Howe Caverns and the Underground Empire

I just finished reading Underground Empire about Howe Caverns and I have enjoyed it immensely.  I don’t know if the feeling of nostalgia is due to the my recent SCS 50th year high reunion or that I could relate to so many of the people and places described in the book. It has been a splendid read and I wrote a letter to the author. Dana Cudmore, was a year behind me at Schoharie school and worked as a guide at Howe Caverns with brother Robert.  I wrote a letter to Dana about all my memories which Dana labelled as a Cave Country Boyhood..

From the early 1950’s until the mid-1960’s my family owned a dairy farm which abutted Howe Caverns property. Surrounding our farm was land owned by Nethaway, Vannatten and Sagendorf families. AS a pre-teen I drove a team of horses for the Nethaways. I learned to ice skate on Jimmy Vannatten’s pond, My sister Barbara was (and still is) best friends with Hope Sagendorf and my other sister, Jeanne, attended school prom with John Sagendorf.

My dad used to cut hay from Howe Cavern’s land. Spring times when my father would till new fields we would pick rock and joke that moving the really big ones would lead us to The Garden of Eden. In 1958 the Caverns made a promotional film which used some of our family farm and four cows.  The picture shows an actor and camera man setting up along a stone fence line for some farmer wisdom about the discovery of the cave. 

Locally us kids had a  horse posse including Bobby Beavers, Joyce Nethaway, Hopi Sagendorf and occasionally Carolyn Rehberg. When my ponies escaped, we would frequently find them at the Caverns mooching treats and affection from the tourists. One of the reasons I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 18 was due to proximity to Howe Caverns. With no shoulders along the country roads, my parents were certain if I was riding a bike I would get hit by a tourist. So, from age 5 on they entrusted my fate to Nip, my pony. I guess they figured his sense of self-preservation would extend to me as well. David Reynolds was one of my close friends growing up.

My parents played cards with ‘Bud’ Tillison owner of the Howe Cave Luncheonette and Grocery.  I recall it only having 3 small tables. I remember Bud giving me an ice cream while he and my dad visited and as a youngster, I felt it couldn’t get any better.  Carolyn (Rehberg) Schlegel says she could recall that Bud designated a spot to tie a horse while the kids went into the store to buy a treat.

I see Carolyn (Rehberg) Schlegel often playing senior’s volleyball and was telling her of your book.  The Rehberg family was active in Yo-Sco-Haro Riding Club and served as 4-H leaders, The Rehberg farm was located at Lester Howe farm and the suspected Garden of Eden.  Carolyn relayed a story told by her father Albert (Al) that when blasting was done for I-88 one of the blasts sounded a different ‘thump’ associated with settling earth.

When I was 13 my family sold the farm to Lester Hay and built a house across the Schoharie Creek from Terrace Mtn.  Bill Dodge, SCS Biology teacher, sponsored our informal outing club –the Schoharie Pit-Plunging and Cliff-Climbing Club which undertook activities on Terrace Mountain and Partridge Run and canoeing Schoharie Creek and canoe racing on the Susquehanna. 

Lester Hay later married my sister, Jeanne and fathered Mark and Matthew Hay who worked as tour guides at the caverns.  In fact, many of us worked at the cavern.  My sisters, Barbara and Jeanne worked at the snack bar.  My cousin Karen Muller worked there as well.  My sophomore year in school I joined the largest guides class ever assembled at the caverns and was trained by Don Reynolds.

As a junior and senior (SCS Class of 1971) I went caving with Bill Dodge and other friends exploring Balls, Knox, Van Viets, Spider, Benson, and Przysiecki caves.

Somewhere in the late 1970’s my brother Robert, father Clifford and brother-in-law Lester Hay salvaged an engine and winch which was used to clear the sink hole known as Sinks By The Sugar Bush. There were 50 gallon drums, punctured to allow water to drain, which was lowered for men and gear as well as to pull out the tailings as they tried to clean it out.   We were always told they found some of Lester Howe’s items in a grotto near or at the sink.  We believe the engine and winch that were there dated back to late 20’s or early ’30’s as the engine was a ’20s vintage.  It was a 6hp “Novo” with a capstan for rope and drum for cable. 

The book has been a real joy to read. I feel blessed that I was able to grow up in the prosperous hay days of Howe Caverns and the book enabled many pleasant memories for me.