The rift — a family dynasty fights over the future of Luray Caverns

March 14, 2013

Visitors to Luray Caverns take in the sights.
(Michael Orso/Getty Images)

On a busy summer weekend, the parking lot at Luray Caverns starts filling early. There are the bus groups of Asian and European tourists who started the morning in Washington, couples on Harleys and Gold Wings, families in minivans and SUVs with the stick-figure decals in the rear window. By day’s end, perhaps 3,500 people will have visited the Caverns and completed the one-hour tour. They will have marveled at the massive columns of fluted stone, joked about the formation that looks like two fried eggs, and perhaps had a drip of water from the ceiling go splat on their head, an occurrence that the guides refer to as a cave kiss and is said to bring good luck.

All of this takes place beneath the surface of Cave Hill, where time nearly stands still. The stalactites stretch an inch or so toward the floor every hundred years. The temperature is always the same, right at 54 degrees. And other than the lights, technology is nearly nonexistent. Smartphones don’t work in the Caverns, and your Facebook update has to wait until the gift shop. The experience is all somewhat comforting and slightly nostalgic, if only in the way that a series of rock-filled rooms can be.

Luray Caverns is the third most-visited cave in the United States, trailing only Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Those are national parks. Luray Caverns is what is called a show cave, defined by the National Caves Association as “developed for public visitation.” In other words, show caves are there to make money.

People have been paying to go into Luray Caverns, to trek down into the earth and gaze at the wonders therein, for more than 130 years. At the current rate of $24 per adult and more than 400,000 visitors a year, the revenue adds up, and the result is a modest tourist empire that through the years has expanded to include a golf course, two motels, two museums and a garden maze.

The Graves siblings, two brothers and four sisters, are now the owners of this empire, what can properly be called the Luray Caverns fortune, worth about $20 million. It is a family business, run by a family that can’t get along.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when they began fighting over money, control and perhaps the future of the Caverns. Maybe it was after their parents invested with one of their brothers-in-law in an auto-parts store that then went belly up. Or maybe it was when a sister put together a comfortable retirement package and golden parachute for herself. Or maybe it was after the siblings clashed over the management of the trusts that controlled their inheritance. More recently, they’ve been in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg, where the three youngest Graves siblings sued two of their older sisters and said the women had disqualified themselves as beneficiaries of the family trusts and should not receive any shares of the Luray Caverns Corp.

It’s easy to dismiss this as just another family squabble, albeit with a roadside-attraction twist. Think “Dallas” meets the National Geographic Channel. But it’s much more than that. Luray Caverns may be owned by the Graves family, but it’s one of those places that in a sense belongs to all of us. Like the billboards up and down Interstate 81 that herald its presence, Luray Caverns has been intertwined for generations with our summer vacations, our reunions, our school field trips. It is a touchstone, a shared memory of modest adventure. We go into caves to glimpse another world, where the air is sweet and cool, where the darkest dark is just around the corner and the walls are filled with mysteries of nature that need our assistance to be seen, and by extension, to truly exist for us.

***


Buses ferry tourists from the train station to the caverns in the late 1940s.
(Courtesy Luray Caverns)

The slogan says famously that Virginia is for lovers, but it’s also for cavers. The land is riddled with them. Virginia is the only state with an independent cave board, and the bureaucrats have identified more than 4,000 caves, ranging from shallow crevices to expanses spidering under the hills and hollows along the limestone backbone that runs northeast from Bristol to Front Royal.

Thomas Jefferson wrote elegantly of Madison’s Cave, near the Rockingham and Augusta county lines, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1785: “It is in a hill of about 200 feet perpendicular height, the ascent of which, on one side is so steep, that you may pitch a biscuit from its summit into the river which washes its base.”

But it was the discovery of Grand Caverns south of Harrisonburg in 1804 that created the underground land rush that has thrived here to this day. Grand’s early owners charged 50 cents a head for tours and held an annual ball inside, where hundreds of men and women danced and drank punch while their shadows flickered on the walls. The cave stayed open for business even during the Civil War, and, if the dates and signatures scratched into the walls inside are to be believed, Union and Confederate officers visited on the same day.

Which brings us to Luray, about 40 miles to the north of Grand Caverns, and the tattered economy in this part of northern Virginia after the war ended. Even today, it is an isolated community, separated by the long ridgeline of Massanutten Mountain from the sweep and greater prosperity of the Shenandoah’s main valley to the west. With Grand Cavern’s commercial resilience well established, the idea of a cave as economic development was a common topic of conversation in Luray, but the available inventory was not up to snuff.

That changed on Aug. 13, 1878, when a small band of explorers felt the air rushing from a tiny hole on a gentle knoll just west of the town. They widened the opening, and then two members of the party clambered into the dark and, with candles in their hands, saw the splendors of the earth laid before them.


