Business Spotlight: A Walk through History
At Smallin Civil War Cave, teaching about geology is big business
Monday, July 09, 2012 10:39 AM
Born and raised in the Ozarks, Kevin Bright grew up exploring the caves of his own backyard. In August 2009, the Mountain View native turned his love for caving into a business by purchasing the Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark from Central Assembly of God Church.
Wanetta and Kevin Bright take a breather from providing tours inside the mouth of Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark. The couple in 2009 purchased the cave property, which now includes a visitors' center and gift shop. The Brights estimate 9,500 people visited the cave in 2011.
Smallin Civil War Cave
Owner: Kevin and Wanetta Bright
Founded: Purchased in 2009; reopened in April 2010 after renovations
Address: 3575 N. Smallin Road, Ozark, MO 65721
Phone: (417) 551-4545
Services: Tours of the cave, gift shop and weddings
No stranger to business, Bright and his wife, Wanetta, owned and operated a sign and cabinet company, Bright’s Cabinet Shop, in Mountain View for 15 years before moving to Branson in 1999. Shortly after, they briefly owned a compact-disc duplication business, Branson Quality Duplicating, which manufactured CDs for various Branson shows.
Wanetta Bright previously worked as a manager at Marvel Cave in Silver Dollar City, and she brought valuable experience in commercial cave operations for their ideas for the Smallin Cave.
The Brights used their personal savings to purchase the cave for an undisclosed amount.
The cave and surrounding grounds, previously known as Camp SonRise, were owned by Springfield’s Central Assembly of God before being purchased by the Brights, who reopened the cave to public tours in April 2010 – the first time since the 1960s that the property had been open to the public.
The Smallin Civil War Cave offers guided tours of the cave and the surrounding wilderness and also has a gift shop for customers to browse and purchase memorabilia.
In its second year of business, revenues at the cave were up 30 percent, though Kevin Bright declined to disclose the dollar amount. He projects sales for this year will again exceed the previous year by 30 percent. The Brights employ six workers to handle tasks ranging from guiding tours to working in the gift shop.
The cave was first documented in the journal of Henry Schoolcraft in 1818 and also served as a social activity hub for the early settlers, Bright says.
“It’s a place for families to experience a little bit of the Ozarks. If you take the caves out of the Ozarks, you take the heart and soul away,” he says. “Original settlement and everyone who ever lived here kind of centered around caves until recent history.”
Smallin Cave offers a one-hour guided cave tour, a two-hour off-trail walking tour and Civil War tours with historic stories around campfires. Bright says the one-hour guided tours, which run $15.95 for adults, are the most popular. The Off-Trail Wild Tour is $50 with an equipment rental fee of $10. With this tour, guests have the opportunity to spot endangered species that stay out of reach of natural light. The Brights also offer a Civil War Christmas Tour that costs $19.95 for adults and $12.95 for children. The cave also has served as host to a few wedding ceremonies.
“In the first years of your business, you want to see where you’ll profit the most from your investment,” Bright says. “We basically cater to the tourist business and education. We have a lot of school groups. Universities do a lot of science research here.”
In the Brights’ first year in business, roughly 8,000 tourists set foot in the cave, and in 2011, that number grew to roughly 9,500. Recent groups to visit include 500 children – second graders in the Ozark School District – who visited the cave during the course of four days.
Smallin Cave’s gift shop is located in a separate building where customers buy their tickets for the tours. The shop’s inventory ranges from Civil War memorabilia and Native American collectibles to novelty helmets and T-shirts, which cost between $11.95 and $20.95.
The gift shop wares come from several vendors, including Squire Boone Village in New Albany, Ind. That company supplies Smallin with arrowhead necklaces and $12.95 novelty helmets fitted with flashlights. Karen Dutton, Squire Boone Village’s national sales manager, says the Brights have been customers of the company since May 2010.
Recently, a prehistoric shark spine, belonging to an extinct group of fish known as ctenacanthus, was discovered in the cave. Bright says he knew about the fossil at the time the cave was purchased, but he did not know exactly what kind of animal it belonged to.
Matt Forir, founder and president of the board of directors of the Missouri Institute of Natural Science, says the fossil gives scientists a closer view into the backgrounds of extinct predators that once inhabited the Ozarks.
Forir, who also operates the Missouri Institute of Natural Science Museum, a not-for-profit corporation located at 2327 W. FR 190, was one of the explorers who established exactly what kind of animal the fossilized spine belonged to. Forir says he spent several months digging into written material dating back to the late 1800s, in an attempt to learn more about the creature.
Forir thinks the discovery of the fossil in Smallin Cave could have a substantial impact on the Brights’ business. Currently, Forir is working on a way to carefully extract the fossilized spine and possibly manufacture replicas to sell.
“We have decided that we’re going to remove the actual fossil,” says Forir, who is also a geology professor at Drury University. “At some point, they should have a few replicas out there for sale.”