Jacob M. and John S. Pirkey
JACOB M. and JOHN S. PIRKEY. In almost every section of the country there is some natural curiosity which draws to it tourists in more or less numbers, but one of the most remarkable ones, not only in this but any country, is what was formerly known as Weyer’s Cave, but now as the Grottoes of the Shenandoah, at Grottoes Station on the Norfolk & Western Railroad in Rockingham County. The Grottoes of the Shenandoah are known the world over as the most remarkable natural curiosity in the South, and are worthy of extended mention because of the unusual features connected with these wonderful caverns.
The entrance to the Grottoes is within a ten-minute walk of the railroad station. Just within the entrance is a group of stalagmites known as The Sentinels. Just above this group is a chamber with wide galleries with other sentinel figures which are apparently waiting to relieve their comrades below. As the Sentinels are passed the Cataract is reached, which is a most remarkable representation of a stream silenced by a sudden frost as it is pouring over a ledge of rock. Within the Grottoes are numerous niches and chambers to which very appropriate names have been given. Solomon’s Temple is facing the Cataract, and in a niche above is a throne, canopied with richly-colored, fluted curtains of stone, studded with gems, which reflect with brilliance the surrounding lights. The roof is arched and groined, and is supported near the center by a massive pillar that is almost transparent. Another section, which has been called the Zoological Gardens, is most remarkable, as is the Balustrade Room. The Persian Palace, which is sometimes called the Chapel, has in about its center a suspended stalactite in the form of a chandelier. Other features are the canopied pulpit, chancel, choir, loft and pipe organ. The ceilings and walls are richly ornamented with sheet stalactites, pendants and figures ranging in color from purest white to deep bronze. Adjoining this is a small ante-chamber known as the Armory, because of its war-like formations, most important among which is the Shield of Ajax projecting from the ceiling at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and so thin that the veins eau be plainly seen by the aid of a light placed above it. There is another cataract at the end of the Armory, the illusion of which is heightened by a few drops of moisture trickling down its surface.
The Ballroom is 100 x 50 feet, and varies in height from twenty-five to thirty feet. Not only is this room provided with a perfectly level floor, and seats for the musicians, but also with an immense bass drum, whose sonorous tones reverberate through the surrounding opening. There is also a buffet and dressing room, all provided by nature with a most lavish hand. Descending Jacob’s Ladder the Senate Chamber is reached. Its gallery extends across the entire length of the room, and is only supported at each end. Beneath the gallery is a profuse and delicate coral formation, and a crystal spring, the waters of which flow through the spar room into the lake beyond.
The Robbers’ Den is correctly named, for it is a chamber filed with massive boulders and surrounded by dark cavernous recesses. The Inferno, which is 500 feet in length, contains some of the finest formations, among which the most remarkable are the Pompeiian Baths, down the walls of which a sheet of water has evidently flowed in the bygone ages, over a wide ledge, and thence to the floor. This chamber gives the effect of a field of snow at sunrise on a frosty morning with its minute particles of ice reflecting all of the colors of the rainbow. The surrounding Stygian darkness enhances the remarkable effects.
There is a vegetable garden, remarkable in itself, but submerged by the other wonders, and beyond it is the Cathedral, a chamber 250 feet long and thirty wide, and varying in height from thirty to sixty feet. About halfway in the room is an isolated stalagmite, in which many detect a resemblance to George Washington. Just within the entrance is a dark rift in the wall, seemingly containing nothing of interest, but a flash of magnesium thrown into its recesses reveals a marvelous reproduction of one of the superb sunsets for which the valley is famous. On one of the walls is a mammoth sunflower as richly delicate in coloring as any genuine floral specimen. Further on is an almost endless collection of shields and banners, tapestries, wing-like projections, towers and pinnacles, while from their elevated niche the Enchanted Moors, clad in their ancient armour, look down on the sight seekers. There are delicate draperies on the walls, the ceilings are marvels of pendants, varicolored stucco and fret-work; there are countless niches filled with statuary, and these with a wilderness of spires and pinnacles, combine to form a scene of unparalleled grandeur and beauty.
There is a Lady Washington Grotto and Art Gallery, both marvelous, Jefferson’s Hall, whose principal features are an immense dome, and countless unarmed but beautiful formations, the Glen, the Diamond Bank and the Leaning Tower, and following them is the Bridal Chamber, with its wonderful veil, which is neither suspended from the ceiling nor attached to the floor. It is so thin as to be almost transparent, spotlessly white, and studded with diamond-like particles which sparkle in an almost indescribable manner. From the Bridal Chamber entrance is had to one of the smaller chambers, one known as the Garden of Eden, which will barely hold fifty persons. Its variety of formations is, however, equal to any of the larger ones, and the richness of its coloring is superior to many of them. These formations are principally in the form of draperies, the greater portion of which are translucent, and the light shining through their folds shows a harmonious blending that is perfection.