An engraving by Joseph Becket depicts the “ballroom” in the late 1800s.
(Library of Congress)

It’s quite possible that there was no better time to find a show cave. This was the age of the Romantics and the landscape tour, where wealthy Americans went forth to gaze upon the natural world, and a cave was at the very intersection where Charles Darwin and the acceleration of scientific knowledge met the stygian underworld of public imagination. The railroad came to Luray in 1881, allowing tourists from Washington and Baltimore to arrive by train, then be brought by horse and carriage to the cave’s entrance a mile and a half away. Electric lights were also installed that same year, and visitors flocked to the town, drawn in by the breathless accounts of newspaper correspondents and quasi-official researchers.

Harper’s Weekly published in Jan. 11, 1879, about four months after the cave’s discovery: “Explorations will be pushed forward; But even now the Luray Caverns has no rival among the subterranean regions known to man.”

A team from the Smithsonian Institution traveled to Luray in 1880 for a two-day visit, then pronounced judgment: “Comparing this great natural curiosity with others of the same class, it is safe to say that there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactitic and stalagmitic ornamentation than that at Luray.”

Other caves are bigger or have rarer formations, but Luray is a greatest-hits album of the whimsical and awesome effects of the slow drip-drip of mineral-rich water upon limestone. Early in the tour, visitors come upon what’s called the Fish Market, where the folds in a horizontal formation resemble a string of fillets. Later, there is Pluto’s Ghost, Titania’s Veil and the Totem Poles, along with enormous columns and sheets of stone so thin that light passes through. There is even the Great Stalacpipe Organ, where rubber-tipped mallets strike the rocks to the tune of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Many of the formations’ names are tied to Greek and Roman mythology and the grand explorations of the Victorian era. The Saracen in Saracen’s Tent, where the rock seems to billow from an unseen breeze, refers to a word once widely used to describe a nomadic Muslim. “The names reflect the popular culture of the day,” said Kevin Patrick, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has written about the development of show caves. “It used to be Pluto. Now, it’s Jabba the Hutt.”

According to a history of Luray Caverns, its discoverers made $91 in admissions at its grand opening. But their chance for lasting wealth was short-lived. There was a legal dispute over whether they had deceived the property’s original owners, and the cave slipped out of their grasp. A subsidiary of the railroad eventually took ownership, packaging tours with transportation and overnight stays at a hotel built to accommodate guests. Then financial problems ensued, and in 1905, Theodore Clay Northcott, known as the Colonel, bought the Caverns. An engineer by training, he was already using the cave’s chilled air to cool his nearby respiratory sanatorium, Limair, which has since burned to the ground. His family has owned Luray Caverns ever since.

The Colonel and his wife, Belle Northcott, had one daughter, and she and her husband had one son, Ted Graves, who died in 2010 at 87. His wife, Rebecca Graves, died two years later. Their six surviving children have been in near-constant litigation for most of the past 10 years, threatening a chain of ownership that now extends four generations.

***


U.S. Senate candidate George Allen greets, from left, John Graves, Rod Graves and Cornelia Graves Spain in 2012.
(Courtesy the Page News and Courier)

On one side are sisters Rebecca Graves Hudson, Katherine Graves Fichtler and Elizabeth Graves Vitu, known as the older siblings. John Graves, Rod Graves and Cornelia Graves Spain, the younger siblings, are in the other camp. None would talk, but a working account of their disagreements takes up several feet of space in the Page County Courthouse, a handsome brick building set on a hill overlooking downtown Luray. Reading through the files, there is a sad and sedimentary quality to their fighting, layers upon layers of complaints built up over time — like the flowstone in the Caverns — then slowly fused into one solid and tangled block.

Katherine once wrote in a letter to a circuit judge that every family needs a scapegoat, “someone to shoulder the responsibility of normalcy, yet take the vicious blame for everything, even things that do not exist. My sister, Rebecca, is the favorite scapegoat. My youngest three siblings have been nipping at her heels for twenty-five years, while she learned and excelled.”

One version of events has sister Rebecca as the central victim. She began working for the Caverns in 1982, around the time her father had a stroke, was promoted to general manager in 1988, then president in 2004. Smart, tough and ambitious, she brought in consultants to improve the Caverns’ operations and fired longtime employees who she thought didn’t toe the line. Then in 2004, Rebecca was summarily demoted to a staff position, in part, according to this version, because her jealous younger siblings, led by Cornelia, turned their parents against their eldest daughter. She was asked to resign, refused, then was notified of her removal as president in a terse three-paragraph letter from her father. Two outside directors resigned.

