Cave Clan

As Natural Bridge Caverns celebrates forty years since its dedication, its patron family looks back on three generations of cave life.
Castle of the White Giant

Brad Wuest recalls accompanying his paternal grandmother and her Great Pyrenees down the long driveway of their ranch in Comal County. He remembers chauffeuring her and her husband, “Big Daddy,” to lunch and various errands. And he reminisces about the time she helped his brother, Travis, remove grass burrs from his backside. But one of Brad’s most vivid images of Clara Wuest Heidemann—a.k.a. Nana—is the day she foretold his future.

On a busy day at Natural Bridge Caverns, Clara took her young grandson outside to watch the crowd of people. According to Brad, she told him, “Now, Brad, one day you’re going to be the president of this business, and I’m going to teach you how to do it.” Her prophesy came true in 1998 when Brad assumed control of the caverns after the death of his father, Reggie, in 1998. (Clara had died the year before.)

Natural Bridge Caverns, between San Antonio and New Braunfels, is one of the premier show caves in the nation. The name stems from the sixty-foot-long overpass across a sinkhole near the cave’s entrance, a structure that was originally part of the roof of another chamber. When the ceiling collapsed, only the strip of limestone remained—the namesake natural bridge. Steve Tomka, director of the Center for Archeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio, led a dig last year at the caverns and estimates that the first part fell even before people came to the New World and that the second part came down between five thousand and six thousand years ago.

On June 10 about 150 people gathered in that very sinkhole for a ceremony commemorating the site’s dedication forty years earlier. In 1964 Governor John Connally signed a plaque made of wet cement and referred to Natural Bridge Caverns as a “jewel in the crown of Texas’ attractions.” Four decades later the Wuest family welcomed his wife, Nellie Connally, as its distinguished guest and invited her to sign a matching plaque. “I can’t say no when it has to do with anything to honor the memory of John Connally or something he did,” the 85-year-old said.

Although this year has seen many celebratory occasions, including a nomination for a place in the National Register of Historic Places (final approval is pending), recognition of the land’s worth is nothing new to the people who own it. The ranch has been in the family for more than 120 years—dating back to patriarch Louis Forshage—but the real adventure began in 1960 when four St. Mary’s University students asked to explore the caves on the property. “[Clara] very reluctantly gave them permission after they signed all kinds of papers,” says Joye Wuest, Brad and Travis’s mother and the current owner and chief financial officer of Natural Bridge Caverns.

On one of their journeys, one of the boys felt a draft and knew that the air exchange indicated another passage. On a later trip the young explorers decided to investigate and sent the smallest of the group, Orion Knox Jr., through a tiny crawlway. It opened into the larger cavern, and when the others reached the room now termed Sherwood Forest, they all knew they had made a magnificent discovery. “It was just one of those incredible adrenaline rushes,” Orion says.

The boys spent longer than they expected exploring the area and, upon their late return to the ranch, had to convince the landowners of their findings. “She was like, ‘Yeah, right, sure,’” Brad says. Later Clara sent her son, Reggie, for confirmation, and sure enough, the college students had not exaggerated the scope of their discovery.

Clara’s life and the lives of subsequent generations changed immensely from that day forward. Suddenly the shy ranch wife, who had graduated from high school and attended a two-year business school, assumed responsibility for one of the most important discoveries in the state. She enrolled in a Dale Carnegie class to improve her speaking skills and ultimately emerged as a leader in the Texas tourism industry.

The family then began extracting its very own diamond from the rough. Jack Burch, who already had experience from his work at the state’s Caverns of Sonora, in Sutton County, led the team, and Orion took off more than a year of college to assist in the efforts. “I couldn’t resist the opportunity,” he says. Orion and Jack dug tunnels, laid trails, built stairs, set up railings, and installed lighting. Reggie and Clara’s second husband, Harry Heidemann, worked to improve the parking lot and roads.

While the men relied heavily on their muscles for the manual labor, Clara depended on her mental determination. She dealt with lawyers, bankers, and the chamber of commerce, and she worked on marketing strategies to promote her new-found attraction. She joined cavern owners nationwide to form the National Caves Association, and she served as the organization’s first woman president. Her protege, Brad, is currently vice president of the NCA, and he will take over the top position in October 2005.

But while the caves have been extremely successful both as a tourist attraction and a bond for the family, the owners have also faced some trying times. Harry—or as the younger generation called him, Big Daddy—died in 1996 of congestive heart failure and kidney failure. Clara passed away the following year, and Reggie died of cancer in 1998. “We lost all three of the family founders in about fourteen months,” says Joye. “It took a lot of inner strength, a lot of faith in God to keep it going. It was a matter of holding on, at times.”

Brad graduated from Tarleton State University in 1996 and served as director of marketing and public relations before moving on to vice president. He became president and CEO at age 25 when his father died, and Travis became vice president while still a student at Texas A&M University.

Even when she became legally blind from degenerative eye disease, Clara had trudged on in her quest to involve her grandsons in the operations. The young boys read aloud her incoming mail,

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