Joel Green: Robber's Cave
In this interview, we speak with tour guide Joel Green, author of "Robber's Cave: Truths, Legends, Recollections," which won a 2019 Nebraska Book Award. Green explains the cave's topography, history, and uses in this interview. "Great Plains Anywhere" is a series of Great Plains talks and interviews in video and podcast form that you can listen to anywhere. It's part of the Paul A. Olson lecture series at the Center for Great Plains Studies.
For more information on the cave and to take a tour, visit www.robberscavetours.com/
Special thanks to Margaret Huettl for providing a video land acknowledgement for this episode.
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[00:00:00.300]Welcome to Great Plains: Anywhere,
[00:00:02.160]a Paul A. Olson Lecture
[00:00:03.730]from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:05.530]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:00:07.670]Today, we're joined by Joel Green,
[00:00:09.540]a tour guide, author,
[00:00:11.030]and expert about Robber's Cave in Lincoln, Nebraska.
[00:00:15.290]On behalf of the Center for Great Plains Studies,
[00:00:17.450]I would like to begin by acknowledging
[00:00:19.600]that the University of Nebraska is a land grant institution
[00:00:23.300]with campuses and programs
[00:00:24.840]on the past, present, and future homelands
[00:00:27.150]of the Pawnee, Ponca, Otoe Missouria, Omaha, Lakota, Dakota,
[00:00:32.830]Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kaw peoples
[00:00:35.830]as well as the relocated Ho-chunk,
[00:00:37.940]Iowa and Sac and Fox peoples.
[00:00:40.520]Please take a moment to consider the legacies
[00:00:42.740]of more than 150 years
[00:00:44.740]of displacement, violence, settlement, and survival
[00:00:48.770]that bring us here today.
[00:00:51.560]and the centering of indigenous peoples,
[00:00:53.580]is a start as we move forward together
[00:00:56.070]for the next 150 years.
[00:00:59.040]My name is Dijon DeLaPorte,
[00:01:00.680]and I am the Events Coordinator
[00:01:02.310]for the Center for Great Plain Studies
[00:01:04.740]at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.
[00:01:07.550]I'm Joel Green.
[00:01:09.040]I've been teachin' for Lincoln Public Schools
[00:01:11.117]for the past 15 years.
[00:01:12.910]I'm also the the author, historian, and tour guide
[00:01:16.860]for Robber's Cave in Lincoln.
[00:01:18.631]Can you tell us what is Robber's Cave?
[00:01:20.770]All right, Robber's Cave
[00:01:22.010]is a 5,600 square foot sandstone cave
[00:01:26.600]just south of downtown in Lincoln, Nebraska.
[00:01:31.120]The land grant for the cave is from 1864,
[00:01:33.670]but prior to that the natural tunnel, the first tunnel,
[00:01:37.090]would have been used as a shelter by Native Americans,
[00:01:40.620]most likely the Otoe and the Missouri.
[00:01:43.490]It's had a lot of names over the years,
[00:01:45.090]Robber's Cave, Penitentiary Cave, Lincoln Cave,
[00:01:49.010]Notorious Old Cave.
[00:01:51.140]The Scarborough family had the cave in their family
[00:01:54.610]for four generations beginning in 1906.
[00:01:58.600]They wanted to use the cave as a giant mushroom garden,
[00:02:01.840]but when they were clearing it out,
[00:02:04.040]they found a lot of things that created a lot of mystery,
[00:02:08.100]some guns, some counterfeit coin making equipment,
[00:02:10.350]gambling pocketbooks, and things like that.
[00:02:12.910]A lotta people started to come see the cave anyway.
[00:02:15.710]They just decided to open it up to the public,
[00:02:18.420]so from 1906 all the way to '73
[00:02:21.620]and just a few years in the '80s,
[00:02:24.040]Robber's Cave was open to the public for almost everything,
[00:02:27.270]Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, picnics, birthdays,
[00:02:30.030]barbecues, frat parties, you name it.
[00:02:33.350]Then it closed in the '80s,
[00:02:34.580]the entrance was bulldozed in the late '90s
[00:02:38.350]and then a restaurant and a brewery came in
[00:02:42.150]and used the building that sits above the cave.
[00:02:46.050]And, as of 2020, it's now Robber's Cave,
[00:02:51.150]it's used as an event center or a social hall
[00:02:53.410]where people have their holiday parties, company parties,
[00:02:56.560]class reunions, rehearsal dinners,
[00:02:58.590]car clubs come through, things like that.
[00:03:00.990]And aside from teaching,
[00:03:02.480]I give tours of the cave seven days a week, year round.
[00:03:07.550]Can you share with us how you first learned about the cave
[00:03:10.240]and your journey to becoming it's historian?
[00:03:12.660]I first learned of Robber's Cave
[00:03:15.150]when I was probably five or six years old
[00:03:17.370]from a book called "Guide to the Ghosts of Lincoln."
