Manitou Cave of Fort Payne was dedicated Sept. 18 as a National Trail of Tears Historic Trail Certified Site and Interpretive Center in a ceremony attended by members of the Trail of Tears Association and guests visiting from across the nation.
The Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Manitou Cave of Alabama Founder, Director, and Steward Annette F. Reynolds, Chamber President Jennifer McCurdy and Fort Payne Mayor Brian Baine. The Alabama Humanities Alliance provided a grant to sponsor the event, which coincided with the Trail of Tears Association’s annual national conference.
The National Park Service National Historic Trail Office out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, granted the certification. Steve Black from the National Park Service presented certificates to the City of Fort Payne formally recognizing the city’s Trail of Tears sites.
Among the guests attending Saturday’s event was Joseph Joey Ross, a descendant of Andrew Ross, Chief George Lowery and Sequoyah who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and traveled from Arizona. Linda Arthur opened the program with a flute prelude. Some of the invited out-of-state speakers and dignitaries were unable to attend due to COVID travel restrictions.
Shannon Smith, vice president at Tribal Connections Contracting, presented information about Sequoyah and his roots to the Willstown community on the 200th anniversary of the creation of his syllabary.
Reynolds spoke about the long and varied history of Manitou Cave, which was used by the Cherokees and Confederate miners during the Civil War, as a U.S. Defense fall-out shelter and as a popular “show cave” tourist attraction.
The cave formed 320 million years ago during the Paleozoic Mississippian era. Prior to 1838, it was used by the Cherokees during their settlement in Willstown, Reynolds said. The cave took its Manitou moniker from an Ojibwa Indian word that translates to “spirit.”
When the City of Fort Payne incorporated in 1888, Manitou Cave was purchased by the Fort Payne Coal & Iron Company and developed as a tourist attraction. The company constructed 18 interior wooden bridges, a wooden dance floor for hosting formal balls, a dam and railroad spur line to the cave. It stayed a perfect 58 degrees throughout the summer months.
After the boom went bust, Manitou Cave was purchased by the W.B. Raymond family in 1903. In the 1960s, it was redeveloped as a tourist attraction for traveling passing through Fort Payne. The landscaped park included a new concession and gift shop with Sequoia Redwood beams, a lake with dam and half-mile “show cave” with a path of underground lights, 450-feet of steel and wooden bridges and concrete steps indoors with a bridge and path outdoors.
Mayor Baine recalled touring the cave on a class field trip while attending elementary school in Fort Payne.
Tourism declined in 1962 as Interstate 59 opened. Local dentist Stephen Brewer bought the cave in 1975 and the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage listed it the following year. It closed to the public in 1979.
The cave, with walls lined with Cherokee inscriptions and English language graffiti dating back to the 1820s, fell derelict. Manitou was designated by the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation and Alabama Historic Commission as a “Place in Peril.”
Reynolds formed and directed a non-profit organization, MCAL, Inc., in 2016 to purchase the 10-acre property and funds collected from anonymous donors and volunteers made it possible to add a cave gate to secure it from vandals. Reynolds said she has led educational group tours of the 10-acre property by appointment for thousands of people from 26 states and nine countries since 2015.
She thanked Jerome Carter, a neighboring landowner who helped eliminate the decades of overgrown invasive foliage and continues to rehabilitate and keep the property maintained.
The site is not open all the time to the public, but only for group tours by appointment. Reynolds wants to further the knowledge and insight into the cave’s history for generations to come.
Sharon A. Freeman, former president of the Trail of Tears Association, Alabama Chapter and archaeologist, gave a presentation on the Trail of Tears and Willstown sites. Authors Larry Smith and Amy Kostine participated in a book signing while Landmarks of DeKalb, Inc. Executive Director Jessica Harper-Brown told the assembled crowd about her organization and its ongoing efforts to preserve local history.
Smith said Willstown grew in popularity among the tribes as pressure built from outside settlers moving into East Tennessee and Georgia, where any assembling of Cherokee leaders was outlawed.
“Northeast Alabama became a very inviting community for Cherokee people to settle. That’s where you get the mission school, businesses, homes and farms. They started new home places here, then they were removed during the Trail of Tears. They were displaced multiple times, so this is a place of extreme sadness. One of the things Manitou Cave can now do as a certified interpretive center is to be the hub for telling the story about Willstown,” Smith said.
She said she was dismayed while speaking at an Alabama magnet school when a student in the gifted class expressed confusion because he sincerely thought Native Americans were extinct.
“Places and opportunities like this are where telling the story becomes extremely central and important. Fort Payne can tell it through the schools and museums. The story of this place is important,” she said.
Tax deductible donations are accepted on the website at https://www.manitoucaveofal.org/donate.