Farmer, adventurer, entrepreneur, entertainer, eccentric genius, inventor, husband and father–Lester Howe, born on January 7, 1810 in Decatur, New York, has been described many ways. What Lester Howe did was extraordinary for his time. He discovered and developed what was described in the 19th century as one of the most "remarkable curiosities" in the United States. Howe Caverns remains the largest cave opened to the public in the Northeast. And, it has entertained, enthralled and been the object of great wonder since its discoverer first entertained guests in the underground world he named for himself, Howe’s Cave.
Here in Schoharie County, legend had it that on the hottest of days, a cool breeze came from “Blowing Rock,” a strange stony ledge. No one knew where it was precisely as the 19th century began. There were tales, though, from the early 1700s in which the Native Americans spoke of “Otsgaragee,” translated as “Cave of the Great Galleries” or “Great Valley Cave”.
It was near this “Blowing Rock” that Lester Howe, his wife Lucinda (Rowley) Howe, and their children – Huldah Ann, Harriet Elgiva and Halsey John -- settled.
On his farm in the valley east of Cobleskill, Lester Howe found fascination with the story of the “Blowing Rock,” with reports placing its location about 10 miles west of the Schoharie River, on or near his property.
One story says the alert farmer noticed that his dairy herd always pastured in the same spot, not on his land, but land owned by his neighbor and friend, Henry Wetsel.
As Howe approached his herd, he noticed the change in temperature. It was getting cooler. Slowly and carefully, he pulled aside the bushes. Lester Howe had found “Blowing Rock,” giving credit for the discovery to his cow, Millicent.
There is a second, lesser-known story about the discovery. It tells that Lester Howe was on a fox hunt when he discovered the cave. With Howe pursuing a fox, the fox escaped into a hole in the rock. Howe followed after the creature, and was attracted by the strong cold draft that came from the rock. He decided follow the fox and, after crawling a short distance, he found a large opening inside the rock.
Rather than search for the fox, Howe set about the work of exploring mile after mile of this new, underground world. The first time he entered the cave, he did so on his hands and knees. He went as far as he could without losing sight of the daylight.
When he returned, he explored a bit farther and found the damp walls were covered with bats, with hundreds of them circling in the air. Far in the distance he heard rushing water.
Those who knew him considered Lester Howe to be an eccentric genius, beyond the experiences of his cave tours.
One time he advertised to hold an auction at his farm to sell everything he owned. On the appointed day, people traveled from near and far to attend. As people arrived, Howe opened the window to the parlor where -- just inside -- was one of his daughters playing the piano. She played and played and played. Lester stood on his porch and orated to the gathering his philosophies on life and politics. There never was an auction. He never intended to have one. Those who attended left in disgust.
In 1843, Howe built his first cave house hotel at the natural entrance site. When it burned in 1847, it was rebuilt with the new hotel directly above the caverns’ entrance. Visitors entered the cave through a stairway in the basement. Cool air from the cave circulated through the hotel. Lester Howe had invented the first form of air conditioning, offering guests of the Cave House a respite during the warm summer months.
Through the years, Howe’s Cave grew in popularity especially with the advent of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad in 1865. Visitors could arrive and depart from the station established at Howe's Cave, an easy walk to the Cave House Hotel. The number of guests to the cave increased steadily. Howe’s Cave became a leading natural New York attraction, second only to Niagara Falls -- a status it maintains today.
But, times changed. In January 1872, the second Cave House burned. A third Cave House (current) was built. It was at this time Lester Howe had transferred his property to the Howe’s Cave Association as he had over-extended himself in property expansion. The Howe’s Cave Association eventually added on an imposing structure called the Pavilion Hotel. Eventually in the late 1880’s the public’s interest in caves waned and the number of visitors was on a downward spiral.
After the sale of Howe’s Cave, Lester remained on his farm across the valley from the cave. Since the 1880s, there have been rumors about another cave discovered by Lester Howe, which he called the Garden of Eden. Many say that he became embittered as he watched the cave from his farm. Some say that on his deathbed he said, “I have discovered a cave larger and more beautiful than my first. I call it my ‘Garden of Eden’ and have disclosed its location to no one.”
Since Lester Howe’s death, explorers have searched for the cave. Till this day, no one is certain that the Garden of Eden exists.
And his Howe’s Cave, while an important part of his life, it was not his only interest. He continued to operate a farm, raise three children and provide for his wife of 60 years.
Lester died on July 17, 1888. Among the outstanding bills for his estate to pay was one from Glen Brothers Nursery in Rochester for $3.75 for 18 blackberry bushes, showing that he had remained a farmer until his death at age 78. He and his wife are buried in the Cobleskill Rural Cemetery in Cobleskill, New York.
"If Lester's loss of ownership (of the cave) bothered him in later years... he should not be remembered in this context. Lester's real importance to Howe Caverns was not his discovery and one-time ownership but his exploration, development, and presentation of those phenomena to the world. By contrast, which individual or group achieved ultimate ownership is trivial. The latter will pass, but Lester Howe's idea and the efforts he made to make the cave an opportunity for human wonder, delight, and learning will live on." -- quoted by descendant Warren Howe.
From 1890 until the turn of the century, as visitors steadily decreased, a small community of management, quarry workers and their families sprang up in the hamlet now known as Howes Cave. In 1898, The Howes Cave Association, which had purchased the site from Lester Howe, reorganized as the Helderberg Cement Company. The firm discontinued tours, and cement manufacturing went into high speed.
In place of the visitors coming to see the caverns, a constant succession of owners quarried limestone from the hillside for cement. While the Cave House Hotel had been rebuilt and had a heyday from 1871-1890, the wooden portion called the Pavilion Hotel, burned in 1909. The remaining Cave House became a boarding house and later office space for the cement company.
While the precise year is unknown, sometime between 1910-1925, the first charges in the limestone walls of the quarry face blasted into Howe's Cave. Over the years, about 875 ft. of the "old" cave have been destroyed. Today, visitors see less than half of the original underground passage.
Please note: historical excerpts taken from The Remarkable Howe Caverns Story by Dana Cudmore, The Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY, Copyright 1990.
The rebirth and successful commercial development of Howe Caverns, as it is known today, between the years 1927-1929, is in large part attributable to two men, John Mosner of Syracuse and Walter H. Sagendorf of Saranac Lake.
Mosner, an engineer and vice president and general manager of the Edward P. Bates Company of Syracuse, proposed the modern engineering developments that would make the cave easily accessible-even comfortable-to the average visitor. Mosner who was impressed by his visit to Howe's Cave in 1890, believed that with a shaft for elevators sunk at the opposite end of the cave and the addition of electric lighting, Howe's Cave would become a leading tourist attraction.
Sagendorf provided the organization for the Mosner plan, his brother John owned most of the land on which today's Visitor Center is located. Howe Caverns, Inc. was organized as a closed stock corporation on October 11, 1927. Work began the next year under difficult conditions.
The 156-foot elevator shaft was built at a cost of $1,100 per foot. A work force of well over 50 men constructed the walks and bridges and the above-ground facilities. The much-awaited grand re-opening of Howe's Cave as Howe Caverns, Inc. took place on May 27, 1929. On the occasion more than 2,000 visitors toured what was once known as "Blowing Rock," Lester Howe's great wonder, down under.