[00:03:20.620]It was by Alan Boye,
[00:03:22.130]and my aunt used to drive us around
[00:03:24.670]to all the locations in the book and try to scare us.
[00:03:27.960]So I was always fascinated with the cave
[00:03:30.890]because it was sealed up, not available for tours,
[00:03:35.160]and the Historical Society
[00:03:37.760]had about six or seven photographs of the cave,
[00:03:41.130]so there was a lot of mystery and intrigue
[00:03:43.880]for people my age, a lot of kids my age,
[00:03:46.630]always wondering what was behind that door.
[00:03:49.870]Do you have an idea of when the cave was formed
[00:03:52.370]and maybe how old it is?
[00:03:54.630]Most of the cave is manmade.
[00:03:56.100]There's one natural tunnel
[00:03:57.830]that the old Dakota sandstone group
[00:04:00.620]has been there millions of years,
[00:04:03.300]what's left of the Western Interior Seaway,
[00:04:06.100]but the rest of the cave is manmade.
[00:04:09.690]Lincoln's first brewery came and purchased the cave in 1869,
[00:04:15.850]and it was mostly just one man, by the name of Jacob Andra,
[00:04:19.700]he was a horse collar maker from Lima, Ohio.
[00:04:23.280]Hopefully he had a team of laborers,
[00:04:24.830]because just with a pickax, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow,
[00:04:29.410]he hacked out 5,600 square feet of tunnels
[00:04:32.500]that we have today, all off the natural cavern.
[00:04:36.400]There was even a well for the brewery
[00:04:38.650]that went down 62 feet, and at which the bottom,
[00:04:42.010]he found petrified pecans and antlers.
[00:04:44.770]So the majority of the cave is manmade,
[00:04:46.842]and it took Mr. Andra from 1869 all the way to 1873.
[00:04:53.330]Can you share with me one of the many stories
[00:04:55.380]that you have about the cave
[00:04:56.610]that you think is really interesting?
[00:04:59.589]There's a section of my book,
[00:05:02.817]"Robber's Cave, Truths, Legends Recollections,"
[00:05:05.650]the recollections section almost wrote itself
[00:05:09.120]with the thousands of guests
[00:05:10.460]that have come back over the years
[00:05:12.380]and shared their stories with me.
[00:05:16.150]There's a lot of good times in the cave for sure,
[00:05:19.260]a lot of college parties.
[00:05:20.560]I like when the the former Husker football players
[00:05:23.610]come back and share stories.
[00:05:25.450]I know that the stairs were a bear to carry kegs down,
[00:05:29.362]they don't really remember much after that.
[00:05:31.790]Some of them reference
[00:05:32.870]stumbling back to the dorms covered in sand.
[00:05:35.910]So a lot of the college party stories are about the same,
[00:05:39.690]but the old black and white photos are great.
[00:05:41.670]After book signings,
[00:05:43.040]sweet little ladies really like
[00:05:44.410]to share their black and white Polaroid party pics
[00:05:47.350]from back in the day,
[00:05:48.610]and you'll see photos of people cooking hot dogs down there.
[00:05:52.670]The family that owned the cave, they could have had,
[00:05:56.230]I could have wrote an entire novel on just the family.
[00:06:01.010]It went from J.W. Scarborough to Fred, Fred to Ed Senior,
[00:06:04.690]Ed Senior to Ed Junior,
[00:06:06.970]and the family's very eclectic, very eccentric.
[00:06:10.510]J.W. was the one
[00:06:11.730]that wanted to have it be a mushroom garden.
[00:06:14.560]Fred had an exotic and tropical fish shop in the cave.
[00:06:20.190]And Ed Senior,
[00:06:21.070]who was the Assistant Warden at the Men's Reformatory,
[00:06:24.610]his son, Ed Junior, used the cave as a gun range,
[00:06:28.480]so he used to store his gunpowder in the former fish room.
[00:06:31.880]And the family had a couple of coyotes
[00:06:34.340]that they kept on the property,
[00:06:35.630]their names were Mini and Seymour.
[00:06:37.800]And so if I ever get a little guest that comes through
[00:06:41.560]and talks about wanting to grow up to be a writer,
[00:06:45.150]I always just remind them
[00:06:46.700]that truth is stranger than fiction.
[00:06:49.310]You can't make up some of this stuff.
[00:06:51.910]Is there any wildlife in the cave?
[00:06:54.000]Robber's Cave is home to three species of bats,
[00:06:57.500]there's Brown bats, there's Tri-colored bats,
[00:07:00.210]and there's even some Northern long-eared bats,
[00:07:02.510]which happen to be on the threatened species list.
[00:07:05.550]And so the owners made sure that there was a tunnel.
[00:07:09.340]They worked with Game and Parks also
[00:07:11.300]to create an iron bat box.
[00:07:13.860]The bats have their own particular tunnel.
