Sometimes, as is the case today, I stumble upon an interesting fact or historical artifact that inspires a swirling imagination. Never mind that the crumbling rock face cliff I tread along is littered with naturally formed caves, there’s something else, something man had a hand in.
I enter a parking lot, fitting a county park. A portion of the parking lot is paved, although the black top gives way to fine gravel. Parking my car, I spot an unassuming pavilion on a small field of green. I promptly use the restroom inside and move on.
I venture a trail, wide and topped with gravel. It is fairly charming, as broad pines and large cedars tower beside me, keeping me company for a short while. Following a curve, the wooded area yields to a vast expanse of trimmed grass.
My curiosity is peaked when, beyond obvious signs proclaiming private property, I discover the ruins of structures that seem alien to Northeast Wisconsin. A stately shell of a structure, resembling the feudal manors of Europe, looms in the background of a smaller, rudimentary shaped building before me, both constructed of limestone.
I look around, yet there are no answers to the questions in my mind. What are these buildings? What were they used for? Why do they appear to be more old world European than classic American 19th century buildings? What was such a grand structure doing in the middle of nowhere?
I leave the mysterious structures behind. As I follow the trail a bit further, I realize I walk on a bluff that stands well above the treetops of the lower lying land. As I gaze from the ledge, a canopy of green, flecked with a little late summer yellow, provided by cedars, birches and a few other trees is set below me. Somewhere in the distance, I hear the rushing of water.
Little do I know, that rushing water is that of a spring, birthed from a cave, fighting large jagged rocks on its journey to the West Twin River. I’m even more oblivious to the role mineral spring water played in the construction of the stone ruins I left behind. It might not be the only reason, but it did play a role. I follow the sign posts and find spring cave, after climbing a wood staircase.
I really don’t picture health spas and resorts when someone mentions turn of the twentieth century Wisconsin. I imagine cleared farm land, ship builders, new harbors and towns, expanding rail systems and horse-drawn wagons when thinking of that era. In all, I picture a life of hard work and the rigors of a world that had become maybe a tad more developed than the frontier it had once been.
Yet, across Europe and on the East Coast, in places such as the Catskills, resorts had been established. The draw, besides the picturesque scenery, was mineral spring water, many believed it had healing powers. It was a pretty standard practice for an Era of miracle cure ointments, tonics and elixirs, being sold by slick talking peddlers from wagons. It has been found, in studies, that placebos can trick the brain into physiologically healing physical ailments. These spring waters drew people from many miles away for a chance to bathe and drink these supposedly healing qualities.
A bit into the future, as now I’m gazing at other fabled springs, I learn that a spring at the foot of the bluff had its water pumped to, what was then, a hotel and bottling plant. The hotel, the giant feudal manor type building, used it for bathing purposes. The bottling plant sold their product to stores and restaurants in Milwaukee and Chicago, capitalizing on an industry that had been started many years before out east.
The Maribel Caves Resort, benefitting from a new railway, was known for miles. With a combination of scenery from bluffs, a lolling river below, caves set along a rock face, and natural spring water there were many reasons for vacationers to travel. Fishing, boating, hiking and healing were all attractions. Not to mention staying in the Maribel Caves Hotel, which was built by Charles Steinbrecker who designed the building to appear as a German castle, harkening back to the old world spas in Austria and Germany.
Of course, besides the intrigue of a historic spa resort, there are the caves themselves, the name sake for the resort or, what is now a park. It is said they were formed by carbonic acid eating away at the dolomite, later with glacial deposits and water flows they were enlarged further.
There are seven caves, some with common names like Coopers cave or Staircase Cave. However, one stands out with the name of Tartarus, its name inspired by Greek Mythology. In the Greek legends Tartarus was the dungeon prison of the Titans and home of the wicked souls that travel to the underworld. The cave is an interesting three foot high cave that, disappointingly, was sealed off.
The trails wind their way down the bluff, sometimes its a treacherous climb against the bluff and rocks to reach a cave, others have staircases built, leading right to them. Along the way, the trail maybe topped with gravel, other times it’s deteriorated to packed mud, as it courses through the lower lying land.
Plenty of foot beaten paths find their way to the West Twin River, a peaceful winding stream that runs, in a relative way, parallel with the bluff. In spots, the lush green of ferns, creeping plants and others adorn the forest floor. As I walk along these trails, I’m startled by a small, sidewinding snake, crossing the trail rather noisily as it rustles fallen leaves. Ducks paddle through the river as unidentified animals crash in the woodland, veiled from sight.
The Caves are available for touring every third Sunday May through October. The 75 acre property has been a park since 1963, free of charge to any who wish to see it. There are ski trails on the upland portion of the park , while both upland and lowland are great for hiking.