Quarry Blast at Cave of the Mounds

Dust, Debris, and Determination: Life in 1939

July 2022

Written by Jenny


The Wisconsin state motto, Forward, has been in use since 1851. This simply stated inspirational motto is very fitting for the Cave of the Mounds. Today it is easy to take tourism for granted because we can use the internet to find any number of amazing worldwide wonders and natural landmarks. We also have options for transporting ourselves across cities, states and countries. However, when the cave was unexpectedly discovered in 1939 things were quite different.

In 1939:

  • FDR was president of the US
  • The US was nearing the end of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression
  • WWII was in the early stages and it would be two years before the US was drawn into battle
  • It was roughly a decade before televisions were widely present in private homes
  • Big bands and swing music were popular
  • Film and radio were popular modes of entertainment
    • The Wizard of Oz premiered on August 15, 1939
    • Frank Sinatra had his recording debut in July, 1939
  • Trains were the main method of distance travel, with private car ownership only starting to become feasible
  • Wisconsin Dells was only a small collection of new hotels developing in the area
Barn in Blue Mounds Wisconsin

The travel and information industry of 1939 is nearly incomprehensible to many of us. It’s difficult to remember, or imagine, a time before the internet and instant feedback. To envision travelling without airplanes or private cars and highways with convenience stores along the route. Yet within that world the Brighams, Brechlers and Hannemans had a vision of something new for southwestern Wisconsin. Their combined imagination and hard work opened the “Jewel Box of America’s Show Caves” and paved the framework for all of the other activities that can be enjoyed today during a visit to Cave of the Mounds. The making of Cave of the Mounds is an embodiment of the Wisconsin motto, Forward.

Vintage Photo of the Discovery Blast with Workers

In 1939 the Brigham family lived and farmed the area above Cave of the Mounds. For the hundred plus years the family lived here they had no idea that a cave was hidden underneath them. On August 4, 1939, everything changed when what was expected to be a routine quarry blast while mining limestone tore open the rock that had sealed the cave since its formation almost two million years ago.

Imagine the excitement of discovering a hidden cave. The feeling as initial frustration at troublesome dynamite placement was replaced with the realization that there was something much larger than a pile of limestone rock. What thoughts were brewing while listening to the falling debris and trying to make sense of what was happening as the dust and darkness obscured the view inside? What did it feel like to see the previously hidden formations for the first time, while climbing over unsteady rubble with only a flashlight and awe to carry you through?

As the shock and surprise of discovery wore off, the Brigham family was left with a very big decision. What to do with the cave in their backyard? While the decision to develop the cave as a tourist destination seems obvious today, would it have been so easy to decide in 1939 at the tail end the Great Depression? Would people be interested in touring the cave? How would potential visitors learn about the cave as a destination? Would families be able to make the journey to Blue Mounds without a train nearby or hotels at the ready? How does one even go about preparing a cave for public viewing, and what is the cost of doing so? Certainly, there were many questions to grapple with.

Photo of Charles I. Brigham walking in the cave.

Thankfully the Brigham family did take a leap of faith, recognizing the unique nature of this cave and deciding to preserve it for generations to come. To do so they worked with Carl P. Brechler and Fred H. Hanneman as developers for the initial cave experience. This too was a unique decision as neither man was in construction or development, Mr. Brechler was a bank teller and Mr. Hanneman was a high school band teacher. After working around the clock for months to clear rubble, prepare the first wooden walkways and add the most basic lighting, the Cave of the Mounds was ready to open to the public in May of 1940. Eventually an archaeologist and museum curator, Alonzo Pond, was brought in to help manage this developing enterprise and beautiful natural site.

Since the initial vision of preserving the cave for future generations to enjoy, several additions have been added to this caving experience. The current cave entrance building was added in 1942 and the visitors center, complete with flush toilets and running water, was added in 1979. Additions to the cave tour included replacing the wooden walkways with concrete in 1946 and opening what are now called the Beauty Rooms in the late 40s. The lighting was upgraded in 1978 with the guidance of Gilbert Hemsley Jr., who was a theater professor and lighting specialist.

Today visitors enjoy the same cave tour as so many others before them but with the further addition of signs throughout the cave to provide you with information and history along the route. Cave guides were present from the earliest days and are still present to help highlight the natural wonders you see while underground. Above ground there have been many additions such as the beautiful grounds and hiking paths. There are also numerous active entertainment options such as sluicing for hidden treasures, discovering fossils in the barn, opening geodes or simply enjoying the ambiance with a cold beverage.

While at the Cave of the Mounds, be sure to thank the forward-thinking Brigham, Brechler, and Hanneman families for preserving this natural wonder. Their vision and cooperation in creating a tourist destination at a time when such an endeavor seemed as likely to fail as to succeed has brought countless hours of awe and inspiration to millions of visitors, spelunkers, and scientists.