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Did Jesse and the boys ride west to hide out in Robber’s Cave?

By Linda Emley

This is the story of “Robber’s Cave,” which is also know as “Cave Springs”.
There are many caves in Missouri, and thanks to Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer’s cave in Hannibal is the most famous cave in our state.
The McDougal’s Cave has attracted many visitors since tours started in 1886 and is a Registered National Natural Landmark.
But that’s OK, because Ray County has a cave, too. I like the idea that our cave is a local secret and has not been commercialized like so many others.
I got this postcard from a very dear old friend of mine. I do not know where she got it because I received it after she departed this world.
She grew up around Rayville, so it may have belonged to her family. Some postcards were mass-produced and sold at the stores around town. Others are one-of-a-kind photos that families had taken and printed on postcards.
I do not know which kind this postcard is. I would love to know who the man is that is standing outside Cave Springs. Like many stories about Ray County, I found this one while I was looking for something else.
This is what was in The Richmond Missourian on July 21, 1941, not long before America went to war.
“Cave Springs Is An Unusual Place, Says Mollie Wallace. Mrs. Mollie Wallace of the Jolly Neighbors club wrote a true and interesting article about the ‘Cave Springs’ or ‘Robber’s Cave’ located just east of Rayville, the so-called ‘south exit’ being in the Jim Tom Crowley pasture.
“Jewell Mayes and Will A. Mullin are two men who in fact explored the Cave Springs – yes, and to their sufficiency, enough to do them for life. In the old files of the Richmond Missourian is to be found that hair-raising narrative, but they found the length of the cave has been greatly exaggerated in the past.”
If something exciting was happening in Ray County, Jewell Mayes was there. I was not surprised to find that he had explored the cave that I have only dreamed about. I can see him with his lantern exploring Robber’s Cave. I wonder if he used a ball of string or twine to leave a trail or if he and Will explored the cave without worrying about how to find their way back to daylight.
Like many caves, there are stories about “transgressors” using Robber’s Cave as a hideout during the Civil War. I also wonder how it got this name. Did robbers ever hide out there? Did the James boys spend time in Robber’s Cave, like some other Missouri caves claim?
According to the 1941 newspaper article, “The cave is located on the side of a rocky hill. The entrance is reached by following a narrow ledge along the side of the hill. These crevices are large enough for a man to enter by crawling. Although rocks and soil have fallen into the cave, some persons claim to have explored it as far as four miles.”
I assume the cave is still around, since we have not had any earthquakes to cause it to collapse. The question is whether the entrance to the cave has been lost to time. The spring may still be bubbling up fresh spring water, but it might be flowing into a local creek with out anyone noticing.
“Cool refreshing water pours year around from crevices in the rocks at the opening of the cave,” the newspaper reported.
There are several springs in Ray County. The 1881 Ray County History Book mentions springs that were located on farms around the county. Some of the biographical sketches in this book mentioned farmers and how much land they owned. William W. Nelson’s bio claims, for example, that “He is the possessor of two hundred and sixty acres of fertile land, in a fine state of cultivation, improved with good buildings and well watered by living springs.”
I am not real sure what a living spring is, but your can buy bottled water that says it’s “living” spring water. I don’t really want anything living in my spring water, but then on the other hand, I sure don’t want to drink non-living spring water.
We have a couple of springs on our farm, but you would not know they were springs just by looking at them. One spring feeds a pond behind our house. It has always been a pond, but a few years ago we tried to drain it and build a bigger pond. One spot of the pond bed never would dry up.
My dad worked around it and now we have a big pond that never dries up. In the heat of the summer many other ponds get low, but not our pond of “living” spring water.
There are two abandoned coal mines on our farm and one of them has a spring that keeps it full of water. My dad grew up here and he remembers them tryng to pump water out so they could use the coal mine. They were never able to make it a profitable coal mine. We use this coal mine as an endless supply of water for our garden. It was our sole source of water before rural water came to our neighborhood.
One of the most famous springs in Ray County is Mineral City, which was located a few miles north of Rayville and about four miles west of Knoxville. This it is a good example that Ray County has mineral springs like our neighboring town of Excelsior Springs.
Jewell Mayes’s hiking buddy, Will Mullin, grew up on the farm where Mineral City was located so I am sure he and Jewell spent some nice summer days enjoying the cool mineral water. One year they had 7,000 to 10,000 people at a Mineral City Fourth of July party.
In the 1973 Ray County history book, Irma Transue Tindall wrote the story about Rayville. She mentioned Cave Springs.
“Between the town of Rayville and the coal mine, there is a massive rock formation. Beneath the overhanging layers of rock was a cave from which flowed crystal-clear water. This was Cave Springs. The beautiful columbine and other wild flowers grew abundantly making it a favorite place for picnics.”
That sounds like my kind of place so I will be happy with letting someone else crawl through the dark and damp Robber’s Cave. I would prefer to wait outside in the sunlight and smell the fresh flowers while enjoying a glass of nice cool spring water with my picnic. I think it’s time to start planning our trip to “Cave Springs”.
I don’t really know exactly where this cave is and maybe it is best that we keep it that way. I’m OK with one of Ray Country’s best-kept secrets still being a secret. We all know it’s out there somewhere in the hills of Haller.
Did I forget to mention that many years ago, Rayville was called Haller?

Editor’s Note: A version of this column ran previously in the Richmond News. It’s being run again to preview Outlaw Days on Sept. 22 in Richmond. Before reenactors portray the 1867 bank robbery usually attributed to the James-Younger Gang, News Editor David Knopf will perform his song “Robber’s Cave,” which remembers the bank robbery and was inspired by Linda’s column. The song takes a few liberties with the historical record, and is told from the point of view of Richmond native Robert Ford. In the song, Ford and his mother witness the robbery when he would’ve been 6 years old.
Jesse and the boys were reported in 1867 accounts to have ridden west out of town, and in the song it’s said they headed to Robber’s Cave.
You can write Linda at raycohistory@aol.com or reach David at editor@richmond-news.com

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