The Meramec Valley Grotto (MVG) began on the campus of the St. Louis Community College at Meramec in the spring of 1968 as an extension of a student organization called the Meramec Athletic Club. Several Meramec Athletic Club members formed an offshoot called the Meramec Speleological Association (MSA), which had a nucleus of between 10 and 15 students and was officially recognized in fall 1968. A year later the Dean of Continuing Education contacted Tom and asked him if he would be willing to develop an evening course on Caves and Caving. Caves and Caving was offered by the St. Louis Community College in the spring semester of 1970. Twenty-five students enrolled – 80% who were continuing ed adults. Both students and non-students caved with the MSA.
In spring of 1970, the group requested affiliation with the National Speleological Society. After some conflict, the Meramec Valley Grotto was formed, having demonstrated its goals and area of interest were sufficiently different from other NSS grottos in metro St. Louis.
On July 20, 1970 the Meramec Valley Grotto became (Internal Organization no. G-184) an official NSS Grotto. The officers of MVG were Tom Cravens, President, Pete Gilster, Vice President, Judy Rellergert, Secretary, and Dudley Smith, Treasurer. At that time MVG had some 19 charter members, 11 of whom were National Speleological Society members.
During the 1970s, the Grotto was most active in the middle Meramec River basin, working to defeat the proposed Army Corps of Engineers’ Meramec Dam by influencing public opinion against it with a symposium and publications, while at the same time mapping the caves in the region which might be lost, and studying various aspects of the cave biology and geology and publishing their findings. They constructed the world’s second largest pizza (13’ x 5’) and sold pieces to fund efforts against the dam. They were also active in gating a number of recreational caves, and studying the Monroe County Illinois karst, including Krueger-Dry Run and Illinois Caverns.
Meramec Valley began its annual Meramec River floats in the 1970s, and for all speleology being accomplished, the grotto began to acquire a reputation as a good times grotto that worked hard and partied hard. With the defeat of the dam in a public referendum in August, 1978 the urgent push to collect data before caves were destroyed lightened, but the grotto continued to work in its namesake region.
With the turn of the 1980s, Meramec Valley Grotto, largely due to the concurrent interest in canoeing and floating, acquired an interest in Shannon and Oregon counties, home to Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the Eleven Point National Scenic River, and their caves and karst, exploring away from the river banks, and back into the large tracts of public and Pioneer Forest lands in the area. The grotto aided the MSS in getting the Missouri Cave Protection Act passed in 1981.
New cave areas were examined, mostly due to the grotto being one of those who every two or three years put on the regional gatherings of the Mississippi Valley Ozark Region. As cavers became more proficient in single rope techniques, and Missouri provided a dearth of bounce-able pits, members began to venture to the TAG area for US big pit country, and to Mexico over Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, to do some of the largest pits in the hemisphere. Work continued near Waterloo, IL, including the grotto assisting with restoration of an old schoolhouse on karst lands. Some members of MVG became very interested in the caves beneath St. Louis and St. Louis County, and ‘after work’ trips were popular for a while. Earl Hancock and others with connections to the Metropolitan Sewer District were called on to assist when the agency broke into old cavern
The 1990s saw MVG continue assisting state agencies with cave cleanups, Including the Cathedral Cave restoration project, work on MDC lands in heavily abused well –known public land caves and volunteer interpretive work at Meramec State Park and Onondaga Cave State Park, including the re-roofing of an old, deteriorating well house. An influx of younger members, four of five of who were still in their teens, provided hope for the future of caving. At the same time the grotto dealt with more and more private land caves being closed due to liability concerns.
The grotto worked extensively in Oregon County on US Forest Service land, locating and mapping new caves. Many grotto members worked hard on the 1997 National NSS convention at Sullivan, in the middle of our favorite part of Missouri karst. Grotto members built and began to use a cave radio to do surface to underground cave location, tying surface land ownership to cave mapping efforts.
The “young kids” of the 1990s came of age in the early years of the 2000s, and have become prolific mappers in Shannon County, Ste. Genevieve County and key players in the Carroll Cave re-mapping, working with Cave Research Foundation and others. The grotto continues to be based in Kirkwood, though it moved from its longtime second home of Powder Valley Nature Center first to Kirkwood Library, and now to the meeting room at Alpine Shop. Grotto members stepped up this decade to help run the Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy, and the MVOR.
Work on the Pioneer Forest, finding and mapping caves continued. Trips to Mexico declined as many grotto members coped with the uncertain economy. The grotto continued public education efforts, however suitable caves to take scouts, schools, and so forth to became harder to find.
In summer 2009 , the US Forest Service closed recreational caving on the Mark Twain Forest, and in spring of 2010, the Missouri Department of Conservation and DNR-Division of State Parks followed suit, as the result of bat white nose syndrome (WNS) arrival in Missouri. Caving on private lands continued, and some members became involved with the Missouri Bat Census, a private organization doing bat-bioinventory. Unlike the glory days of the 1970s and 80s, recreational caving became more private trips with fewer reports what cavers were up to. Much local recreational caving has been restricted to caving events, such as MVOR, where special permission is obtained from local landowners, MCKC caves, and project caving organized by the MSS or CRF. For the time being, the days of the grotto cooperating on special projects with state agencies have been suspended, and relations with those agencies restricted only to agency-directed bat-related activity.
The social aspect of MVG still exists in this low-caving time, just not with as many public cave trips. For the time being, we are doing float trips, ridge walking and entrance locating. Since the development of decontamination protocols intended to minimize any accidental spread of WNS, beyond what the bats themselves accomplish, and the gradual reopening of some public land caves in Eastern US areas once WNS has saturated the region, we look forward to resuming caving in the summers, under permit, with limited numbers of caves per day, and with clean gear restrictions. MVG truly believes that cavers are the bat’s best friends, and that we can co-exist with them, safely and sanely, for many years to come, and help them in their recovery while at the same time, enjoying the caves and karst we love and understand so well.
( Compiled from Tom Cravens, Joe Light, Alicia Wallace and Jo Schaper reports.)
If you would like to read a complete history of the organization, please visit the Tom Craven's, the founder of MVG, website.