Researching the History and Mystery of Bower Cave
Stanislaus National Forest, California, 1999
by Steve Marsh, FS Heritage Resource Specialist
Bower Cave is an open limestone grotto that figures in stories of the Southern Sierra Me-Wuk people. John Muir called it “a delightful marble palace, filled with sunshine,” when he passed by with a sheep herd in 1869. The cave hosted community dances in the late 1800s–early 1900s, and parties into the 1940s. People from the local Indian communities and long time residents of Mariposa and Tuolumne Counties consider Bower Cave fondly.
In 1990, the cave became part of the Stanislaus NF, and we began to understand its past, its place in family stories and memories, and its spiritual importance to native people. With the help of the local historical society and community members, we found people willing to share their memories, and we set up a weekend’s worth of interviews. PIT volunteers conducted interviews to capture the memories of longtime locals, helped organize our volumes of Bower Cave material, and began building a comprehensive history of the cave. Our interviewees included the granddaughter of the turn-of-the-century homesteader of Bower Cave, a retired FS employee who worked in the area from the 1930s to the 1970s, a woman who was a tour guide at the cave as a teen in the 1930s, a woman who spent her youth near the cave in the 1940s, and a man who worked to make the cave a state park since the 1950s. Between interviews, the volunteers worked like mad hunched over computers and tape recorders to transcribe the audiotapes. They also completed a bibliography of all our Bower Cave material, transcribed tapes of interviews done in the 1970s, organized information, and asked for more work. We had to kick them out the door at the end of the project, after adding to our library 2 videotapes, 20 audiotapes, 8 floppy disks full of material, and 33 printed pages of transcripts. Our enthusiastic volunteers also got more of the community involved. The owner of a local B&B housing two of our volunteers dug out his old reel-to-reel tape recorder to duplicate some tapes donated to us by an interviewee. We also got the name of a potential interviewee in southern California, whom two of our volunteers offered to interview after they returned home. Now, the American Indian community is helping us record their history in relation to Bower Cave. We hope to be able to nominate the cave to the NRHP sometime later this year. The work done by our volunteers furthered that effort enormously.
We’d like to recognize our volunteers, Robert Williams, Suzanne Green, Lola Bridger, Linda Stout, Jim Stout, Barbara Roesch, Sue Brock, Pat Perry, and Richard Alvarez, for their fine work and an enjoyable weekend. Not only did they work hard, and accomplish everything we needed and more, but they came close to finishing up all the lasagna from our project dinner.
The project could not have been accomplished without the assistance of Gail Tyler and the Northern Mariposa County History Center, who suggested interviewees; other members of the community who offered suggestions and advice; Columbia College for their loan of tape re corders; Stanislaus NF staff who knowingly or unknowingly offered use of equipment, office space, or support; Craig and Elaine Maxwell from the Sugar Pine Ranch B&B, who gave up a good part of a day to duplicate tapes for us; Groveland District Ranger John Swanson, who gave every one a pep talk the first day; Forest Historian Pam Conners, who guided the planning and disappeared for half a day with two volunteers and one interviewee and apparently had a great time doing it; and the Stanislaus Heritage Resource Management team who dedicated time, people, and money to make it happen.
And of course, we’d like to thank again the people who kindly allowed us to plumb their memories: Carolyn Wenger Korn, Melba Kerns, Bill Shimer, Lavona and Der Greeley, John and Ellen Fiske, Riley Gilkey, and Patsy Hamm.