Hesston Cave Preserve (article written at the time of the original lease.)

By Mark Lancaster

This is an introduction to the initial management plan for the new Hesston Cave Preserve. The reason I am writing this is to explain to the membership why this preserve has a more strict set of rules than our other preserves. In order to explain this, I will have to give you a brief history of the cave. (A complete history of the cave is being compiled by Kim Metzgar and will be published when complete. Kim is working at collecting published trip reports from various grottos and organizations and I am trying to contact old timers in the area, with the aid of Dan Denton, the owner of Hesston cave, to get an oral history of the cave. If you have any stories or old trip reports, please contact Kim or me so they can be added to the history of the Hesston Cave Preserve.)

The first thing to remember is that Hesston Cave has been closed to caving for the better part of a decade now. There are many things that led up to the closing and gating of the cave. The list is long, but there are a few things that stand out above the rest, that helped the owner make his final decision to close the cave. In the next few paragraphs I will tell you about some of these, but this is in no way a complete list of everything that has happened that fed into the owner’s decision.

For many years Hesston Cave #1 was one of the most popular caves in Huntingdon County. This led to the overuse, abuse, and vandalism of the cave. Early descriptions of Hesston #1 talked about its beautiful formations. This changed over time as these descriptions started to contain words like “had” and “used to have” when they talked of the cave’s speleothems.

Mr. Denton can tell you stories of how as a boy he remembers that many of the neighboring homes had speleothems on their porches. I can remember a slide show at an MAR meet, some years ago, where someone was showing slides of central PA caves. One of the slides was taken right outside of Hesston Cave. The slide showed a caver sitting there with a stalagmite on the bill of his helmet. I can remember the caver making the statement that back then conservation wasn’t as big of an issue as it is now.

Then there is the story of how members of Pittsburgh Grotto caught locals collecting bats in Pringles potato chip cans. The story of how Mr. Denton’s father had to call the police because there was a car parked at the cave all night and he was worried that someone had been injured. How, as Mr. Denton and his father approached the entrance, they found the owners of the car emerging from the cave with muddy sleeping bags. When asked what they thought they were doing, the muddy group responded by asking what was the big deal and why had the owner called the police.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Denton, on one of his yearly trips into the cave with David Bockoras and David’s family, started to notice major degradation of the cave. Some of this certainly came from a group leader that had asked permission to use the cave with his outward-bound type group that took boys from the local youth forestry camp on various outdoor adventures. It was later found that he was taking very large groups into the cave. After seeing the decline in the cave’s appearance, this group leader was no longer allowed to use the cave.

Then a short time later the final nail in the proverbial coffin was firmly driven. A group showed up at Mr. Denton’s house asking permission to visit the cave. This group was from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and had in fact showed up in IUP vans. Mr. Denton granted them permission and they thanked him and went caving. This trip took place just prior to Dan and David’s annual visit. As Mr. Denton entered the cave he found to his horror that the nice group from IUP had taken it upon themselves to spray paint their first names and IUP throughout the cave in bright blue paint. This promptly closed the cave to everyone.

I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Denton at around this same time. We hit it off and he granted me special permission to enter the cave to take pictures of the vandalism. That trip was March of 1994. That was the last official trip into Hesston cave by organized cavers. Mr. Denton gated the cave with help of local cavers in the fall of 1996 with the hopes that it could reopen to allow caving trips once again. I spent many hours on the phone with Mr. Denton working on what he wanted in a management plan. It always seemed that every time we were getting close to reopening the cave something would happen to postpone the opening. Some of these things were not cave related, such as Mr. Denton hiking the Appalachian Trail, but others were. Such as the day I was talking with him and he asked me about a comment that a local caver had made about how he (the caver) didn’t understand why Dan gated the cave because Hesston was nothing but a kiddie’s cave. Needless to say Mr. Denton wasn’t pleased with this.

Once again it looked as if the cave could possibly reopen some time the next year after Mr. Denton returned from hiking the AT for the second time. However, word through the grapevine made its way to me that someone had gone into Hesston. I went to the cave entrance to see if the story was true. I was sickened to find that the lock had indeed been cut off the gate and the locking pin and lock were missing. I got the word out to the neighbors to please watch the property and contact me if they saw anyone going to the cave. I then put the word out on the grapevine that the cave was being watched and anyone found on the property would be arrested. Luckily I was able to get word to Mr. Denton, who was still on the trail, about what had happened. I figured this was the end of Hesston. Mr. Denton came off the trail and we corrected the breach.

Luckily Mr. Denton realizes not all cavers are alike and that there is a difference between a caver and a spelunker. To make a long story short, one thing led to another and we now have a two-year lease of Hesston Cave. Many of the things you are going to see in this management plan come at the request of Mr. Denton. He loves his cave and he wants to see if what I’ve been telling him all these years is true. That there are cavers out there that want to protect caves and karst just as much as he does. As you read the plan think of the stories I’ve told you here, and then you’ll understand why many of the things are the way they are. If we can prove to Mr. Denton that we are worthy to be partners with him in protecting his cave we will have a long and prosperous future with this preserve. If not, we will lose it. These next two years are crucial in this relationship. If we do what we have told him we will do and he can learn to trust us then Hesston Cave may once again be open to the rest of the caving community to enjoy. If we drop the ball, then we may lose the cave for everyone, forever.

So in conclusion, the reason for the strict rules is that we have two years to gain the respect and trust of Mr. Denton. The lease is a yearly renewal. If we don’t live up to our end of the bargain then we don’t get a renewal. Mr. Denton has been lied to and taken advantage of in the past and he is looking forward to a long and prosperous friendship with the MAKC. In these initial two years we have a chance to show Mr. Denton that there are responsible and caring cavers out there. People just like him, who want to protect karst and caves.

I’m looking forward to working with many of you on this and other upcoming projects. If you have any questions about the Hesston Preserve or the Hesston project please contact me with your questions and concerns at hesstoncave@karst.org.

In a quick after thought, I should tell you all that Mr. Denton will be the first one to tell you that his father was Mr. Denton and he is just plain old Dan. I used Mr. Denton in the article so as to not confuse the reader as he/she trudged through my feeble attempt at writing. So when you see Mr. Denton make sure to honor his wishes and call him Dan.