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'A story that deserves to be told': Author digs into history of Robber's Cave

'A story that deserves to be told': Author digs into history of Robber's Cave

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Despite his years of research -- the interviews he's conducted, the stories he's listened to, the hundreds of newspaper clippings he's collected -- Joel Green can't confirm one of Lincoln's longest-lasting rumors.

That Jesse James once took cover in Robber's Cave.

But he's pretty sure Chuck Norris did.

And he's read that Sandy Dennis celebrated her 15th birthday in the sandstone tunnels beneath south Lincoln, 14 years before she won an Oscar. And he knows Dick Cavett visited the cave earlier this year, when he was in town for a performance.

Green gave the comedian a personal tour.

In the past year, the 34-year-old teacher and part-time tour guide has taken more than 2,600 people through the subterranean Lincoln landmark, now an extension of the basement and barrel room of Blue Blood Brewing Company near Ninth and Van Dorn.

Robber's Cave had been closed for years before Blue Blood bought it and built a brewery and restaurant around its entrance. The company cleaned up the cave, brought it up to code and, a year ago, started offering tours.

Since then, more than 7,000 people have paid to go underground, some seeing it for the first time, others rekindling memories they'd made when the cave was open to the public.

“What's surprising to me is the tours are staying full,” said Blue Blood owner Brian Podwinski. “I don't know if they'd wane after a year or if they'd stay full or what.”

The brewery has several tour guides, Podwinski said, but Green knows the most.

“The guy's passionate about the cave. He cares a lot about it, he cares about the history and he's led the charge for the others guys to learn more.”

Green isn't just teaching others about the cave; he's still learning -- talking to its former owner, scouring the internet, seeking more stories.

“Robber’s Cave has had quite a bit of intrigue around it,” Green said. “Unlike some people who view the cave as nothing but an old hole in the ground, I think it has a story that deserves to be told.”

And he wants to tell it. The Irving Middle School mentor has been chipping away at a book about the cave, and now that the school year ended, he's devoting more time turning his research into an illustrated history. He plans to publish it by the end of the year.

* * *

Green grew up interested in the cave -- he'd heard about it in the book, “A Guide to the Ghosts of Lincoln” -- but was born too late.

The tourist attraction was open to the public from the early 1900s to 1973, and again for a few years in the 1980s, before it was sealed off and bulldozed closed.

Green began his research when his wife, Tiffanie, was writing about Robber’s Cave for a college class, and he volunteered to help.

He went to the State Historical Society but didn't find much: Maybe 15 to 20 documents. He would eventually amass nearly 600.

“I had to find out the hard way,” he said. “I think I've done most of the digging, probably.”

Green moved away to work for NBA teams in Philadelphia and Cleveland, then returned to Lincoln in 2005, still interested in the closed cave.

Blue Blood bought the property in 2015. Green’s sister was working as the company’s events coordinator, and she introduced him to the marketing coordinator, who needed information on the cave.

Green landed a part-time job giving tours. He starts outside the barrel room near the cave entrance, the walls decorated with relics found in Robber's Cave. A wagon wheel. An apothecary bottle from the 1890s. A pick ax head and a Pepsi can and ice clamps.

He talks about its history: How it's been called Robber’s Cave, Lincoln Cave, Penitentiary Cave and Pawnee Council Cave. How it was expanded and used by a brewery in 1869, and how it became a venue for parties and camp outs -- 300 Scouts stayed one night in 1924 -- and college initiations and vandalism, its soft walls an easy canvas for names and initials, some nearly 140 years old now.

He points out the tight squeeze called Fat Man's Misery, and the bat cave and the pick ax marks.

He asks tour groups how many people had been in the cave before. Sometimes half the hands will go up.

“And I’ll say, 'How about legally?'”

But before all of that, he waits for the reaction when he opens the door and they take the first steps down into the 55-degree tunnel.

Still smells the same, they say.

“It's just so darn fun to give tours and see people's faces light up after all of those years,” Green said.

* * *

Green doesn't have a title yet, but he knows it will start with: “Robber's Cave.” He doesn't know what to put after that. Maybe “Fact and Folklore,” or “The Extended Tour.”

He's outlined more than a dozen chapters, from its geology to its early use by Natives and by Coxey's Army, the group of unemployed men who wintered there in 1893 on their march to Washington. He'll explore the rumor it was a stop along the Underground Railroad, and its ghost stories, and the exotic and tropical fish store that once operated at its entrance.

He doesn't want to give it all away now, but he'll talk about where his research has taken him, and some of the facts he's found.

He's grateful for his recent visits with Ed Scarborough Jr., whose family owned the property for generations. And he struck gold when another historian directed him to a transcript of an eight-hour interview of Ed Jr.'s grandfather telling stories in 1938. Like this one:

In the 1870s, a group of Whitecaps -- a vigilante force, in the same vein as the Ku Klux Klan -- burned a brothel and dance hall at the cave. But it’s unclear if they were targeting horse thieves at the businesses or the businesses themselves, or both, because the cave’s old stories can be tough to trace.

He's still running down a story that Chuck Norris toured the cave in the 1980s after seeing a poster at the airport, but the actor hasn't yet responded to Green's questions. And he hasn't found a copy of the horror movie filmed by high school girls in 1966.

He showed a picture of the Palladian Literary Society inside the cave to a local historian, who thought he spotted a young Willa Cather. But a Cather scholar studied the woman's facial figures and deemed it likely wasn't her.

And Green still hasn't found any proof Jesse James was ever here.

“It takes a while to figure things out, little by little, but that’s the thing about Robber’s Cave,” he said: “Deciphering the fact from the fiction.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.


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