In southern Ohio, the defunct White Gravel Mines have been taken over by a religious holiday production
By Amanda Page
The White Gravel Mines—long-defunct white quartz gravel and sand mines in southern Ohio—closed down in the 1970s and sat, neglected, for nearly five decades. Rebellious teenagers snuck into the caves to drink cheap beer and spray paint graffiti on the walls. Like many abandoned mines in Appalachia, they were left for nature to take over. Then, in 2016, a Christian nonprofit turned the mines into a popular pilgrimage site for tourists at Christmas. As other types of December holiday displays have disappeared in the region, the Christmas Cave sees a population equal to the county’s in just a few days a year.
When you visit the mines, you don’t descend. You walk right up to what co-owner Mindy Martin calls “a hole in the hill.” You’ll go from one of the four parking lots—described as “glorious” online—to the caves themselves, which is why you’re there. You’re there to see the Christmas display. At the Christmas Caves, you witness a theatrical production from Tim and Mindy Martin of White Gravel Mines Productions, featuring holiday light displays, trees decorated by local community groups in Scioto County (where the caves are located), and sculptures and scrolls that tell the Christian story of the birth of Jesus.
Prior to the Martins’ arrival, the caves sat empty for more than thirty years. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) the caves are one of 6,805 known underground mines in Ohio, 250 of which are or were industrial mineral mines, like the White Gravel Mines. The gravel mines were first dug out in the early 1900s, and were eventually shut down in the mid-to-late 1970s. From the 70s until 2009, the caves were boarded up, and sometimes broken into. Teenagers used them for antics like four-wheeling and drinking. The state wasn’t responsible for underground industrial mineral mines, so the fate of the abandoned mines was up to the owner of the land they were on.
The White Gravel Mines were on Naomi Dever’s land. Her family, the Warrens, owned and ran the quartz mines until they shuttered them in the 1970s. The mines are distinctive. The caverns form a loop and have sections, almost like rooms, along the path. They remain structurally intact, and a cool fifty-eight degrees year round.
One day, in 2009, Tim Martin showed up and told her what he wanted to do with the mines. “I was always drawn to them,” Martin said of the mines. “Something about the underground. They’re mysterious. I knew we could do something kind of dramatic.”
So, “I knocked on her door,” Martin said. “I told her the Lord wanted her to give me the place.”
The mines of Appalachia get a lot of attention in the national media. Active and abandoned coal mines fuel political battles as coal miners suffer from Black Lung, and a type of surface mining—mountaintop removal, which does exactly what it sounds like—creates poisoned land and streams in its wake. The land left over from such mining is hard to restore.
The underground industrial mineral mines in Ohio, on the other hand—mined for products like gravel, clay, limestone, sand and other elements not used for fuel—created plain and simple caverns. Their footprint is less obvious, less flashy.
The majority of ODNR’s mine reclamation work is focused on abandoned coal mines, for which they receive federal funding. The mineral mines are left largely to the private owners who have mines on their property. There’s no particular recommendation for what to do with the mines. Other examples of industrial mineral reclamation include kaolin mine in Georgia, in which the land was reclaimed through careful grading and former limestone quarries-turned-“sunken gardens.” (One example is in Huntington, Indiana.)
Hosting theatrical productions in former industrial mineral mines is a novel way to reclaim the sites. But the dramatic events and displays didn’t start right away. After Deaver handed over the caves, they started by cleaning up the bottles and debris left over from the years of neglect. They let the Boy Scouts camp there. A Christian paintball group covered the rock walls in bright colors. None of this was typical as far as mine reclamation practices go.
In 2011, the Martins launched their first production. Around Halloween, they hosted Cavern of Choices, inspired by C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a satirical Christian novel about temptation. “People walk through the mines and watch actors play out the story,” Martin told me. According to their website (sic): “The live action drama boasts a cast and crew of over 50 people and reenacts teenage rendezvouses at the mines involving drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, violence, drinking and driving, and suicide.”
The Christmas Caves opened over the holidays in 2016. They coincide with events at the local Winterfest in downtown Portsmouth, Ohio. During the festival, a local civic organization, Friends of Portsmouth, hosts a community gathering in order to compete for a Christmas-themed Guinness World Record. An ice-skating rink is set up and horse-drawn carriage rides past the floodwall murals are available. The festival is popular, but it doesn’t feature Christmas lights in a tunnel underground. The novelty of the Martins’ display being set up in an abandoned mine is an undeniable part of the appeal.
The production also fills a gap in community events that formed when Rudd’s Christmas Farm, in Adams County, Ohio, closed down in 1999. After thirty years, the Rudds decided to stop producing their impressive display, which brought up to two hundred thousand people over a holiday season. People still lament the loss of Rudd’s Christmas Farm, even more than twenty years later. The first year the Martins opened the Christmas Caves, the Rudds came to see it. “Mrs. Rudd told me we’d need more parking lots,” Mindy Martin said.
The production is a nonprofit endeavor. “We don’t make a cent off the thing and we have no intention to,” Martin said. They do suggest a one-dollar donation, and businesses that sponsor the event are thanked on a sign for visitors to see as they leave. Although the Martins don’t charge visitors, they do need to cover production costs. “We have leveraged the hot chocolate. We’re at a point where it’s sustainable to run,” Martin told me.
The nonprofit also hosts the annual White Gravel Mine Extreme Adventure 5K Run, held this year in June, as a fundraiser. Participants run through the caves, including a few in the back that are off limits for the productions but provide the “extreme” component the runners pay to experience. They run through a bit of water in the back caves and then on through the other cool caverns during the height of the summer heat wave in Ohio.
The Martins have built up quite an infrastructure over the years. They have permanent power in the caves, with one shaft sealed off and dehumidified, and a utility room on site. Volunteers keep flashlights and candles on them at all times, but the caves have only lost power once, during one of the trail runs. The runners were asked to have headlamps before the run. “They did okay,” Martin said.
On an average night, the caves are managed by a team of approximately thirty volunteers. Twenty people manage the inside and ten to twelve work the parking lots. Every year, Theresa Havens brings her family to that hole in the side of a hill. Her granddaughter’s Brownie troop decorated a tree that is on display at the Christmas Caves. “It’s wholesome and for the family, and that’s what brings us,” Havens said.
The popularity of the Christmas Caves has inspired the Martins to produce additional events that promote a Christian message. In the Spring of 2021, they’ll launch an Easter display. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and there’s a lot of excitement,” Mindy Martin said.
What to do with the infrastructure of bygone industries? Solutions to the problem of mine reclamation often involve an entrepreneurial endeavor. Past suggestions for surface mine reclamation have included everything from elk viewing stations to prison complexes constructed on the sites. In all the conversations across the political spectrum about how Appalachia can reclaim mineland destroyed by extractive practices, no one seems to point at the productions in White Gravel Mines as a model. The Appalachian Regional Commission isn’t granting funds for holiday light displays. But it’s just that kind of production that gives old mines a new purpose, and people from across the region a site to see. There’s something novel about a Christmas display in a cave. Maybe it’s that kind of creative thinking that mine reclamation efforts really need. ■
Amanda Page is a Columbus-based writer from southern Ohio. Her work appears in Belt Magazine, The Daily Yonder, and 100 Days in Appalachia. She is the editor of The Columbus Anthology from Belt Publishing and The Ohio State University Press.
Cover illustration by David Wilson.
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