In late December 1866, John Knox was hunting on his property about seven miles northwest of Springfield when his dog chased a rabbit into a hole and didn’t come back. Knox dug out the hole and discovered the dog trapped on a ledge inside a large cavern. After exploring the cave and realizing its extent and beauty, he opened it to the public. The first exploratory party journeyed from Springfield on February 14, 1867, and, after exploring the cave, one of the group predicted that it would soon rival Mammoth Cave of Kentucky as a resort.

In late December 1866, John Knox was hunting on his property about seven miles northwest of Springfield when his dog chased a rabbit into a hole and didn’t come back. Knox dug out the hole and discovered the dog trapped on a ledge inside a large cavern. After exploring the cave and realizing its extent and beauty, he opened it to the public. The first exploratory party journeyed from Springfield on February 14, 1867, and, after exploring the cave, one of the group predicted that it would soon rival Mammoth Cave of Kentucky as a resort.
Knox set the price of admission to his cave at fifty cents, but women could get in free. Taking advantage of the free admission, twelve adventurous ladies from the Springfield Women’s Athletic Club visited the cave on February 27. Equipped with ropes and ladders, they inched their way through the damp, slippery passages, lighted only by the flickering lamps they carried. Popular legend, still promoted by Fantastic Caverns, says that these women comprised the very first exploratory party, but the evidence does not support this claim.     
Among the people accompanying the twelve ladies was the loyalist editor of the Springfield Tri-Weekly Patriot, who tried to dub the cavern Lincoln Cave after the deceased president, but it was commonly known as Knox Cave after its owner. The editor’s enthusiasm for the new discovery was dampened only by the moisture inside the cave, which he said would “ever be a disagreeable feature.”
Knox Cave remained a minor attraction until 1887, when it was purchased by a group of investors led by A. H. Rogers, who renamed the place Percy Cave after his deceased son. Rogers installed electric lights in the cave, made other improvements, and began heavily promoting it as resort, but he left for the booming mine fields around Joplin before fully developing the cave. After Rogers departed, J. W. Haun took over Percy Cave and ran it for ten years, until his death in 1900. The cave was a minor attraction under Haun, who used the electric lights as a promotional point. During most of his tenure, the cave was open only during warm months and only two days a week except by special arrangement.
After Haun’s death, the Percy Cave property was turned into a goat ranch, and it continued to be used primarily for agricultural and/or ranching purposes for the next ten years, the cave itself being called into service as a cold storage space. In 1911, J. W. Crow bought the property and tried to grow mushrooms inside the cave. He soon abandoned the plan and converted it back into a tourist resort featuring picnicking, camping, fishing, music, and dancing. As a publicity stunt, Crow put forth a dubious story about an albino bull inside the cave, but the fantastic tale did little to revive the cave’s flagging popularity. In 1920, Crow offered to give part of the property to the state government for a fish hatchery, but instead Sequiota Park in south Springfield was selected for the site.
In 1922, Crow sold the Percy Cave property to the Springfield conclave of the Ku Klux Klan, who changed the cave’s name to the Ku Klux Klavern. For the next year or two, the Klan held its meetings there. The KKK enjoyed a brief period of popularity and acceptance during the early 1920s, and the public was sometimes invited to the Springfield KKK’s ceremonies at the cave to witness all but the most secret of its rituals.  
During the Prohibition and Depression era, the cave was sometimes used as an underground speak-easy and gambling hall. Later, the Demolays acquired the property, but their plans to develop it as a country club fell through. Still later, the cave changed hands again and was known briefly as Temple Cave.
The cave was first called Fantastic Caverns in 1951 when two men, one of whom was affiliated with Bridal Cave at Camdenton, purchased it and  promoted it both as a tourist attraction and as a bomb shelter during America’s cold war with Russia. In the late 1950s, the cave’s largest room was used as an amphitheater where the popular Farmarama country music show was staged for Springfield radio station KGBX.
The cave was purchased about 1960 by the Trimble family, who also owned the Shepherd of the Hills Farm near Branson. In the late sixties, Jeep-drawn tramps were introduced, and Fantastic Caverns soon grew into the very popular tourist destination that it is today.

Larry Wood is a free-lance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks.Email larryewood@mail.com or like his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AuthorLarryWood/.