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Texas USA

An Underground Jewel Box

Thousands of gleaming formations beckon visitors to the family-run Caverns of Sonora.

Gerry Ingham will never forget that terrible day in November 2006 when a tour guide burst into her office and blurted out the horrifying news: “The Butterfly’s been broken!”

Delicate and beautiful, the winged crystalline formation for decades had starred as the premier formation at the Caverns of Sonora, her family’s spectacular show cave in West Texas. Within a matter of seconds, though, someone on a tour had covertly snapped off the right wing and left with the piece. Law officials later shrugged off the incident—listed as a misdemeanor—and blamed the damage on an “accidental” bump.

More than a year later, the wing remains lost, and no one’s been charged. Even a $20,000 reward offered by Ingham and her brother, Seco Mayfield, has failed to turn up any information. (If returned, experts could use the wing to repair the formation.)

From the family’s loss, though, has come good. In June, the Texas Legislature upped the penalty for vandalizing a Texas cave from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony. “That was a victory for all of our state’s caves,” Ingham says.

More so, the new law further solidifies what Ingham considers her mission in life: to care for and protect a precious natural treasure that also replenishes the vital source of water beneath her oft-dry land, the Edwards Aquifer.

Ever since she can remember, Ingham, 64, has been indelibly connected to the Caverns of Sonora, once called Mayfield Cave. Sometime after the turn of the century, her grandparents bought a 5,000-acre cattle ranch in Sutton County. Little did they know that beneath the gently rolling, grassy slopes—then dotted with live oak, mesquite and cedar—stretched an astonishing cavern with magnificent formations. In the 1940s, Ingham’s parents, Stanley and Elizabeth Mayfield, moved to Mayfield Ranch.

As a child growing up in the early ‘50s, Ingham and her friends would slip away and scamper inside the cave’s mouth. “We used to get in trouble,” she recalls with a smile. “Mother would always know where we’d been ‘cause we’d have cave mud on us.”

“Numerous legends account for the cave’s discovery, said to have been found around 1900. But nothing was actually ever recorded,” Ingham says. “The story I heard growing up was that a sheepherder’s dog found the hole. Later, when the entrance became publicly known, my dad gated it to protect people who wanted to go inside.”

In 1955 a team of explorers ventured across a narrow ledge deep into the cavern’s interiors and saw—for the first time—thousands of gleaming stalagmites, stalactites and other formations. That expedition and many others produced seven miles of mapped passageways on four different levels.

“They brought back color slides of what they’d seen,” Ingham recalls. “I was 11 or 12 years old at the time. I remember them showing the slides to us in our living room. We were all awed and amazed. After having played in the inactive section of the cave near the entrance, it was amazing to see the pretty parts.”

Soon thereafter, cave developer Jack Burch and a partner leased Mayfield Cave with the intent of opening it for commercial tours. In July 1960, after months of construction, guides escorted thousands of eager visitors through the Caverns of Sonora along a new 1,800-foot trail. In 1961, the partners added another 1,700 feet of trails. A visitors’ center and campgrounds were constructed, too. In 1965, the Caverns of Sonora were named a National Natural Landmark.

These days, Ingham rarely treks through the caverns. She’s too busy manning the cave’s day-to-day operations, conferring with her ranch foreman about her cattle and other livestock, and keeping up with three grandchildren.

“I always think I’m going to walk in the cave and look at this or that,” she says. “I’d like to use a distance-measuring device that my son gave me and measure each segment of our tour more accurately. But that never happens because as soon as I get to the visitors’ center, I’ve got too much paperwork to do. On busy days, I run a register, too.”

Those busy days normally come in the summer. To handle the increased number of visitors, Ingham hires extra employees to give tours and work in the gift shop, which stocks souvenirs, snacks and the shop’s popular fudge.

When they can, other family members work at the caverns, too. Seventeen-year-old grandson Colton Moore conducts tours. Ingham’s nephew Ed Mayfield, 25, mows the grounds and leads tours, too. Granddaughters Steely Ingham, 17, and sister Stella, 13, help in the gift shop.

Although ranching is also a huge part of her life, Ingham is bonded more deeply to the caverns she knows and loves so well. “We have a wonderful cave,” she says. “It’s gorgeous. Our caverns are one of the most highly decorated caves in the country. Here, tours are an intimate experience because they’re kept small at 12 people or less, and everything is so close up.”

Breathtaking best describes the cavern’s numerous rooms and passages, each filled with something different—delicate “soda straws” (long, slender tubes that hang from ceilings), helictites (crystalline shapes, such as “the Butterfly,” that grow from walls, ceilings and floors), or coral (formations that resemble undersea coral).

Two sealed entrances—both equipped with double doors—maintain the cavern’s humidity at a constant high level, moisture that’s needed to ensure the continued dripping that gradually creates formations. “By keeping the air flow out, we’re seeing brand new active growth,” Ingham says.

These days, guided tours at Caverns of Sonora still pass by the Butterfly. Though disfigured, its fragile beauty continues to awe those who stop and linger for a longer look. Some even cry.

“We decided that rather than bypassing it, we needed to make people aware of what happened,” Ingham explains. “It took thousands of years for the Butterfly to form, and now it’s been stolen from future generations.” She pauses briefly, then adds sadly, “And it happened under my watch.”

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Southwest Texas Electric Cooperative serves the Caverns of Sonora.