Written by Stalac-Tate
“When the Rooney’s took over the operation of the Cave of the Mounds… they decided that they wanted to maximize the educational potential of this cave.” – Anne Bandow
Rev. Edwin “Mike” Rooney and his wife, Elizabeth Brigham Rooney took over the management of the cave about 1972. Elizabeth was the daughter of the owner of the cave and one of the first to see inside the newly discovered cavern when she was just 15. She wrote in her journal on the day of the discovery “The men in the quarry blasted out their rock and opened a cave”.
“I grew up here as a child and went to school in Blue Mounds and Madison. I often think about that in connection to this place because as you live on it and work on it and try to make something of it that you become almost identified with it. It’s a real closeness.” – Elizabeth Brigham Rooney
When the Rooney’s took over the management of the cave, change started to happen. The introduction of what is nicknamed The Education Era. Programs were being developed for field trips including lectures, audio-visual presentations, experiments in mineral solution, discussion with an expert, observation and demonstrations of cave exploration and safety techniques. A walking trail was created for people from the city to enjoy the nature around them.
When asked about the pressure of creating a place that is nature-focused rather than making a flashy attraction, Mike Rooney had this to say, “There’s a kind of inward pressure in that I don’t think there’s a great deal of money from developing trails like this. Nothing like the kind of money you could develop if you put in a ride or something. Even if it was just a merry-go-round.”
During this Education Era, many different scientists came to study the cave. In 1974 the Wisconsin Speleological Society helped solve the question of whether there was any more to the cave, past the southern collapse. The cave ended so abruptly that it was the most logical place to search for more. Being careful, they dug a path about 3 feet high and 64 feet in length to the left of this collapse. However, the WSS did not discover a new passageway.
The next year, Dr. Douglas Caldwell came to the cave to research a new bacteria identified called the “Leptothrix”. This bacteria helps in the coloring of the formations of the Cave of the Mounds. Dr. Caldwell had the opportunity to study these organisms in their natural habitat – which is always the best place to study them. He believed that most of the deposited coloring was caused by bacteria. This study was eventually published in 1980 in the Geomicrobiology Journal.
“We do feel like caretakers of this place rather than you know, you can’t possess something like this.” – Elizabeth Brigham Rooney
During this Education Era from 1972 until the new millennium, scientists have entered the cave more frequently than before, field trips have become a destination experience, and people did more than just visit the cave. A restaurant was built, the gift shop remodeled, and eventually, after 12 years of hard work, Cave of the Mounds became a National Natural Landmark in 1988.