What pops out to a first-time visitor to Cave Spring, where Kansas City meets Raytown, is how this funky little park has been conceived by, for and in spite of people.
The homemade signs refer to people: Tim’s Trail, Peggy’s Water Garden, Alec’s Island, Corky’s Nature Walk.
The volunteer caretaker is brother of the late Corky, Al Maddox. At 83, he shows up almost daily.
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Al Maddox knows the history. After operators of a camp resort abandoned the place in the 1940s, looters stripped seven cabins of redwood paneling, furniture and electrical fixtures before burning down the buildings.
“Yeah, like terrorists,” said Maddox. They left behind stone chimneys standing in the woods. The fireplaces today are among Cave Spring’s most distinguishing features.
Not counting the cave, of course.
The spring bubbling forth quenched wagoneers on the Santa Fe Trail. Later, 7 acres were dammed to make a lake, which lasted until kids goofing off blasted the dam with dynamite.
“We think that happened in 1954,” said Maddox. “They emptied a 7-acre lake that back then was out in the middle of nowhere. We wish we knew why.”
Youths now are far kinder to these 39 acres of wooded kitsch at 8701 Gregory Blvd., also known as William M. Klein Park.
Scout troops visit routinely, earning merit badges by whacking down brush and donating park benches. A sign not far from Tim’s Trail — named in memory of an avid volunteer — marks yet another spot: “This view by Ethan,” in honor of the Scout who cleared the site.
Near a waterfall, three Scouts became Eagles by building a wooden walkway and shelter known as “Three Eagles.”
Harry Truman’s maternal grandfather, Solomon Young, owned Cave Spring in the 1870s. The future president and his young love, Bess Wallace, strolled the grounds as children.
Then came Richards Flying Field in the 1920s. A golf course and cabins drew visitors between 1926 and the 1940s, after which the property was vacated and vandalized. In the 1970s, talk arose of landowners converting the site to place low-income public housing and a filling station.
By that time, homes and a church had cropped up around Gregory and Blue Ridge boulevards. A group of residents led by Sylvia Mooney obtained grants to acquire the Cave Spring property, formed a nonprofit association to preserve a section of Santa Fe Road and donated the land to Jackson County in 1975.
So the county owns the land, but the 250-member Cave Spring Association does the work — with the help of Scouts, the Raytown Garden Club and financial gifts from the Cosentino family of grocers, among others.
“We could rename the park Cosentino’s Price Chopper and it would be fair,” said association member Iz Groceman.
As the federal agency overseeing the historic Santa Fe Trail, the National Park Service has given the association “written permission to do what we want with the property without needing permits,” Groceman said. “That way we can turn a spade of dirt without going through a ton of regulations.”
The retired Maddox, who was working as a chemist when neighbors rallied to keep Cave Spring, has turned more dirt at the park than he cares to recall. For now, he and Groceman are busy compiling a digital record of all the history — including the journals of pioneers who camped at Cave Spring on their first night traveling the Santa Fe route in wagons.
On a 3-foot-wide slab of cypress tree trunk displayed in the park’s Art Clark Interpretive Center, much of the history is told. A ring 2 inches wide near the trunk’s center reflects the time in 1821 when Capt. William Bushnell passed through before establishing trade with Mexico in Santa Fe city.
Farther out, near the tree’s bark, a ring is labeled “1969: First astronauts walk on the moon.”
Maddox was 35 then, working as a chemist. Today, he and other volunteers are still erecting plastic signs in tribute to Cave Spring fans departed.
He said: “A lot of people who kept the place going are up in that big prairie in the sky.”
Cave Spring (William M. Klein Park)
Where: East Gregory and Blue Ridge boulevards, on Kansas City-Raytown border
Hours: Dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Call ahead to visit nature center.
Directions: From Interstate 435 interchange at Gregory, drive east to 8701 E. Gregory Blvd.