Spook Cave continues to delight after 60 years

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Guide Chelbe Feuerhelm gives visitors information about one of Spook Cave’s unique formations. Tours take visitors through the 47-degree cave, floating over 14 inches to 3 feet of water. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

“I’m not a big fan of scaring people, but I like the Old Joe Smiley story,” said guide Chelbe Feuerhelm. The story tells of a man by that name who entered the cave to change the light bulbs but never returned, leaving behind some grisly remains.

Spook Cave has offered cave tours for 60 years. Tours run daily, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., May through October.

As many as six tour boats, with nine adults in each boat, run on a busy day.

In the glow of colored lights, visitors can see the cave’s unique formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Developed by mineral deposits from dripping water, the formations continue to grow slowly in the cave, which is an estimated 750,000 years old.

Some parts of the tour are meant to teasingly spook visitors, particularly the stories of the alligators that reside in the cave.

Paul said it’s rewarding to continue the Spook Cave tradition started by the Mielke family. Last month, Spook Cave and Campground was honored with the “Attraction of the Year” award from the Clayton County Development Group at its annual meeting.

Owners Paul and Paula Rasmussen, along with daughters Taylor and Nora, welcome visitors to Spook Cave and Campground. (Submitted photo)

The Rasmussens have worked to modernize Spook Cave’s camping offerings, upgrading sewer, water and electricity. Forty-seven sites are available for nightly use, while 44 are for seasonal guests. The seasonal sites, like this one, are so popular there’s a waiting list, noted Paul.

Along with cave and camping, cabins round out Spook Cave and Campground’s three “Cs.” The campground features eight fully-furnished cabins, which are popular among large groups.

“I feel people come because the sites are large," Paul said. "It looks like a park with a lot of old growth trees and the landscape of northeast Iowa. Bloody Run goes through here and there’s a fishing and swimming lake.”

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

For owners Paul and Paula Rasmussen, Spook Cave and Campground is all about the three “Cs”: cave, camping and cabins.

The cave came first. Originally a 6-inch hole at the base of a bluff in rural McGregor, along Bloody Run Trout Stream, locals often heard strange noises coming from the opening, giving it the name Spook Hole. In October 1953, a local man, Gerald Mielke, asked the property owner if he could dynamite into the bluff to discover the source of the noise. After dynamiting back 60 feet and making his way through a natural crawl space, Mielke entered the cave, finding that water falling over rocks and ledges was responsible for the spooky noises. For the next two years, he explored the cave, finally opening it to the public on Labor Day 1955.

For 60 years, Spook Cave boat tours have drawn locals and visitors alike to see the cave’s unique formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Developed by mineral deposits from dripping water, the formations continue to grow slowly in the cave, which is an estimated 750,000 years old.

The tours run daily, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., May through October. Usually manned by local high school and college students, they last 35 minutes. Guides take visitors through the 47-degree cave, floating over 14 inches to 3 feet of water, rhapsodizing about the history of Spook Cave and pointing out the formations and other natural elements. In the glow of colored lights, visitors can also see a cephalopod fossil and special black rock called chirt, all while ducking under low spots and experiencing “cave kisses,” or falling water drops.

Although no actual ghosts inhabit Spook Cave, which is located beneath a 90-foot-high bluff, strange noises are still plentiful, especially on busy days.

“Some days, when there are five boats going at once, you can hear them all talking,” explained guide Chelbe Feuerhelm of the echoing voices. “That’s really spooky.”

Some parts of the tour are also meant to teasingly spook visitors, particularly the stories of the alligators that reside in the cave.

“I’m not a big fan of scaring people, but I like the Old Joe Smiley story,” Feuerhelm said. The story tells of a man by that name who entered the cave to change the light bulbs but never returned, leaving behind some grisly remains.

Feuerhelm, a MFL MarMac student, began working at Spook Cave this summer, intrigued by spending time outdoors and being around a fun group of people.

“I went in the cave when I was four, but I didn’t remember much,” she said, noting that learning the tour script was no easy task. For the 35-minute tour, each guide memorizes five pages of information.

To help with memorization, Feuerhelm said she watched and listened to other guides in action.

“I went on every single tour for two days,” she said.

Although the facts must remain the same for each tour, Feuerhelm said she enjoys that guides can ad-lib a bit, sharing some of their own thoughts and experiences.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I’m glad I can teach people something.”

Owner Paul Rasmussen said many people who take the tours are returners.

“We get a lot of people who come back with their kids and grandkids to see if it’s how they remember it,” he said.

While the cave tours have remained relatively unchanged over the attraction’s 60 years, Paul said the campground developed over time.

He took over at Spook Cave in 2002. A native of Waverly, he had ties to Clayton County through Camp Ewalu, near Strawberry Point. A friend helped him find out about Spook Cave.

“I was looking for a campground to buy,” he said. “It just happened to have a cave with it.”

Paul’s wife, Paula, joined the operation several years later. Both outdoor recreation majors, the two enjoy spending time outdoors and sharing the experience with daughters Taylor and Nora.

The Rasmussens have worked to modernize Spook Cave’s camping offerings, upgrading sewer, water and electricity. Today, of 95 sites, only four are no hook-up tent sites. Forty-seven sites are available for nightly use, offering water, sewer and electric along with a picnic table, fire pit and plenty of space. 

Another 44 sites are for seasonal campers, with 22 of those added for this season. Paul said many seasonal campers come from Monona and Luana. The sites are so popular there’s a waiting list.

“We have a lot of regular campers,” Paul said. “Some come weekend after weekend and others year after year.”

In the last 12 years, the Rasmussens have rounded out Spook Cave’s three “Cs,” adding cabins as they saw the need arise. The campground now includes eight fully-furnished cabins, with two new log cabins added this season. Sleeping six to 10 people, they’re especially popular among big groups that aren’t staying in RVs, Paul noted.

“We stay focused on the three ‘Cs,’” Paul said. “They tie together well.”

Paul said Spook Cave and Campground largely draws people from a 150-mile radius.

“Most people like to get out of the city and relax and enjoy nature with friends and family,” he said. “I feel people come because the sites are large. It looks like a park with a lot of old growth trees and the landscape of northeast Iowa. Bloody Run goes through here and there’s a fishing and swimming lake.”

Paul said the business is the busiest its ever been, with July and October the most active months. In 2014, the campground saw nearly 3,000 camping nights and over 500 cabin nights; the number will increase this year with the addition of the two new cabins. 

Last year, guides gave 2,189 cave tours to over 13,000 guests. This summer has also been busy, with staff giving over 40 tours two Saturdays ago. Six boats were going at one time, with nine adult guests in each boat.

In his time running the business, Paul said he’s enjoyed watching it grow and working with the staff, which includes 22 people this season.

“We’re very proud of the team we’ve built,” he said. “In the last few years, Paula has really emphasized a family atmosphere—getting the work done but enjoying it, both during work hours and after.”

Staff help watch the couple’s daughters. Some managers have even gone on vacation with the Rasmussens, they’ve become so close, he said.

Paul said it’s also rewarding to continue the Spook Cave tradition started by the Mielke family. Last month, Spook Cave and Campground was honored with the “Attraction of the Year” award from the Clayton County Development Group at its annual meeting.

“It helps to see the hard work pay off, and it’s rewarding to hear positive comments from customers, tour groups, social media and friends and family,” Paul said. “It’s also neat to see the Mielke family, who are neighbors, see it grow. They put in a lot of work and development of the cave and grounds in its infancy.”

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