(Photo of Marion Smith by Bruce Morgan)
On Thursday evening, Sept. 5, the Dade County Historical Society is presenting a program which we hope will be of interest to many of our fellow citizens as the topic is something that we have in our area in abundance and many other places have hardly at all: caves.
Today, our local caves are mostly the focus of recreational and conservation activities, but they were used for specific and surprising purposes at different times in our history. How our caves came to exist and their place in the history of this area will be the focus of the Sept. 5 program. With us to talk about them will be a number of people who have significant expertise with regard to caves, and with understanding and exploring them. Among those will be an individual whom I have known for most of my life and who has become a legend in the community of people who know and love caves: Marion O. Smith.
Marion and I grew up together in a small town just southwest of Atlanta where everybody knew everybody and most of their business, and they probably knew their parents and grandparents, too. Sounds kind of like Dade County, doesn’t it?
If we had any caves around our hometown, they were small potatoes and I never heard of them, but then Marion and I and some of our old schoolmates went off to West Georgia College in Carrollton and the world opened up for our bunch of small-town kids.
Marion is not the kind of guy who will provide me with an elegant introduction to read for him at the symposium, so I don’t know chapter and verse about exactly how he came to enter his first cave. But there was an organized group or “grotto” of cavers at the college in our day and he joined up with them. The rest, as they say, is history. He was utterly captivated from the first experience underground and caving has been a major focus of his life ever since. He has been in caves all over the United States and in many abroad. He has been in Mammoth Cave more than once but is just as interested in lesser-known caves which are newly discovered or of historical significance. He is willing to drop down ropes for hundreds of feet to reach the bottom of a cavern, or to crawl on his belly through mud and whatever else for long distances just to explore a new space.
In addition to his knowledge of caves and their characteristics, Marion is also a historian--history is an area of study he and I shared at West Georgia. He spent much of his working life as a conservator of the papers of Andrew Johnson and is an expert on the Civil War era. He has brought together his two areas of interest by producing papers and articles about how caves were used in that war and how this affected them.
There is one area where, in my opinion, from looking at the literature and reading his stuff, Marion may be the foremost authority anywhere. This is the use of caves in our region by troops on both sides during the Civil War. It is not at all uncommon to enter a cave in these parts and find one or more names of Civil War soldiers who scratched them onto the walls while resting or working or hiding there. Tracking these men, how they came to be in our area and what happened to them after their military service, is a fascinating pursuit and the person who probably knows more about this than anyone is Marion Smith.
He will share some of this knowledge with us on Sept. 5 as well as the visual record of a number of slides which he has amassed over the years to document his work. He will also be available for questions about caves and his years of experience in them.
Other speakers for the evening will be featured in future announcements. All have specific areas of expertise which they are generously willing to share with us for the evening. Please join us for this occasion.
Join us at the Dade County Library on Thursday, Sept. 5, from 7-9 p.m. for the Cave Symposium sponsored by the Dade County Historical Society.
Joy Odom is an officer of the Dade Historical Society and a former principal of Dade High School.