The Caveman Creates
A documentary film is wrapping up post-production, based on the book Robber’s Cave: Truths, Legends, Recollections by Joel Green, author/historian/tour guide - and 2004 Buena Vista University graduate. Green’s book won Nebraska Book Award honors for Nonfiction in 2019.
Filmmaker Patton Productions worked closely with Green, a Lincoln, Nebraska native, optioning his book as a basis for the documentary. Green, who gave up a “dream job” with the Cleveland Cavaliers to return to his home state to teach middle school, played an integral part of the documentary’s development. He served up information, interview contacts, and historical resources, taking personal leave to assist in co-producing the project.
His 9-year-old daughter Brooklyn Green is both interviewed and featured in the documentary. She sometimes helps her dad lead tours through the cave, and hopes to someday follow in her father’s footsteps and write a cave book of her own.
Green has also lectured on the landmark cave at his alma mater in Storm Lake, and encourages local residents to make the trip. “I think it’s a story worth telling,” he says.
The film is narrated by Emmy-winning television personality, comedian, and former talk show host Dick Cavett. Cavett’s familiarity with the cave spans back to his childhood growing up in the Lincoln, Nebraska, area. He revisited the cave in 2017 with Green as personal tour guide.
Through interviews with the property owner, author, historians, investigators, geologists, scientists, architects, and visitors, Robber’s Cave documentary will follow the journey from the cave’s origin and rich lore to becoming a present-day popular tourist attraction listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Green’s tours of the sandstone tunnels have helped establish Robber’s Cave as a 2020 Nebraska Outstanding Tourist Attraction finalist.
Robber’s Cave is a 5,600 square foot sandstone structure located three to four stories underground.
Green recalls reading a ghost stories book as a child that mentioned Robber’s Cave, although it had been mostly sealed off since the 1970s, and few Lincoln residents realized it existed. N’er-do-wells and partiers had repeatedly broken into the cave’s boarded-up, then concrete-sealed entrance, until the city had finally bulldozed it shut and left it to be forgotten.
But the story begins long before, with legends of local Indian tribes using the cave for rituals (it was once known locally as Pawnee Council Cave). Persistent tales claim Jesse James had used it as a hideout - possible, since a close relative lived nearby, but never proven. Still, it was the outlaw who inspired the cave’s name. It was once used for Ku Klux Klan initiations, and later, hosted the 15th birthday party of Oscar-winning actress Sandy Dennis. It’s visitors have included Chick Norris.
The known history of the cave begins in the mid-1800s, when one document on the land’s ownership bore the signature of lawyer Abraham Lincoln. In 1864 - before the city it rests underneath was founded - the aptly-named Pioneer Brewery was built on the site, taking advantage of the cool-year-around cavern below to store its barrels of alcohol.
The brewery didn’t last long, and the large building was pressed into service as a “sporting house,” which Green learned was polite midwestern code for a whorehouse. In the 1870s, a group of vigilantes reportedly set fire to the brothel, and any remaining wood was taken away, used to build a barn.
Over the years the site would be used as an icehouse, storage for gunpowder, even a day care center where children were allowed to run around the dark passageways. Early on, a German immigrant who owned the property extended the natural cave to a staggering 5,600 square feet, using only a pick axe and a wheelbarrow.
The cave was also used by all kinds of revelers, from illegal gamblers in the early 1900s to searchers for a supposed treasure, to the Nebraska Cornhuskers football teams that threw secret parties deep in the cave after their final game each season.
Because there was little or no lighting in the cave, a string would be used to guide party-goers to the particular room in the cave system being used for a gathering. Crude fireplaces and tables were built in some of the best-used nooks and crannies, and in 1922, a dance floor and small stage were constructed within the cave that saw everything from flappers to barn dances to disco. The New York band Sha-Na-Na, which played Woodstock and appeared in the movie “Grease,” once performed in the cave for a local frat party, Green reveals.
He has researched the colorful various owners of the cave site, including a Spanish American War veteran, a family that raised pet coyotes, a woman with a large aviary who was known as “Canary Doctor,” and a KKK stalwart. College literary groups met underground for dramatic readings by candlelight, and in 1924, a group of 300 Scouts spent the night inside.
The cave still has its soft sand floor, remnants of what once was a tropical prehistoric sea that covered the region.
The cave was freely open to the public from 1906 to 1973, and the walls are covered with graffiti and initials some more than 140 years old - sometimes several generations of family names. Some of the oldest relics found inside include coins as old as 1852, and an valuable early-serial-number 1873 Winchester rifle.
Even after it was closed, those high school kids “brave enough or cool enough” managed to get into the cave illegally, though it took 15 minutes of wriggling through tight spaces on one’s belly. Asked if he had been one of them, Green responded inscrutably, “no comment.”
One clip of old video shows a couple of underage, clearly drunken visitors. One told the other they were in “an abandoned mine.” The other asked what people had mined in Nebraska. “Corn,” slurred the first.
Green is still searching for a horror movie that was reportedly filmed by a group of high school girls in the cave in 1966.
One local historian feels he has spotted a young Willa Cather in an early photo of a group of young literary students inside the cave, but attempts to identify the girl in the photo as the noted historical author through facial recognition technology have so far failed.
There is no shortage of stories. From the 1890s comes a tale of a 12-year-old boy who decided to camp in the cave overnight. He was woken by a strange moaning sound, and saw a shadowy white beast moving toward him, and fled for his life. Alarmed, townspeople went investigating to find the ghost, and did. It was a white cow that had somehow strayed and found its way into the cavern. The friendly beast had come to sniff the boy, with a moo’ed greeting. “Imagine that in the dark. He must have been scared to death,” Green said.
Every time he tells that story in the cave, Green asks the visitor to guess what the horrifying ghost really was. Cavatt, during his tour with Green, quipped dryly, “A Republican?”
One persistent rumor has the cave serving as a stop for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, but Green doesn’t buy that one, noting that the “Nebraska Route” ran south and east of the area.
In 2015, the cave came full circle as a brewery/restaurant once again was built above it, using it’s 50-degree caverns to store barrels. One of its first employees was Joel’s younger sister, and when the owners wanted to learn more about their cave, she steered them to Joel, who had already done a great deal of research toward what would become his book.
One recent Halloween, the brewery showed the film “The Shining” within the dark cave.
Many of those coming for tours remember having been in the cave - legally or otherwise - 30, 40, 50 or 60 years earlier. Some of what Green has been able to collect come from their memories. “I’m giving the tour, and a lot of times it’s people who are telling me the stories.” His favorite, he says, is when a sweet old couple come through and tell of having their first kiss in the cavern.
“I’m there sometimes seven days a week, and I’ve given as many as eight tours a day, when I’m not teaching,” he says. He’s even taken a mini-reunion of his friends from BVU days into the cave.
Today, in addition to regular tours , it can be booked for private parties, gatherings and weddings. An endangered species, the Northern Long-Eared Bat, has its own protected refuge within the cave system.
Where might you expect to see the Robber’s Cave Documentary? “At this time, we have a few preferred platforms both streaming and traditional broadcast, but have not yet chosen a final delivery network for airing,” Green said. “The project will be pitched to HGTV, Discovery Channel, Netflix, and History Channel. We are remaining open to a ‘best fit’ home for the film. A premier of the film is to be held in Lincoln at Robber’s Cave.”