[00:07:15.830]They usually hibernate in the cave from fall to spring,
[00:07:19.520]and they have the southern tunnel
[00:07:22.790]all to themselves to hibernate.
[00:07:24.980]It's been meshed off,
[00:07:25.813]there's been some nocturnal lighting added,
[00:07:28.170]and we make sure that the fireplace is left open
[00:07:30.780]so that they can fly in and out as they please.
[00:07:33.430]Can you give us an idea about the different cave spaces
[00:07:36.500]and what they're used for?
[00:07:38.290]So there's a lot of interesting spaces in the cave.
[00:07:41.610]The first reaction when people step foot into the cave
[00:07:45.010]is one of surprise,
[00:07:46.551]it, nine times out of 10, exceeds people's expectations.
[00:07:51.150]And they initially wanna know,
[00:07:52.390]oh my gosh, what was this used for?
[00:07:54.530]But the list is really about 100 things long.
[00:07:57.340]It's almost, what wasn't it used for?
[00:07:59.970]There was a brewery there.
[00:08:02.200]After the brewery closed, there was a brothel.
[00:08:04.820]After the brothel, there was college parties,
[00:08:07.280]and then it was a daycare.
[00:08:08.820]At one time,
[00:08:09.653]Old Lady Scarborough had kids run through the cave
[00:08:12.570]in the '60s,
[00:08:13.540]and she would just flip the lights on and off,
[00:08:15.340]and the parents would drop 'em off with a sack lunch.
[00:08:18.490]After that closed, it was the grandson's gun range.
[00:08:21.900]It was the grandpa's exotic and tropical fish shop,
[00:08:25.470]had the mushroom garden aspirations at one time.
[00:08:29.390]The Husker football team in the '60s
[00:08:31.910]had a huge party in the cave every year
[00:08:33.860]after the spring game.
[00:08:35.780]The cross tunnel that you walk down into the cave
[00:08:38.370]would have been lined with kegs all the way back,
[00:08:40.160]and there was a wooden stage in the cave for bands to play.
[00:08:43.200]We have whole list of all the bands
[00:08:44.510]that played over the years.
[00:08:46.600]There's even a dance floor
[00:08:48.150]that the owners started to advertise in the '20s,
[00:08:51.550]which you can still stomp around on it.
[00:08:53.680]And there's a little question mark tunnel
[00:08:55.740]that was used as a necking nook in the '20s,
[00:08:58.190]which by the '60s became the bathroom.
[00:09:02.170]There's another little skinny tunnel,
[00:09:03.690]called Fat Man's Misery,
[00:09:05.060]which takes you down to the well, the well shaft,
[00:09:08.120]the deepest part of the cave at 62 feet.
[00:09:12.700]So it's just all sorts of options to explore.
[00:09:15.990]What information can you give someone
[00:09:17.840]who wants to visit the cave?
[00:09:20.140]If anybody was interested in touring Robber's Cave,
[00:09:23.190]all you have to do is call, text, or email me,
[00:09:26.310]and all of the contact information is
[00:09:31.360]There's also a Facebook page for the tours.
[00:09:33.830]There's a Facebook page for the Robber's Cave book.
[00:09:36.790]If you're interested in having an event at the venue,
[00:09:40.450]all you have to do is visit robberscavelincoln.com.
[00:09:44.820]The tunnels are 50 to 55 degrees year round,
[00:09:47.740]so I give tours seven days a week,
[00:09:50.140]and the weekends book up really quickly.
[00:09:53.610]Tours are $14 for adults, $7 for kids that are six to 12,
[00:09:59.150]and three for kids that are one to five.
[00:10:01.860]It's a lot of fun.
[00:10:02.693]The tours are a little different,
[00:10:03.980]if you toured the cave when the restaurant was open
[00:10:07.700]the first two years,
[00:10:09.060]you would get kind of a 20 minute walkthrough.
[00:10:12.420]The tours now are about 45 minutes to an hour,
[00:10:15.400]and we can explore a lot of the places
[00:10:17.580]that were previously off-limits
[00:10:19.940]during the first two years of tours.
[00:10:22.210]So it's a lot of fun, and they're pretty popular.
[00:10:24.940]They book up quickly,
[00:10:25.950]so everything has to be booked in advance,
[00:10:27.900]but a lot of availability, if anyone's interested
[00:10:32.041]We'd like to thank Joel Green
[00:10:33.260]for telling us a little about
[00:10:34.810]an interesting piece of history right in our own backyard.
[00:10:37.980]If you'd like to know more about Robber's Cave,
[00:10:39.889]make sure to check out his book,
[00:10:41.777]"Robber's Cave, Truths, Legends, Recollections,"
[00:10:45.400]which won a Nebraska Book Award in 2019 for nonfiction.
[00:10:49.710]Find all of our short Great Plains talks and interviews
[00:10:52.810]as videos and podcasts at go.unl.edu/gplectures.
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