It may be a bit of a stretch to claim that the town of Grottoes came into existence because of a groundhog, but it’s hard to dismiss the furry mammal’s role in the birth of the community in the southeast corner of Rockingham County. Legend has it that in 1804 Bernard Weyer, a local trapper, kept losing his quarry down a burrow hole. When Weyer decided to investigate where the hole went he discovered a cave.
Called “Weyer’s Cave” the attraction was opened to the public in 1806. Among its visitors were Civil War soldiers who scrawled their names onto the cave’s walls. Following the war the railroad began to bring in visitors from around the East Coast. The attraction’s train stop, a few miles west of town, was known as the “Weyer’s Cave Station.” The community that formed around it is known to this day as “Weyers Cave.”
Weyer’s cave was not the only cavern in the area. Soon after the first European settlers moved to the area they began discovering the underground anomalies. The land where Weyer made his discovery was known as Cave Hill for two other caverns that were discovered there. One of these, Madison Cave, was mined for nitrates for use in gun powder during the Revolutionary War. The community that grew up in the area of the caves was known as “The Grottoes.”
By the late 1800s developers became interested in the minerals in the mountains near the town and planned a community there. They called themselves “The Grottoes Company” and named the community they would build “Shendun”, laying off ordered streets and property lots. By the end of the century Shendun was a booming town with factories, banks, a newspaper, its own power plant and was the only town in the area which had its own streetcar system that connected it to the nearby village of Port Republic. Its population grew to nearly 1,000 people and the town was incorporated in 1892.
In the tough economic times of the early 1900s the growth of Shendun faltered and the Grottoes Company went out of business. In 1912 the town was renamed “Grottoes” to reflect the local caves in the area. Grottoes continued to grow throughout the 20th century.
Bernard Weyer’s discovery is still the main attraction in Grottoes. Renamed “Grand Caverns” in the 1920s to reflect its status the cave continued to draw visitors from around the world to look at its rare “shield” formations and was declared a National Landmark in 1973. Having been continually open to the public for over 200 years it is considered the oldest “show” cave in the country. In 2009 the town of Grottoes took ownership and began to manage the cave and its surrounding park, which hosts an annual blue grass music festival that draws artists from around the region.
Today the town formerly known as Shendun has a population of 2,700. The town’s former elementary school was renovated into a town office and houses a branch of the county’s public library. A county public elementary school sits on the town’s edge with the public middle and high school within 15 miles. In addition to the Grand Caverns park with its pool, hiking and biking trails the town created a park on the banks of the South River.
In the two centuries since Bernard Weyer picked up his shovel the local community that developed at the base of Cave Hill has gone through many changes, but one thing remains constant. It is a community that will always been known for the beauty that lies just beneath its surface.