As Natural Bridge Caverns celebrates forty years since its dedication, its patron family looks back on three generations of cave life.
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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, and she dictated to them what to do. Clara explained how she reached her financial and marketing decisions and, in a sense, tutored her descendants about how to manage the family business.
Their actual on-the-job training also had begun during their early years. From the time Brad and Travis could wipe down tables or sweep the floor, they were put to work at Natural Bridge Caverns. They tended the snack bar atop stools when they were too short to see over the counter. “I can remember how amazed people would be that a little boy could take their money and count their change back,” Brad says.
According to Brad, Travis also had a knack for “listening to the tour guides and tattling on the ones that were giving false information.” Consequently, when the boys began giving tours as teenagers, their preparation required no extensive study—years of tagging along with the other guides embedded the details in their minds. “I was just so intimately aware of the history of the cave,” Travis says.
The goal now is to preserve the heritage and natural resources while expanding on the family business. In the fall of 2003, Tomka’s one-month dig underneath the natural bridge revealed stone tools, animal bones, charcoal, snail shells, and cooking hearths, which enabled archeologists to date the different levels of the area. Tomka estimates that some of the snail shells are thousands of years old, while one of the cooking hearths is believed to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old.
His next project, which he hopes to initiate this summer, is dating some of the bat guano—”another word for poop, basically”—on the ceilings of the caverns. The archeologists will take samples from the top and bottom layers of the substance to determine when the bat colony moved in and when it left.
While the caves provide an opportunity to exhume the past, they also remain a work in progress for the future. Reggie had initiated the development of the South Cavern in 1983 but put it on hold when he realized how quickly his boys were growing up. The cave would still be there after Brad left for college, he figured, but the time to spend with his two sons was irreplaceable. “I was a young teenager, 15, 16, kind of being defiant, maybe starting to get into trouble, and that’s probably what triggered it, a way to rein me in. Whatever the reason was, I’m very thankful that happened,” Brad says.
As adults, Brad and Travis returned to Reggie’s pet project, and in 1999 Natural Bridge Caverns launched its Adventure Tour through the South Cavern, providing visitors with a real down-and-dirty caving experience. Participants are lowered 160 feet below the surface for an excursion where they rappel down an incline and view intricate soda-straw formations. “Young men generally talk their fiancees or wives into doing it,” Joye says. “We’ve [also] had corporate groups come out and do it as a team-building experience.”
Also in 1999, Joye introduced Caroling in the Caverns, a program in which local choirs stationed throughout the caves entertain visiting groups during the three weeks before Christmas. Proceeds from these tours benefit Hope Hospice of New Braunfels, Habitat for Humanity, and the American Red Cross.
The Jaremy Room Flashlight Tour opened in 2002 to give visitors a more up-close, interactive view of the delicate formations in the South Cavern. Guests use a flashlight to navigate through the darkness. The tour has been popular with patrons so far, but the Wuest family has long-term plans to convert the Jaremy Room into a stop on a developed South Cavern tour and relocate the Adventure Tour to a part of the North Cavern.
These changes take a backseat, however, to the expansion of the visitors center. Additional restrooms, a theater, and a museum-like exhibit area are all ideas being discussed to upgrade the facility and accommodate the growing number of tourists, Travis says.
The Wuests have vowed to retain the area’s natural theme in all future developments. So far, a mining sluice allows kids to sift through bags of sand to find their own treasures. A butterfly garden attracts colorful fluttering creatures, whose names Joye spouts off as if they were old friends. And the fifty-foot wooden climbing wall blends in well with the landscape.
Brad is keeping the family business alive; his two-year-old daughter, Ashley, is already being groomed as a cave woman. She first entered the caverns at about one month old, and she plays frequently at the visitors center. “She would probably live in the cave if we would let her,” Brad says. Ashley and her father already adorn four Natural Bridge Caverns billboards that say “Fun for the Whole Family.” And as soon as she’s big enough, she’ll be on a stool behind the snack bar.
Brad told guests at the rededication ceremony that he would love for the next generation to make a similar presentation in another forty years. “I hope that Ashley stays interested in the family business,” says Brad, although he notes that he’ll respect whatever path she chooses. “I would love for her to carry the reins at some point.”