Into the Wild
By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of DeSoto Caverns
Discovered by Hernando DeSoto in 1540, these Alabama caverns have had a variety of uses – from a tribal burying ground to an onyx mine, from a speakeasy to today’s family friendly theme park.
From the lights of Broadway to the total darkness of a cave, Jared and Joy Sorensen have carved an international path back to the tiny town of Childersburg, Alabama. They are taking charge of a family-owned cave that failed as an onyx mine but soared as place for family fun and education.
Joy represents the fifth generation of the Mathis family to own and operate DeSoto Caverns. Her husband, Jared, sang on Broadway and loved their Manhattan life. A trip to Alabama introduced him to a bigger stage – DeSoto Caverns. After living in Ireland, Greece, and Australia, Joy also felt the tug of home. The two now operate the family-oriented theme park and historic cavern.
“It’s all about reaching hearts,” said Joy Mathis Sorensen. “Families come together for laughter and fun and to see the amazing handiwork of God.”
In addition to a magnificent cave, the park includes a mini-fairground with rides, balloon-fight towers, a version of bumper cars and a 360 spinner for the strong of stomach. Potential scaredy cats can preview cave crawling through the cave-crawl experience, although with a 12-story high ceiling in the cavern it would only be a crawl for say, King Kong. The most recent renovation made the cave wheelchair accessible and closed a section to encourage bats to move back in.
Jared brings his Broadway experience to the caverns with a new stage built inside to host bands and entertainers. The cathedral room, with its high ceiling and football-field length, offers excellent acoustics. Any dad who has spent the night in the cavern with the Boy Scouts can attest to the sound quality with some world-class snorers always getting to sleep first.
During “Streetmosphere Saturdays,” plenty of batmans and butterflies flutter past in colorful face paint. Balloon animals and stilt walkers may also appear on these free entertainment days. At age five, Joy began her career at the festivals by weeding the maze before show time.
Naturally, the biggest event for the visitors and campers who come to DeSoto Caverns is the cave itself. Trained tour guides walk you through the history and natural history found under the ground. While lighting and light shows display the beautiful formations, the truest cave experience is lights out. Experiencing total darkness, where the hand in front of your face disappears, serves as a healthy shock to the system, and the reason why the Native Americans called it “Healing All.”
It started in 1910. Ida Mathis, Joy’s great-great-grandmother traveled around Alabama and the U.S. as a farming advocate who kept thousands from starving during World War I. Called the “Economic Moses of the South,” she ventured into onyx mining by purchasing what is now called DeSoto Caverns. The cave remains the richest onyx mine in the U.S., but was never exploited due to the cheaper mining operations in Mexico. Even without the onyx, Ida envisioned a future for the cave called Kymulga, or “Healing All,” by the Native Americans. It was a place of final rest for tribal dead, with archeologists finding the bones of someone who would have been seven-foot tall — probably a leader named Chief Touch the Clouds.
The first explorer to discover Kymulga was Hernando DeSoto in 1540. He was so impressed that he left two men behind to develop the area, creating one of the first Spanish settlements in the U.S. Another explorer would not be so lucky. In 1723, I.W. Wright attempted to lay claim to the cave by marking it with his name and taking a nap. Unfortunately, he awoke to a group of angry Native American who gave him eternal rest in the cave, according to cave guide Brady Owings. A scout for George Washington wrote about the cave, making DeSoto the first cavern on record in the U.S.
In later years, saltpeter would be mined for the Civil War. During Prohibition, it became a speakeasy and moonshine hub, which would not have pleased Mrs. Ida. It was soon raided, and the moonshiner escaped through the 12 miles of the cave, according to Owings.
Allen Mathis III was the first in the family to open the cave to the public. His father informed him as a new graduate that the family owned a cave in Alabama. He brought a dog, slept in the gift shop, and started giving tours. He had to install a shower to encourage his wife to join him. Noting that the cave was being vandalized, he decided the best way to keep people out was to invite people in. He developed the opening and built many of the attractions still popular today, such as the gemstone panning.
“It is a place of storytelling where people can make memories to enjoy for a lifetime,” said Sorensen.