- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

Many people don't know it takes 125 years to form 1 cubic inch of limestone. Most have forgotten their junior high school science lessons about stalagmites, stalactites and flowstone. Below ground at Shenandoah Caverns, adults will remember, children will learn, and all will wonder.

Three miles from New Market, Va., on the western ridge of the Shenandoah Valley, the caverns are an eons-old natural phenomenon. Accessible by elevator, they comprise a series of high-vaulted chambers linked by narrow passageways excavated on three levels.

The story of their discovery is nearly as amazing as the place itself. A pair of boys out exploring one day in 1884 saw vapors puffing from a hole in the ground. That hole was 275 feet deep, and the boys used a rope to lower themselves inside to behold the marvels beneath the earth.

The caverns were opened to the public in 1922. Visitors today enjoy an hour-long, one-mile guided tour in the comfort of 56-degree temperatures year-round.

Tourists Becky and Mark Freeman term the caves "breathtaking." The Burke couple recently stopped by on their way to visit nearby Bryce Resort. The place has "sort of a timeless feeling to it," Mrs. Freeman says. "It would be a good place to come out to and hang out for hours."

Hours it could take, because an expedition to Shenandoah Caverns is not just about darkness and rocks. It's an exercise in nostalgia and charm as well.

Upon arrival at the caverns, visitors are greeted by a herd of little petting goats contained in a small corral.

Stepping over the threshold of the lodge with its own tiny U.S. post office and warm knotty-pine decor is a step back in time.

"Just about everything in this place has a history to it," says general manager B. Daniel Proctor. The soda fountain and grill, installed during the 1950s, operates every summer. Charred beams recovered from a nearby covered bridge have been used to construct a stairway. Ornate doors that once graced the Russian Embassy in Washington frame several windows. A 100-year-old goat cart sits in a corner of the lobby, one of many antiques and artifacts that grace the property.

Mr. Proctor is a little bit of walking history himself: His stint at the caverns began in 1949, and he has served as general manager for 45 years. "We still use the original furniture in here that they opened the business with 77 years ago," he says.

The Shenandoah Caverns experience doesn't end there, however. Owner Earl C. Hargrove happens to be a longtime creator of animated displays and floats. His newly opened "American Celebration on Parade," housed in a hangarlike warehouse near the lodge, is a collection of current and retired floats used nationally in events including several presidential inaugurals. The attraction is "kind of a lifetime dream of his," Mr. Proctor says.

It was his talent for creating that initially brought Mr. Hargrove to the caverns some 30 years ago.

"I built a float for the man who owned them," Mr. Hargrove says. "Then, as a favor, I went down to the caverns to install some decorations for him. When I got there and looked around, I said, 'I can't improve on what God has done.' I thought he shouldn't touch them."

When financial troubles visited the owner in 1966, Mr. Hargrove bought the caverns.

Visitors can preview his work in "Return to Yesteryear," an exhibit housed in the lodge. It features an enchanting collection of window displays in their original forms, some of which once were used in the nation's leading department stores.

Children will be mesmerized by the Cinderella display with its whirling coach wheels, created for Woodward & Lothrop years ago. "Circus on Parade" contains more than 70 whirring motors that keep its horses rearing and its acrobats twirling.

"I always felt the caverns needed a second attraction, and that is true of all of them," Mr. Hargrove says. With the number of caverns in the area competing for visitors, "you have to have something that holds the interest of your guests a little longer."

Mr. Proctor says that after all these years, he still feels good about making visitors happy. "It's not much fun to have this stuff if you can't share it," he says. "I guess one day when I'm gone, all these things will change, but I kind of think people like it this way. People appreciate it a little bit more."

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