CUSTER — Citing the verbage on one of his favorite spelunker T-shirts, which proclaims, “No end in sight,” pioneering caver and climber Herb Conn said that statement pretty much sums up he and his wife Jan Conn's 22-year history spent immersed in the sport.
“And it still is that way,” Herb said.
This time, instead of going down in a cave, the duo is going down in history. The pioneering spelunkers, from Custer, who in their 22-year caving careers singlehandedly opened up 65 miles of passages in Jewel Cave, paving the way for a total of 155 and counting, will be inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame at a special ceremony Saturday evening at the Cedar Shore Resort in Oacom.
“When we started exploring Jewel Cave in 1959, there was a sign out front that said, 'This is a small cave,'” explained Herb Conn. “But over the next 20 years, we ended up opening up more than 65 miles of passages.”
“In their small cave,” threw in Herb's wife Jan Conn. “They have more than doubled it since we quit.”
Their initial discovery has led to the ultimate discovery that Jewel Cave is, in fact, the second longest cave in the world.
“I think that there are now 155 miles of passages,” Herb said. “Our work was responsible for them putting in an elevator and opening up a new tour.”
The Conns were quite young when they arrived in the Custer area they have now spent 60 years pursuing their spelunking hobby in the land that they love.
“We certainly enjoyed climbing here and that's why we settled here, because of the Needles,” Jan explained.
The caving and climbing opportunities were a huge draw for the two who were, at that time, in their late 20s.
“I attended the University of Colorado and during World War II, I served as an engineer for the Navy department,” Herb explained. “Our adventures started in 1946, after I finished my service.”
Jan chooses to make a stronger statement.
“That's when our life started,” Jan said. “We roamed the country and climbed.”
What kept them coming back to Jewel Cave, spending countless hours mapping and documenting the passages?
“We always wanted to pioneer,” Herb said. “To go places where nobody had.”
“Once you start caving, and I'm sure others will agree, it's discovering what's around the next corner that brings you back time and time again.”
One of the most exciting discoveries for Jan was one that is inherent to caves.
“We were able to witness some of the beautiful, beautiful crystals in the cave for the first time,” Jan explained. “And you always appreciated finding them because you were always thinking what could I possibly find next that would be more amazing than that? You never knew if you'd see anything like it again.”
Their caving career was a hobby that spanned more than two decades, from 1959 to 1981. In those 22 years and under their exploratory mission, they saw the cave morph from one that featured primitive tours being given by candlelight and kerosene to those worthy of electric lighting, public visitors and even a new visitor center.
“It is a government cave. It was run by the national parks and you were not permitted to be in there without a purpose.” Herb said. “We went in there for the express purpose of exploration and mapping.”
The 65 miles of cave that they uncovered was highly documented and the two were responsible for providing the government with trip reports at the end of the calendar year.
“We submitted them faithfully and if we found things that were really unusual, we were sure to include those,” Jan said. “The documentation was important for putting the idea of improving the cave in motion.”
The Conns began their caving adventures by taking eight hour trips.
“One hour in, one hour out and six hours surveying with a compass and measuring tape,” Jan said. “When we quit, we were spending 16 hours a day in the cave.”
Today, Jan said that expert spelunkers won't get much done unless they plan a cave camp out.
“Now, they could easily spend nine hours getting in. These days, it takes three- to four-day camping trips to get anything done in there.”
Their first mile in took them several months, back in 1959.
“When we first began, it took us about 15 minutes to find unsurveyed cave,” Jan said. “When we quit, it took four hours.”
Since they stopped serious spelunking in 1982, the duo has only been in Jewel Cave a few times since then.
“It's not a cave for old people,” Jan said. “And certainly not for ancient people.”
But they keep up on the particulars at their once-favorite haunt.
“We feel like it's our cave,” Jan said. “And I think everyone that explores caves feels that way about the parts they explore. They take a lot of ownership for it.”
While there were “quite a few unforgettable moments” for Herb over the course of their adventures, Jan felt that every day in Jewel Cave was a gift.
“What you did that particular day seemed to be the most exciting thing you'd ever done,” she said. “It was always fresh, new, exciting, unlike anything you'd ever done before. You just don't know when you're going to make major breakthroughs, so you just take it all in.”
Asked why they're being honored, Jan replied.
“Herb's kind of embarrassed about the recognition. He is kind of hesitant,” Jan explained. “We did this just for the sheer fun of doing it and it's amazing to us that people find real value in it. Seeing what other people have done there, we can sort of see why (we're being honored), it's an accidental side-effect of what we were doing and cared about.”
In addition to long and varied caving and climbing careers, each has one other accomplishment they are quite proud of.
Jan wrote a complete musical titled “Run to Catch a Pinecone,” that was performed by a local theater group.
Herb pointed out that he spent one week a year for 13 years filling cracks on Mt. Rushmore.
“It was usually in September and I think they picked me because they knew that I wasn't afraid of heights,” Herb said.
Established in 1974, the South Dakota Hall of Fame is centrally located in Chamberlain, where it serves as a showcase for the people of South Dakota. It was specifically founded to recognize and honor pioneers and outstanding leaders from all walks of life who have contributed to the development and heritage of South Dakota. The South Dakota Hall of Fame is the only resource in the State dedicated exclusively to the preservation and extension of our people's heritage. Over 600 South Dakotans have been selected for recognition by the Hall of Fame.
This weekend's honors event in Chamberlain and Oacoma honors 14 individuals who have contributed to the growth and development of South Dakota in one or more of five categories of induction which include: Professional, Arts & Entertainment, Historical, Sports, and General. The two day event will be held at the South Dakota Hall of Fame on Friday and Cedar Shore Resort on Saturday to celebrate the lives of this year's inductees. The Conns will be recognized in the “historical” category.
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