John Brown’s Cave (sometimes called “John Brown Cave”) is located on the Lehigh Portland Trails property. It is not a huge cave, but it’s entrance is large enough to walk into, and inside, it opens up in to a fairly voluminous space. It is a type of cave known as a “Solutional Cave”, which is formed in rock that is soluble, such as limestone. The cave was formed as groundwater dissolved quantities of soluble rock by seeping along joints and faults, and over long epochs of geological time, expanding to become a cave.
In the case of John Brown’s Cave, a small intermittent stream enters the mouth of the cave, flows through, and exits below the bluffs along US-169 highway. The length of the cave is approximately 200 feet.
The name is presumably a reference to Kansas abolitionist John Brown, who lived about 50 miles to the northeast, in Osawatomie, Kansas. It is not known whether Brown actually visited the cave, or used the cave in connection with his activities as a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad, that provided shelter and passage for escaped slaves from nearby Missouri. Brown moved to Kansas in 1855, the same year that Allen County was initially homesteaded, and Allen County was noted for a prominent anti-slavery sentiment at that time, so both connections would have made sense.
The name, “John Brown’s Cave”, has been in common use since at least the end of the 19th century, as found in these references from the Iola Register:
A picnic party opened the season at John Brown’s cave yesterday afternoon. Fishing tackle was taken along and about twenty innocent minnows ranging from so inch to four inches long were left on the bank to die. Lunch, chiggers, hammocks and mosquitos were also on the program.
~ June 30, 1899
A well in Allen county was put to a mercury test the other day and blew it the mercury out of the tube and the drillers don’t call it a 12 millioner. The cement company operates its own drilling outfit. Not over two weeks ago they finished a gas well right on the edge of Elm creek within 100 feet of the mouth of “John Brown’s cave.” That is less than a mile south-east of the plant. The test showed that the well was capable of 7,500,000 cubic feet a day. The test made with a little mercury tube, something on the order of a thermometer.
~ November 21, 1902
Chief of Police John J. Creed, Undersheriff Hoover Kerr and Marshal Jim Frederickson of Bassett, secured information yesterday that a barrel of whiskey was being hauled from a Gas City depot to the John Brown cave southeast of the city. They got into a wagon and drove out to the cave but there was no liquor there. They did, however, find an empty barrel in the vicinity, and it is possible that the owners of the booze anticipated trouble, emptied the barrel and made way with the goods.
~ March 4, 1910
A number of Boy Scouts, accompanied by Rev. B.W. Hugg, scoutmaster of Troop No. 2, took a cross country hike Thursday afternoon. One of the most interesting places they visited was John Brown’s Cave, which has been dear to every boy’s heart in this part of the country.
~ November 5, 1921
The girls of Queen Esther Circle of the First Methodist Episcopal Sunday School invited a number of other girls of the church to accompany them on a picnic Friday at John Brown’s Cave south of town. They cooked a breakfast of bacon and eggs with buns and at noon served a bountiful picnic dinner of everything comprising such a feast. Each one carried a pillow along and plenty of magazines were read during the rest hour. Swimming in Rock Creek was a popular feature of the outing and explorations of the cave made interesting occupation. There were about twenty girls in the crowd and Mrs. C. P. Day and Miss Luella Varner chaperoned.
~ June 10, 1922
A troop of the East lola Boy Scouts, led by Rev. B. W. Hugg, went on a hike today to John Brown’s cave. They took their provisions with them and had lunch.
~ September 30, 1922
David Shannon took the boys of his Sunday school class out to John Brown’s cave Tuesday afternoon where they had a picnic supper. The following boys went along: Bobby Anderson, Bobby Stadler, Harold Hasseck, Junior Howard, Hurbert Ronsick.
~ December 5, 1930
A wiener and marshmallow roast at John Brown’s cave Thursday night was enjoyed by Miss Opal Mae English, Miss Ruth Ronsick, Miss I Anna Ronsick, Mr. Lee Dean English, Mr. Herbert Ronsick, and Mr. Cari English. A skating party preceded the wiener roast.
~ December 28, 1935
Charles Klatunan took his Sunday school class boys on a hike and a wiener roast Thursday evening. They went down to John Brown’s cave south of town and had a merry time around a campfire. Games were enjoyed and they ate lunch of roasted wieners, toasted marshmallows and buns was the principal part of the picnic.
~ May 20, 1947
Junior Girl Scout Troop 212 hiked to John Brown’s Cave for a cookout. Members of the troop who went were Janice Cox, Mary Beth Cook, Brenda Garner, Jean Tweedy, Jean Sherrill, Cathy Heinlein, Linda Long, Linda Prather, Connie Prothe, Jane Haire, Debra Stokes, Nancy Sutton, Nancy Hostetler and Mary Rosacker. Mrs. Hugh Haire, leader and Mrs. Calvin Sutton, assistant leader accompanied them.
~ October 5, 1964
Then there was John Brown’s cave on South Kentucky and east on Elm Creek. Some of the boys would crawl through it but we girls never would.
~ The Weith, Newton and Faddis Story 1870 – 1970
As can be seen from the excerpts, the cave was used frequently as an “adventure” outing for local youth. However, since the property was purchased by the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, and perhaps as landowners became more obsessed with property rights, and the overall culture became more fearful, public use of the cave, at least in terms of newspaper mentions, appears to have waned over the last half of the 20th century.
Here’s a look at the cave today: