Unsolved Histories: A Cave, A Poet, and Excavating the Truth

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In 1881, while wandering the woods near their Spring Valley, Wisconsin home, brothers William and George Vanasse spotted a small creature scurry into a hole. The boys gave chase, prodding the hole with a stick until the stick slipped, then listening as it clattered far below. Curious, the young adventurers returned to their hole the following day, and after securing a rope to a nearby tree, descended into darkness. Guided by lantern light, their shadows swelled along the cool limestone walls until at last their feet touched solid ground.

Who can say what they saw down there, or what it felt like to be the first documented humans to have seen it? Surely, their enthusiasm was indescribable, though 134 years later, when my three-year-old son and I set foot in what is now known as Crystal Cave, he has little trouble offering his own description.

“I’m borrrrred,” Henry moans as the tour guide recounts the cave’s geological history.

“How can you be bored?” I hiss. “You’re a kid in a cave. You’re supposed to love this.”

Shoulders slumped, he wanders to the far corner of the damp room to examine a mud puddle, while we, the more attentive listeners of the group, learn the three qualifications that makes a cave a cave.

First and foremost, the cave-in-question must be naturally made. Second, it must be large enough to permit the entrance of a person. “And third,” the tour guide says, “it must be able to achieve total darkness.” She pauses, gives us a smile: “You guys want to achieve total darkness?”

A murmur of “Yeahs” echoes throughout the small room, and suddenly, even Henry’s interest is piqued. First the tour guide flicks off the overhead lights and then, following a 3…2…1… countdown, flicks off her flashlight as well.

We release a communal gasp as our eyes stare out at nothing.

“This,” she says, “is total darkness.”

After a moment she flicks her flashlight back on, covering the beam with her hand.

“Just think,” she says, “this was all the light the Vanasse brothers had when they first explored this cave.”

Yet as Maud Phillips would prove thirty-six years later, Wisconsin’s cave exploration wasn’t limited to lantern-wielding boys. In 1917, Maud—better known as the poetess “Violet Leigh” to the people of Eau Claire—did more than merely explore a cave; she uprooted her family and took up residence in one. Violet—a mother of five—was thirty-eight at the time, trapped in a less-than-ideal marriage, and for reasons of both “economic necessity and romantic inclination,” noted writer Wil Denson, inhabited a locale generally reserved for bats and bears. The “economic necessity” was the result of legal fees Violet had accumulated as a result of a love affair gone awry. As for “romantic inclination,” she was a poet and it was a cave—it was a more perfect marriage than Violet had ever known.

Of course, it wasn’t really a cave—not technically speaking. Though it was large enough for a person (a family, even), it failed the other criteria: it had been made by men, after all, and it couldn’t achieve total darkness. Local brewer E. Robert Hantzch was the man responsible for making it. Around the turn of the 20th century, the brewer—in need of a cool, damp place to store his beer—blew a hole into the sandstone rock face. For several years Hantzch made good use of his 20 x 50 foot den, though eventually, the cave took on a more informal role as a watering hole for river rats, a shelter for drifters, and eventually, a changing room for those hoping to swim in the river far below.

Yet for several months in 1917 that cave became a home, and Violet made it feel like one. In the August 15 edition of The Eau Claire Leader, the newspaper ran an article on the poet’s unconventional living quarters. In great detail, the article described the cave’s interior, complete with carpets, curtains, tables, and a natural shelf “piled high with books, manuscripts and paper …” An American flag flew out front, though it wasn’t meant to serve as a welcome mat. As the article notes, Violet’s cave was “shut off from the direct route of travel by huge rocks, vines and undergrowth”—natural deterrents that allowed her to live her unconventional life far from society’s prying eyes.

Though admittedly, even prior to her time in the cave, Violet’s life had been unconventional. From the paper trail left behind (primarily her book of poems, public records, and newspaper reports),violet it’s possible she suffered from mental illness, though rather than treat it with medication as we might today she was twice committed to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane at Mendota. For ten months in 1907, she was a ward of the state, and though her monthly reports began by noting her “cheerful, amiable” disposition, that disposition was soon to change.

On the morning of April 14—having been in the asylum for less than a month—Violet gave birth to a baby girl. The newborn was placed into Violet’s mother’s care ten days later, a decision that likely precipitated Violet’s emotional decline.

“[P]atient tries to be cheerful, very homesick, cries at times …” April’s monthly report read. “Is convinced she was mistaken in some of her ideas.”

Her “ideas” (“fixed delusions” as the state called them) were what had landed her in the asylum to begin with. These ideas included Violet’s fear that public education would “injure” her children, as well as her belief that her eldest daughter was pregnant. Once institutionalized, she appeared to backpedal on these claims, though the damage, it seemed, had been done.

From May to September her disposition remained “Unchanged,” the monthly reports noting that she dedicated most of her time to “writing poetry and letters.” The August report noted Violet’s inclination to “be cute,” though the September report more condemningly claimed she had “no stability, no sense of duty.” At her husband’s request, the hospital discharged Violet in December, though the following April she returned to Mendota on her own accord, pleading with the staff to allow her to stay. Yet in less than a week she was returned home to Eau Claire. A decade later, she’d take refuge in her cave; that is, until the state intervened once more, deciding a woman had no business living such a life, and instead, recommitted her to the mental hospital.

Megan Beer-Pemberton, whose college capstone paper serves as the best scholarly work on Violet Leigh, recently sat down with me to discuss the poet and her legacy.

“Violet had some eccentricities,” Megan concedes, “but I don’t think she deserved to be put away for months at a time.” Though Megan agrees it’s likely Violet suffered from depression, the larger story, she says, has to do with the state’s quickness in committing her to mental institutions, a pattern that provides a commentary on the twentieth-century’s take on mental health.

“So do you think she would have been better off in the cave?” I ask.

“If she were left to her own devices she would’ve been fine,” Megan says. The problem, she continues, is that Violet lived a life at odds with the refined sensibilities of the surrounding community. She was an oddball poet, after all—outspoken, unfaithful, and unapologetic in her actions. As a result, she bucked twentieth-century conventions of womanhood, her improprieties an affront to the region’s more mild-mannered citizens.

In an effort to find what’s left of her, I revisit Violet’s cave, tromping through the woods at dawn until arriving at the 12-foot-wide mouth. The place is deserted, though signs of human life remain in the form of Styrofoam take-out boxes, ash-filled fire pits, and graffiti lining the sandstone walls. In its decrepit state, it’s hard to imagine such a place serving as a family home, though I try nonetheless, recreating the piles of papers in my head, the curtains, the carpet, the flagpole.

Practically speaking, I am not faced with total darkness, though metaphorically, I still am. She lived here, sure, but what to make of that life? As I explore the cave I’m reminded of a few lines from one of her poems: “When doctors come and raise a riot because you’re fond of steak and pie, don’t think you have to change your diet or else curl up someday and die …”

Violet refused to change, and though the world would, she’d never live to see it.

I wish I could tell her how it all turned out—that we’re better now, more accepting. But since I can’t, I just plunge deeper into that man-made cave to try to understand her man-made madness.

One foot after the other I shuffle against the rock, leaving the light behind as I descend into her darkness.


Photos courtesy of B.J. Hollars.

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