Tourist Spot

‘Meramec Caverns’ Sign Offers a Glimpse of the Past – Shaw Local

Quietly nestled in the small community of Cayuga, halfway between Pontiac and Odell on the first hundred miles of historic Route 66, you’ll spot an original Meramec Caverns barn sign. This towering text painted on barn roofs was once a common sight by the side of the road throughout the Midwest. The Meramec Caverns barn signs have become a rare and nostalgic tourist opportunity – towering time capsules offering insight into the history of advertising and travel during the heyday of Route 66.

Originally erected in the mid-1930s to promote a tourist cave located in Sullivan, Missouri, these iconic billboards were in 14 states at the height of the promotion – with the majority located in Missouri, Illinois, Florida. ‘Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma. , Kansas, Texas and Arkansas. Signage experts at Meramec estimate that there were over 400 barn signs created – less than 50 remain today. Federal beautification laws passed in the late 1960s ended the practice, but the original signs were grandfathered and now stand as a monument to the beloved roadside kitsch of yesteryear.

Originally dubbed Saltpeter Cave, Meramec Caverns had a fascinating history long before it became one of the country’s favorite roadside attractions. Home to a rich deposit of potassium nitrate, a key ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder, the network of caverns became hotly contested ground for more than a century, following its colonial discovery in 1720. At the height of the Civil War, Confederate troops destroyed a Union-held gunpowder facility inside the cave, bringing an inauspicious end to potassium nitrate mining in the caverns.

By the 1890s, the future of the cave as a tourist destination was already beginning to materialize. Residents of nearby Stanton, Missouri held dances in the cool cavern auditorium during the summer months to avoid the debilitating heat. In 1933, during the national boom in automobile travel across the country, entrepreneur and amateur caver Lester Dill saw the potential to turn the cave into a major road trip destination. Under Dill’s auspices, the caves were renamed Meremac Caverns, and new spaces with breathtaking stalactites were discovered and made accessible to tourists.

Perhaps more famous than Dill’s cave finds were his unconventional promotional methods. During the summer months, Dill hired crews to paint barns located along America’s new network of roads across the country. Dill’s innovative market was simple, it offered farmers a fresh coat of barn paint completely free – provided they were also allowed to paint a large sign on the barn to advertise the caves to passing cars. Dill also pioneered a precursor to the modern bumper sticker, long before the invention of vinyl and self-adhesive. While visitors toured his cave, Dill would have employees attach small Meramec Caverns signs to the bumpers of their cars – giving him free publicity and visitors a free souvenir.

The Cayuga Barn was restored by volunteers from the Illinois Route 66 Association Preservation Committee in 1998 and features interpretive signage provided by the Hampton Hotels Save-A-Landmark program. There’s a convenient trailhead on historic Route 66 that gives you a great angle to photograph the sign. You will find the photo shoot stop about 8 km northeast of Pontiac and about 280 km northeast of the actual Meramec caves.