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The Cave Doctor

Repairing stalactites.

Explorers and tourists in the past have abused caves, snapping off stalactites and other formations for souvenirs, leaving only stumps. That isn’t tolerated any more, but the damage had been done and was irreversible.

Until now! Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, Missouri, is having its past mutilations repaired — by Jonathan Beard, a Cave Doctor.

Jon worked at a 3M adhesive plant, where he became familiar with epoxy. He was also very familiar with caves (Missouri has over 7,500). Jon told us that he’d spent decades as an amateur caver, photographing and mapping subterranean passages beneath the Ozarks.

Combining these two areas of expertise, Jon found that epoxy putty could not only be used to glue a broken piece of cave back into place — in the rare instances when the original could be found — but could also be shaped to create entirely new, replacement formations: prosthetic stalagmites, stalactites, columns, canopies, draperies.

With the help of an apprentice, Sarah Peterson, Jon went to work in Fantastic Caverns in late 2022. When we spoke to him in January 2024, he and Sarah had already fashioned and attached over 1,250 one-of-a-kind replicas.

Sarah at work restoring stalagmites.

Cave formations don’t just happen: they’re formed over centuries by dripping water. So, after sculpting and attaching an epoxy stalactite or drapery (the larger ones are made hollow to save weight) Jon will spray it with water to see how it drips, then adjust the shape so that the water falls in the precise spot it did when the formation was whole. Jon’s replica stalactites are positioned so accurately that they can resume their interrupted drip-drip job of forming the stalactites beneath them.

Jon also understands what a speleothem — the generic word for a cave formation — should look like. After individually sculpting each prosthetic in place — making it the right size and shape to the eye — and waiting for the epoxy to cure, he then blends various paint colors onto the replacement formation to match the already existing parts as closely as possible.

One benefit to Jon’s approach, he said, is that given enough time the water dripping down and over his prosthetics will encase them in real minerals, making them indistinguishable from genuine speleothems. Of course, that won’t happen for several hundred years, but it’s something nice to think about.

Jon told us that when he and Sarah complete their work in Fantastic Caverns, which should be some time this Spring, they will have replicated around 1,500 formations. They’re also doing similar work in nearby Bridal Cave, but after that Jon hopes that someone like Sarah can take over. Jon is in his seventies, and his subterranean work is wet, dark, and contorts him into awkward positions. He loves caves, but he told us that he would also “love to act like a retired person” and spend at least part of his remaining years in a place that’s warm and above ground.

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