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Melvin White and Rollin Hurt's caving adventure, 1870s (part 1)

The first installment of a riveting story that Jim's been researching for some years now, about a spelunking adventure gone wrong in 1870's Adair County.

By Jim

"...they slept from complete exhaustion for several hours, and dreamed of home and mother."

Some of the most gripping lines ever penned by Mark Twain, Adair County's world-famous "grandson of the Shire," appeared in his novel Tom Sawyer. These passages involve Tom and Miss Becky Thatcher (his petite amie du jour) and their harrowing experience in McDougal's Cave.

A similar saga occurred in Adair County in the 1870s, about the time, possibly a few years before, Twain introduced Tom and Becky and their friends to the world in 1876.

A brief description of the Adair County event appeared in the September 20, 1921 edition of the News, that telling of the tale setting the stage thus:

"On the farm formerly owned by Mr. Curt White [Melvin's father], three miles south of Columbia, there is a cave in which long since there were many curiosities and frequently it was entered by neighbors, looking for Indian relics, etc.

"When Rollin Hurt, now Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, and Melvin White, now a school teacher and newspaper correspondent, who lives in North Carolina, were sixteen years of age each,* neighbor boys, boon companions, their homes being a short distance from the cave, concluded that they would explore it and see what they could find in the way of Indian relics.

[*This statement is of necessity in error. White was born in 1857, Hurt in 1860.]

However, some fourteen years before the paragraphs above graced the pages of the newspaper, Dr. U.L. Taylor had written for the News, in serialized form, "The Early History of Melvin White," and devoted part of Chapter III (of ten) and the entirety of Chapter IV to the near-disastrous caving adventure of young Messrs. White and Hurt. Chapters III and IV appeared in the April 3, 1907 and April 10, 1907 editions, respectively. The quotes from Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are from the 1884 American Publishing Co. edition.

Wrote the good Dr. Taylor in Chapter III (en media res):

We come now to the most interesting and romantic episode in [Melvin's] experience, of three days and nights in his father's cave. Melvin had long been anxious to explore that cave, but his father would not allow it, telling him each time that there was a danger of getting lost, and being bitten by venomous serpents, or being devoured by wild beasts.

Melvin turned a deaf ear to all his father's advice, and procured a tallow candle, and a companion in the person of Rollin Hurt, [and] set out on a Saturday afternoon for the long coveted exploration.

They had thoroughly read up on caves, and every passage that might be found was perfectly familiar to the youthful explorers. They had both been in the cave before, but had not gone far enough to satisfy their curiosity. They remembered some branches to the cave that they were anxious to investigate, and they investigated.

Lighting their tallow candles, they stepped boldly forth into the first strange prong that they reached, and the half had not been told. They went into a large room, which was beautiful to behold. Nature had lavished her beauties beyond their expectations. They stood entranced for a time, and witnessed the wonderful phenomena. Rock icicles hung in thick clusters from the ceiling, the work of ages.

("In one place they found a spacious cavern, from whose ceiling depended a multitude of shining stalactites of the length and circumference of a man's leg; they walked all about it, wondering and admiring..." Tom Sawyer, Chapter XXXI.)

When they were satisfied, and wanted to go on, or return, they found they had lost their way. In spite of their best efforts they could not find their way out of that beautiful room. They tried on all sides until they became thoroughly alarmed, and to add to their horror, their candles were almost gone. Like the foolish Virgins in the parable, they had not prepared themselves with lighting material.

The 1921 News article, referenced above, stated, "They procured several candles and entered the cavern one Sunday [sic] afternoon about 3 o'clock. They wandered around and were in high glee seeing the sights, and about 8 o'clock at night, they supposed, they found that their candles had given out and that they were in total darkness."

Just before the lights went out, they discovered a little fissure in the rock on one side. They wedged themselves in that, the lights departed, and they were left in darkness, so dense that it could almost be felt. They struggled forth in the vain hope that they were on the right road to the mouth of the cave, but in vain. The muscles of the eyes in their efforts to see caused phosphorescent sparks to flash out occasionally, but they gave them no sight, they had no watch, and if they had, they could not see the time.

("The children fastened their eyes upon their bit of candle and watched it melt slowly and pitilessly away; saw the half inch of wick stand alone at last; saw the feeble flame rise and fall, climb the thin column of smoke, linger at its top a moment, and then -- the horror of utter darkness reigned!" Tom Sawyer, Chapter XXXI.)

They wandered, they crawled, they climbed, but seemed to get no where; they would climb a big rock, to fall back or to fall on the other side and then climb again. They at last got on a large flat rock, and laid down, and nature's calm restorer, sleep, came to them, and they slept from complete exhaustion for several hours, and dreamed of home and mother.

("Becky, I was such a fool! Such a fool! I never thought we might want to come back! No--I can't find the way. It's all mixed up." Tom Sawyer, Chapter XXXI.)

To be continued...

This story was posted on 2015-07-05 08:58:02
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