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Yarbrough digs into history of Cumberland Caverns exploration
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Ed Yarbrough was a teen tour guide at Cumberland Caverns in the early years of its exploration and commercial development, he told members of The Rotary Club of McMinnville on Thursday.

Foot soldiers in America’s 19th Century wars were likely to be working underground if they failed to make the grade fighting on the ground.

“People who didn’t perform well in the infantry were often put to working in saltpeter mines,” prominent Nashville attorney Ed Yarbrough told The Rotary Club of McMinnville Thursday. A major site for saltpeter production was Higginbotham Cave, later named Cumberland Caverns, near McMinnville.

Bat guano was prized for its potassium nitrate content, an essential ingredient in the gunpowder consumed by muskets and cannons in the War of 1812 and later the Civil War. And caves are the natural shelters for bats, who sleep during daylight hours while clinging upside down to the rocky roofs of caverns.  

Yarbrough was a teen tour guide at Cumberland Caverns in the early years of its exploration and commercial development as a subterranean attraction for visitors from across the United States and many foreign countries. The 28 miles of charted cave, with its many spectacular rock formations, has been officially designated as a National Natural Landmark.

The Rotary speaker, a former United States Attorney and Bronze Star recipient during his service as a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry in Vietnam, outlined the development of the local cave system under the late Roy Davis and S.R. “Tank” Gorin in the 1950s.

In the course of many weekend visits, Davis and Gorin made the historic discovery in 1953 of a passage connecting Henshaw Cave with Higginbotham Cave. When the pair found there were no footprints in what later was named the Hall of the Mountain King, they realized they were in a place no human had ever been.

“Roy persuaded Tank to join in the commercial development of the cave,” Yarbrough explained, noting that Davis’ grand vision for such marvels as a great pipe organ with its console rising majestically from the floor of the Volcano Room, often outstripped the financial capacity of the fledgling tourist attraction.

Nonetheless, Davis’ fine aesthetic sense and creative imagination resulted in a system of indirect electric lighting that made Cumberland Caverns an inspiration for many other show caves in the U.S. and abroad. In fact, Davis became a sought-after consultant in the commercialization of caves in Europe and South America.

Yarbrough expands on those reflections in a half-hour FOCUS interview this week on public radio WCPI 91.3. The program will air initially at 5 p.m. Tuesday, with repeats at 5 a.m. Wednesday, 1 p.m. Thursday, and 1 a.m. Friday.