*first off, a quick but thoroughly sincere note of thanks to my smart and patient husband who fixed the blog clog that had things backed up here recently. without his support, my online presence would surely suffer.*
Everyday here at Mammoth Cave, I meet someone interesting. Every ranger, scientist, ticket sales person, visiting guest, (everyone!) has a story to tell – some connection to this cave and the land around it.
Jerry Bransford is just one of those people. Ranger Jerry’s great great grandfather, Mat Bransford, was a leased slave here at Mammoth Cave back in the 1800’s. Mat, along with his brother Nick and another slave, Stephen Bishop were responsible for exploring many miles of the cave and for safely guiding wealthy tourists through the seemingly endless labyrinth.
Although these men were slaves, their lives were somewhat different from many slave’s lives at the time. They became educated by their wealthy patrons, many from the north and not supportive of slavery. They were able to make a little bit of money through tips for signing patron names on the cave walls.
When slavery ended, these men opted to stay on as valued employees of the cave’s owners. After all, they were the only ones who knew the cave’s secrets and could be trusted to guide tourists. Time passed and eventually the area was established as our country’s 26th national park in the late 1930’s. When this happened, Bransford and Bishop descendants were informed that their services would no longer be needed upon the opening of the new park, due to their race. Thus ended a cave legacy that had lasted for generations.
For many years, this story went underground. Occasionally Bishop’s name would be mentioned by guides, but very seldom any of the Bransford’s. It seemed time had forgotten them. That by race alone, their contributions to the exploration and development of the cave became invisible. Joy Lyons, now chief of program services at Mammoth Cave, researched many of the forgotten names in her early years as a seasonal guide. She eventually tracked down Jerry Bransford in nearby Glasgow, KY and encouraged him to become a guide himself in 2002, thus bridging the gap since his great Uncle Louis had given his final tour in 1939.
Jerry now puts a face on that portion of history of Mammoth Cave. Guides now speak openly about the contributions former slaves made to the cave. But when Jerry speaks of the future, he wonders if this story will continue to be told once he himself has retired from guiding. He is concerned that his family’s Mammoth Cave legacy could be forgotten once again. I sincerely hope this is not true. I am captivated by Jerry’s story and that of guides, both black and white who continue to shed light on the dark passageways and history of this amazing place.
One of the things guides do on a cave tour is something they call the “lights out” exercise when all the lights are turned off for a few seconds to give visitors an idea of what total darkness looks and feels like. This is one of my favorite parts of the tour. After a few moments, the ranger will light a match or a lighter and the darkness is penetrated. With that one source of light, we could, in theory, find our way out of the cave should the lights fail.
The other night while on the Star Chamber tour, Ranger Bobby lit his lighter and said “It doesn’t take much light to overcome total darkness.” I believe this, both literally in the darkness of the cave, but also metaphorically. I believe that due to Joy Lyons’ research, and Jerry Bransford’s commitment to his family’s legacy, a light has been shown on a dark time in history. Perhaps, thanks to this small bit of illumination, a compelling bit of Mammoth History will never again see total darkness.