In the Grand Canyon the perpendicular walls rise to a height of ninety feet; the narrowness of the chamber in comparison with the others, and the veritable forest of stalagmatic formations with which it is filled, bear a strong resemblance to tree trunks stripped of foliage and limbs. The walls are superbly decorated, and fretted ceilings are also objects of more than ordinary interest. Jackson’s Hall is 200 feet below the surface, and contains many massive formations, among them being the Tower of Babel, which is eighty feet in circumference, with fluted walls that rise to a height of thirty feet, terminating with a corniced crown of surpassing beauty in design and coloring; the Natural Bridge, 100 feet in length and twenty feet in width, extending across the hall about midway between floor and ceiling; Cleopatra’s Needle, a slender isolated stalagmite of purest white over thirty feet in height; the Lady Chapel in the rear of the Tower of Babel; the Ostrich, curtains, canopies, shell and war-like paraphernalia. At the extremity of the hall are the gigantic oyster shells, the glacier, Snow Hill, Coral Ridge and Tinkling Spring. Another beautiful room near the entrance to the cave is named the Shell Room, .the roof of which is literally studded with countless delicate stalactite, which reflect back the electric lights in a resplendent manner. This room is radially different from any of the others, as the formations are either pure white or crystalline in color.
With praiseworthy fidelity the proprietors of this magnificent natural wonder have refrained from “improving” it. The high and wide entrances are as they were formed by nature; in only one place is it necessary to walk single file; the floors are level and solid; every portion is free from moisture; and there are no yawning caverns, rickety stairways or ladders to menace life and limb. The management has installed a perfect system of electric lighting which illuminates these underground passages, and makes their explorations perfectly safe. Aside from this, however, the Grottoes are today very much as they were when Bernard Weyer, in 1804, pursuing a ground hog that was preying upon his chickens, discovered the entrance to them.
By travelers and scientists of authority the Grottoes are unhesitatingly pronounced as much more remarkable than such justly celebrated caves as the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, and the Luray Caverns of Virginia. From all points in the Valley of Virginia autoists will find good roads leading to the Grottoes.
Since 1915 this very valuable property has been owned by Jacob M. and John S. Pirkey, the present proprietors. They were born within two miles of the Grottoes. Jacob M., May 19, 1857, and John S., August 6, 1865, and they are sons of Elias and Susan (Baker) Pirkey, of Rockingham County. Elias Pirkey served in the Confederate army as a veterinarian, and he survived the close of the war for many years, dying in 1908, at the age of eighty years. His wife died in young womanhood, when thirty-five. Many years ago Elias Pirkey discovered the Fountain Cave, which adjoins the Grottoes, but failed to make it a financial success, and lost all that he had previously made in farming in his effort to attract to it the traveling public. He was a Presbyterian, and she a Lutheran, in religious faith. Their children were as follows: Jacob DI.; Mollie, who is the wife of C. D. Garber, of Waynesboro, Virginia; John S.; Bell Walker, who is the wife of C. M. Shaver, a miller of Harrisonburg, Virginia; Elizabeth Susan, who is the wife of Robert M. Meyerhoeffer, of Mount Meridian, Virginia; and Fannie, who is the wife of George R. Root of Staunton.
Growing up in Rockingham County, Jacob M. and John S. Pirkey attended both private and public schools, and were under the personal instruction of J. L. Mohler, who at one time operated the Grottoes. They worked on the home farm, and then later on engaged in farming on their own account. Subsequently they opened a store in the town of Grottoes, which they operated for many years, and still continued their connection with the agricultural life of their county, their farm being just across the river from the Grottoes, and known as the Patterson property. Since they have become so interested in the Grottoes they have sold this valuable farm, and G. R. Root succeeded them in the ownership of the store. All the attention of these brothers is now given to their wonderful property, the Grottoes, of which Jacob M. Pirkey acted as a guide when only eight years old.
Jacob M. Pirkey married Elise Clievolin, of Richmond, and the following children were born to them Hennis S., who is the wife of Noble C. Pease, of Berryville, Virginia; Ella, who is the wife of J. C. Hughes, an employe of the Virginian Railroad, resides at Grottoes; Fred, who is associated with the management of the Grottoes, was assigned to duty in the postoffice at Camp Lee during the World war, is a graduate of the Dunsmore Business College; and Elise, who is at home.
John S. Pirkey married Mary B. Baylor, a daughter of G. M. Baylor, of Augusta County. Mrs. Jacob M. Pirkey is an Episcopalian. John S. Pirkey is a Presbyterian. He belongs to the Knights of Pythias and the Junior Order United American Mechanics. Jacob M. Pirkey is a member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Grottoes.
The first public mention of the Grottoes was made in an article which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in December, 1854, written by Gen. Daniel B. Strouther. The Grottoes has Jacob M. Pirkey as superintendent and W. I. Harnsberger is chief guide.