Main room of the Tennessee Pot Cave as it appears now.
Main room of the Tennessee Pot Cave as it appears now.

Cato Caves: Area of Mystery, Famous Pot Cave

Field review by the editors.

Dixon Springs, Tennessee

"I found these buried all around the property," said Jay "Chief" Chugg, leaning from the safety of his ATV, holding a wood plank spiked with dozens of big, nasty-looking nails. The planks, Chief said, were designed to impale any trespassing vehicle or pedestrian. The previous owner of Cato Caves, Fred Strunk, didn't want visitors.

Main room on the day it was raided by police.
Main room on the day it was raided by police.

Strunk now lives in a federal prison cell, convicted of converting Cato Caves into a secret underground pot farm -- an operation so elaborate that it seemed better-suited to Hollywood than Trousdale County, Tennessee.

The caverns sit halfway up Cato Mountain, but within clear view of a nearby two-lane blacktop. Tons of subterranean earth and rock were moved to block the caverns from outsiders. Above ground, a chimney nearly 50 feet high was needed to help dry out the cave air -- so Strunk built a fake house around it. He dug a 10-foot-square, 65-foot-long tunnel from the cave's main room into the home's basement garage, then hid the entrance behind a sliding wall and a motorized one-ton vault door. Once the pot-harvesters -- jobless Mexicans imported from Arizona -- entered the cavern, they would be locked behind the door with a supply of food and a microwave, living in an underground house fitted with bunk beds, showers, and toilets.

More police photos: the one-ton entrance door and secret escape hatch.
More police photos: the one-ton entrance door and secret escape hatch.

If the power went out, an escape ladder exited the cave from a secret hatch beneath a hillside rock. Only the supervisor knew about it, so it's unclear if the Mexicans would've been allowed to leave or left to die.

Chief said that the wood floor of the cave may be the largest in America, over 20,000 square feet, and it's so well-built that it doesn't squeak. Rather than smash out the formations along the cave walls, the floor was carefully fitted around them, at considerable extra expense. Fred Strunk may have been a drug lord with no regard for human life, but he appreciated flowstone and cave bacon.


"Chief" Chugg and Sam the spaniel pose with "Big Boy," one of the formations preserved by the pot farmers.

All of this, Chief pointed out, required years of labor, a construction battalion of heavy equipment, miles of wire and pipe, tons of cement, and a small army of skilled plumbers, carpenters, electricians, drillers, HVAC technicians, and building contractors. Authorities praised the craftsmanship of the subterranean farm, describing it as "an engineering marvel." Yet according to Chief, no one in the surrounding communities saw anything, or supplied anything, or knew anything about it. Fred Strunk paid well, in untraceable cash, and Tennessee's long tradition of stick-it-to-the-government moonshining apparently ensured the locals' silence.

Strunk harvested an estimated $6 to $8 million worth of pot every year for at least six years before the police raided the cave and shut it down. $30 million was never recovered, and Chief guesses that at least some of it may still be hidden on the heavily-wooded property, like buried pirate treasure, possibly guarded by more of Strunk's booby traps.

When Chief arrived on the scene in 2013, eight years after Strunk's arrest, the house was a fire-gutted ruin, the land was overgrown, and squatters had stripped the cave of everything worth selling. Chief chased them away, was appointed the official "Cavemaster," and has cleaned up the property to the point where it's now safe and open for by-appointment tours.

Visitors may be bummed that more of the Pot Cave didn't survive the scavengers, but enough remains for Chief to paint a vivid picture of it on his guided tours. These include roaming the hillside trails -- or bumping along on Chief's ATV -- while he points out the strange things that he's found. He calls the ten-acre property "the most concentrated area of mystery you'll ever find in your life." The weirdness is not threatening, Chief said, but he doesn't want to spook visitors, and keeps most of its discussion off-the-record. One oddity that he did agree to share was a set of footprints (outlined by Chief with yellow caution tape) in the back part of the cave, which look as if they were made by the lizard-man Gorn from the 1960s Star Trek TV series.

Burnt-out ruins of the fake house. It was built to disguise the still-standing chimney that vented the cave.
Burnt-out ruins of the fake house. It was built to disguise the still-standing chimney that vented the cave.

Chief cares about Cato Caves and wants families to enjoy the property -- but worries that its bizarre qualities might make it attractive only to "druggies" or to people whose fascination for the paranormal exceeds their common sense. We don't think he has to worry. Kids love the Pot Cave's cloak-and-dagger secrecy, adults can appreciate it as a home-remodeling job gone haywire, and everyone enjoys an occasional supernatural enigma. Also, it's hard to beat Chief's guarantee of satisfaction: "If this isn't the most interesting place you've seen in the past five years, I'll wash your car for free."

Also see: Cocaine Bear

Cato Caves: Area of Mystery, Famous Pot Cave

Cato Caves and Cedar Park

Address:
2125 Dixon Creek Rd, Dixon Springs, TN
Directions:
Cato Caves and Cedar Park. I-40 exit 258. Drive north on TN-53, which turns into TN-25, bypassing Carthage. After 16.5 miles, turn right onto Young Branch Rd. Drive one mile. Turn left onto Cato Rd, which becomes Dixon Creek Rd. Drive two miles. You'll see the entry gate on the left.
Hours:
By appt only. (Call to verify)
Phone:
615-499-1577
Admission:
Tours $20.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Muffler ManMuffler Man, Gallatin, TN - 22 mi.
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Flynn Creek Impact CraterFlynn Creek Impact Crater, Gainesboro, TN - 22 mi.
In the region:
Fabulous Paradise Point, Scottsville, KY - 31 mi.

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November 14, 2018

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