down and they built a new building, and Sam Riley passed, the Rothrock family sold it to the state,’ he said. ‘People loved to come sit on that big porch and look out at that view down over the hills. They could come out and dine, bring their friends and go through the cave, rent a room, if they needed to.’
Dell’s last trip inside the caves was in 2001 with his grandson, but he hopes to change that now that Wyandotte Caves are open once again.
‘It brought back a lot of memories,’ he said. ‘I’ll probably go down there and just see how they got it all set up. I would like to go in the little cave again and see what all they changed in it. I’m glad they got it opened up. It’s something people should be allowed to see.’