Spelunking and caving remains in Lewis Lamon’s blood.
“I can remember being in a cave when I was a baby,” he says, his eyebrows lifting in astonishment. “My parents would send me down a little crawlway to see if it went anywhere.”
Today, the man who is the property manager for Cumberland Caverns still goes beneath the ground nearly every day. For Lewis, caves are one of the few places that represent a certain forgotten wanderlust, the idea that beneath the earth there exists a subterranean world awaiting discovery, if only we had the passion (or courage) to explore the darkness. A final frontier for a world so old.
Lamon, 81, was born in the middle of the Great Depression. People were a little less worried about falling into cave holes then and a little more concerned with where their next meal was coming. But his mother, a secretary, and his father, a hardware store owner, provided for their family of six.
He recalls a time when few homes had electricity. Heat during the winter came from the heavy coal and wood-burning stoves sold in his father’s hardware store in Corydon, Ind. The business opened in 1944 and came at an opportune time because the war made things hard to buy. Lewis remembers when people would line up to buy five shotgun shells, the most they could purchase at a time due to rationing.
Lewis followed in his father’s footsteps, sharing his love of spelunking, but also working in hardware sales, making calls on hardware stores in towns like his father’s.
But the small town hardware store’s days were numbered, outflanked by the convenience of megastores, and that was the catalyst that eventually drove Lewis from Indiana to McMinnville, where, just to the east, Cumberland Caverns was being explored.
“I was working as a salesman for a wholesale hardware firm. One day I said, ‘You know, the company I’m working for is gonna go out of business here soon,’” he remembers. “And one month after I came here full time in 1967, it did.”
At that point, it had been several years since Lewis first laid eyes on the cavern’s limestone formations.
In 1951, Lewis was an adventurous 17-year-old from Indiana who came south on a visit to Warren County after reading about the discovery of the cave system that became a tourist site, attracting thousands to the area each year.
After his first visit to the caverns, Lewis later brought his dad for a visit. Together they came across a spot in the caves where Robert Davis, an early explorer of the cave, was installing wiring for lighting.
But they can’t see him, Lewis remembers. All they hear is music from Davis’ cassette player through what they believed was a solid wall. Lewis’ father tells him to find the hole where sound is coming through. Lewis does, sticks his hand through and feels Davis shake his hand on the other side.
To commemorate this moment, a plaque was installed at the location in 2009 on Lewis’ 75th birthday. The wall was long ago chiseled away to form a loop around a formation that connects several different rooms. It’s called Lamon’s Loop.
Nowadays Lewis spends most of his time on the front porch of the caverns ticket and gift shop building, greeting visitors and telling stories.
“I quit being active in 2010 or 2011. They still keep me on a small payroll and I sign checks for them often,” he says with a laugh.
From the time he moved to McMinnville, Lewis has lived on the property and visits the caves whenever he wants. The one difference is he now relies on the red, Jazzy 600 E5 motorized chair to take him where he wants to go.
His home is a white doublewide with maroon railings and shutters. The coffee table is lined with editions of the National Spelunking Society. A large photograph of Lewis as a young man inside the caves rests on the wall. Old hardhats are on display. Museum seems a more fitting term to call this place.
He expects to remain as active as he can, despite his age.
“I try to I go up to the office about once a day and tell them who I am and what I’ve done,” he says, a look of delight on his face.
Sara Snoddy is a journalism major at MTSU. She is one of several students who recently spent a week in Warren County writing stories for the Southern Standard.