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Route 66 News

A chat with Meramec Caverns owner Les Turilli

The Washington Missourian newspaper recently sat down with Les Turilli Sr., owner of Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, who talked about its troubles in 2016 and the cave’s storied history.

Meramec Caverns, which has been open to the public since 1933, doesn’t sit on Route 66. Instead, it’s about three miles from the Mother Road.

However, its proximity to Route 66 — and, later, Interstate 44 — haven proven vital to its success.

It’s worth reading the entire article. But here are a few things of interest:

— Business at Meramec Caverns plummeted 68 percent in 2016, Turilli said, because of flooding and environmental pollution. A nearby Superfund site caused carcinogenic TPE fumes to waft into the caverns, prompting the EPA to close Meramec Caverns for nearly three months until the installation of a ventilation system. The nearby Meramec River saw record flooding in late 2015 and early 2016, forcing another closure of the caverns. Flooding also forced Turilli to remove warped asbestos floor tiles from the caverns’ main ballroom and entrance.

— Meramec Caverns’ fortunes always have been tied to gasoline prices and the strength of the overall economy. Missouri and Illinois make up the bulk of visitors, with Michigan ranking third. July remains the most popular month; one reason is the caverns maintain a temperature of about 60 degrees, bringing respite from summer heat.

— Turilli’s grandfather came up with the idea to paint Meramec Caverns advertisements on barns after seeing a Mail Pouch Tobacco barn. In addition to performing exterior repairs on the Meramec Caverns barn, the elder Turilli would offer a railroad pocket watch to its owner and a box of chocolates to his wife. Turilli said about 30 barns total survive in Missouri, Texas, Illinois and Iowa, and they are repainted every four to five years.

— Turilli insists the cavern’s longstanding claim to fame — as “Jesse James’ Hideout” — is true because a strongbox from a James heist was found in the cave. Turilli also said another entrance to the cave long rumored to be an escape route for the James gang from a posse was rediscovered a few years ago. Maintenance work near the parking lot revealed an old entrance that once had been clogged with silt.

— The newspaper story doesn’t mention this, but Turilli last year ran for Missouri governor as an independent candidate. He finished fourth in the general election with 1.07 percent of the vote.

(Image of statues of outlaws Frank and Jesse James near the entrance to Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, by Jinx! via Flickr)

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