Meramec Caverns is a giant among America's show caves and a Route 66 pioneer, beckoning visitors since 1933. Original owner Lester Dill would approach farmers with a pocket watch, a box of chocolates, and lifetime passes to Meramec Caverns if they would let him use their barn roofs as billboards. By the time he retired, Lester had roofs in 14 states. Current owner Lester Turilli Sr., Dill's grandson, once slapped 427 Meramec Caverns bumper stickers onto cars in the parking lot in a single day, a number he says has never been equalled.
Meramec calls itself "Jesse James's Hideout," but the tiny cabin in the cave mouth (under the neon "Meramec Caverns" sign) belonged to a moonshiner, not Jesse, and no bandit gold has ever been found here. Just beyond the cabin lies the Grand Ballroom, with a mirrored disco ball and signs along its walls listing the TV shows and movies that were filmed in it. Pearl Bailey was once a visitor and has a room named in her honor. Seven levels of passages lead everywhere, and all of them seem to be occupied by tour groups.
All tours end in the Theatre Room for "the greatest show under the earth," a triumph of 1940s technology that features a well-worn recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" followed by a slide of an American flag projected onto a wall of flowstone. The tour group, happy to be sitting after over an hour on their feet, bursts into applause.