Scioto County offers unique attraction
Story by Tom Corrigan
That’s the word Tom Martin said one man used to describe how he felt after experiencing the 14 biblical scenes comprising the Christmas Cave set up each holiday season since 2016 in the White Gravel Mines in Minford.
Co-owner of the mine along with wife Mindy, Tom Martin said he often spends time just watching families as they wander through the lighted underground displays that in just a few years have attracted tens of thousands of visitors from numerous states.
For the Martins and their partners Scioto County Commissioner Bryan Davis and wife Lori, along with a small band of other volunteers, setting up and running the cave during the holidays is, as you might expect, what they describe as a labor of love. But probably more importantly to them, they consider it a serious, blessed Christian ministry.
“We are both preachers, we are both evangelicals,” Martin said, referring to himself and Davis, the man he considers something more than a friend.
“We shared the vision,” Davis said in explaining why he puts in the many hours he does at the Christmas Cave each year. With a sober face, looking this reporter right in the eye, Martin insists there is no worldly, logical explanation for the success of the cave and the artistry on display. Visitors have mistaken figurines in the cave — mannequins bought from Amazon and decorated — for marble statues.
“We are not really that talented,” Martin insists, though he credits Davis with being a bit of a lighting genius.
While the two joke and gibe with each other as they talk about the cave and the history of the mine, there can be no doubt of their belief they are doing God’s work in displaying and portraying the Biblical Christmas story to their visitors. And despite the fact there is not a Santa Claus in sight, there have been a lot of visitors.
“It filled a hunger, I think,” Martin said of the opening of the Christmas Cave.
He estimated the displays attracted 33,000 visitors in 2017, about 22,000 in its first year. Neither he nor Davis anticipate any slowing in the numbers. If anything, they are counting on drawing more people and in doing so, expanding what they see as their ministry.
Historically, of course, White Gravel Mines wasn’t always devoted to Christian theology. It opened as an operating gravel mine in about 1915. Martin said the output of the mine still can be seen all over Scioto County.
“It made sense in that day,” Martin said, adding miners used “dynamite, light-gauge rail, donkeys and ponies, not to mention their own muscle, to load that stuff out and haul it here, there and everywhere.”
Martin and Davis mentioned occasionally still finding rail lines and spikes inside the cave.
Although some mining may have taken place across the road into the 1960s, Martin said his best guess is the mine closed sometime shortly after the end of World War II. For many years, it remained the property of the Warren family, a well-known and clearly long-tenured Scioto County family. Eventually, the mine ended up in the hands of Ray and Naomi Deaver.
“I had a vision we could do something for the Lord,” Martin said explaining why he approached the Deavers about taking over the mine. Naomi Deaver bought into his notion. “She was super generous … she ended up all but giving it to us because she knew what we were going to do with it.”
The mine spent many years abandoned and technically closed, Martin said. Over time, it became a local hangout for teens and others looking for a place to party or just be out of the public eye.
“The place was notorious,” according to Martin. “Every member of my generation had a ‘let’s sneak into the mine story.’” Martin readily admits he was one of the teens who paid a visit.
“Everybody did,” he said laughing.
Though he had heard rumors of the mine, Davis said he did not visit in his youth but probably only because he did not live close enough.
The size of the mine is best described as “huge,” Martin said. He talked about four or five main tunnels with numerous side branches. Ceilings reach 20 to 25 feet in spots and halls or tunnels are 50 to 60 feet wide.
“There are acres down there,” Martin said.
The Christmas Cave and the Cavern of Choices, which was put on for two weekends in October, both stick to what Martin called the perimeter of the mine. Part of the mine is flooded and that underground lake, if you will, is not open to the public.
“The water, it’s cold, but it’s clear, it’s clean and it’s kind of cool,” Martin said.
Although the Christmas Cave was launched in 2016, the ministry of Martin and Davis goes back a few years further. The Martins took over the mine about 10 years ago. Initially, the family allowed the Boy Scouts of America to use the cave and it also was used for outings by the Rubyville Community Church, where both Martin and Davis preach.
“About eight years ago, we started toying around with the idea of doing a Christian drama,” Martin said, and the Cavern of Choices was born.
Based on C.S. Lewis’ literary classic “The Screwtape Letters,” the cavern story is brought to life by a volunteer cast of over 100, Martin and Davis said. Visitors are guided through the cavern by a demon who shows them various realistic scenes depicting everything from drug abuse to the consequences of making poor choices in a car such as texting while driving.
“In the end, you go to Hell and see the Devil,” Martin said, though he quickly adds, as you might guess, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“You hear the Good News,” Martin said. “God rudely interrupts the Devil … and people get to make a choice.”
Once the Cavern of Choices finishes its short run, Martin, Davis and their volunteers, nicknamed the “Dirty Dozen Cave Dwellers,” kick it into high gear. Those who were jokingly termd “slave labor” includes Lori Davis, Mindy Martin and Tom Martin’s father, Tom Martin Sr.
With opening day set for the day after Thanksgiving, the group has five weeks to turn the mine into the Christmas Cave, switching out scenes depicting modern life and Hell into displays showing the birth of Christ and Christmas traditions, such as the story of St. Nicholas, whose tale long ago morphed into that of Santa Claus. Martin and Davis said a new display this year depicts the city of Jerusalem at the time of Christ.
Neither Martin nor Davis like to talk about, say for example, how many lights are used inside the Christmas Cave. (They did say there were 70 Christmas trees used last year.) While secular displays often brag they consist of so many thousands of bulbs, the lights in the Christmas Cave clearly aren’t the point. The Christian “message” is, as Davis and Martin point out numerous times. They also assert visitors have genuinely positive reactions to what they see.
“There’s an emotional attachment, an emotional reaction,” Davis said. He also said there is no cell service in the Christmas Cave. “Families are forced to be families; they are forced to talk to one another.”
Martin again spoke of how he loves to just stand in the shadows and watch as families look at the scenes and read the scrolls explaining each.
“It’s just precious,” he said, not sounding in the least bit precious or corny himself.
The Christmas Cave
4-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays between Black Friday and Christmas
4007 White Gravel McDaniel Road, Minford
Admission is free. Parking is $2 per car. (Part of the parking proceeds benefit missions.)
Follow along on the White Gravel Mines Facebook page.