The other version has Rebecca as an overbearing manager who let power go to her head and tried to enrich herself at the expense of the business. Her brother John complained to her in 2004 that she was freezing him out of decisions. “I know very little of what decisions are being made about management-level employees, when I should know, as your personnel director,” he told her. “My career at the cave has been a stressful journey.” He added that he was looking for another job. But he remained at the Caverns and is now president. Rod is vice president. Cornelia works in marketing.

Daniel Carrell was an expert witness for the Caverns in a lawsuit related to Rebecca’s firing. In a deposition given in 2008, he noted that she had been very good at her job. “Then for reasons I don’t understand,” he continued, “and I don’t know if anybody does, she began to act more and more imperial and was destroying the morale of employees and potentially putting at risk the years of success that had been accumulated.”

Among the actions to which Carrell is referring were golden parachutes, known as “salary-continuation agreements,” that Rebecca helped craft for herself and her two brothers. They were put in place in 2002, without a board vote, and it is alleged that she had told her brothers that the terms of the three agreements were equivalent. But they weren’t. Hers was sweeter, and in the upheaval that followed, she was removed from her office, then sued by the Caverns to rescind the agreements. The two sides settled for undisclosed terms before the case went to trial (her brothers voluntarily rescinded their agreements).

What followed has been a swirl of litigation. The Caverns sued Nathan Miller, the attorney who advised Rebecca and had been the corporation’s general counsel. Miller was also a trustee on the two trusts that controlled most of the shares in Luray Caverns Corp., and he sued the other trustee, Rebecca’s mother, to be released from that duty and be held harmless for his actions. Then the older siblings battled their younger siblings and their parents over who should replace Miller.

In the middle of all this fighting — and allegedly unbeknown to Katherine and Elizabeth — their parents rewrote their wills and put in no-contest provisions that would be triggered if any of the siblings opposed their parents on appointments to the trusts. So last June, the younger siblings sued Katherine and Elizabeth to void their inheritances. The case was dismissed for technical reasons in February. Judge Michael Urbanski of U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg said Rebecca needs to be a party to the case, and, because of that, the matter needs to be heard in state court.

Further complicating matters is that none of the older siblings presently works for the Caverns, and two live outside Virginia. Although Rebecca lives in Luray, Katherine is a potter in Montana, and Elizabeth is a bell ringer in France. Elizabeth and Katherine both said in depositions that they were encouraged to follow their passions and pursue careers away from the Caverns in part because of the knowledge that the Caverns’ stock — their inheritance — would be available in their retirement.

As I described the chain of events to Charles Gallagher, director of the Family Business Forum at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business in Richmond, all he could say, over and over, was: “Oh, my goodness.”

Family businesses can be quite successful, he said, but the managing and intermingling of blood and commerce, insiders and outsiders, requires a deft hand, planning and enormous amounts of trust. “Once you lose that trust, once it’s breached, it’s almost impossible to restore that relationship. There’s no recovery plan for that. Once you bring in the lawyers, it’s a lose-lose situation.”

***


A sign en route to the caverns.
(Charlie Archambault)

The silent party to all the fighting is,of course, Luray Caverns. It is not just a U.S. Natural Landmark. It is also a business, and businesses can suffer when their owners are at war with each other. George Peterson, an attorney in Fairfax who has represented the younger siblings and their parents through much of the litigation, said in one hearing: “There has been a huge family divide that has been affecting the operations of the Luray Caverns Corp. This issue needs to be decided. …” That was in 2005, and many lawsuits later, the divide appears to have only deepened.

There are currently nine show caves in Virginia. Through the years, several smaller show caves have closed, and many that remain have changed hands from their early owners. Grand Caverns, which started it all, is now owned by the city of Grottoes. Endless Caverns, just north of Harrisonburg, was at one time seen as a worthy rival to Luray, extolled by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York; now it’s part of a NASCAR-affiliated RV resort and open only from April to November.

Luray’s longevity, its ability to still draw crowds, is in part because of its location, particularly its accessibility to Washington and proximity to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. But there’s more than that. Tom Lera, a former chairman of the Virginia Cave Board, said Ted Graves’s talent was in marketing the Caverns to auto travelers and understanding the needs of family vacationers after World War II. Graves promoted science rather than the mysteries of the underworld and created a corps of professional guides who moved the Caverns experience away from the carnival theatrics of an earlier generation. “The Luray model,” Lera said, “has been copied around the world.”

Luray Caverns0981361983751_image_1024w
Luray Mayor Barry Presgraves.
(Charlie Archambault)

Like a lot of tourist communities, Luray is a bit deserted in the offseason. Some of the motels close. Others cut their rates. The large manufacturers that used to provide year-round economic stability have closed or shrunk, and the remote beauty of Page County doesn’t help bring in new factory jobs. The unemployment rate here is higher than in neighboring counties, and Luray Mayor Barry Presgraves said the area is struggling. Tourism is more important than ever, and he is well aware of the outsize role that the Caverns play in bringing people to the town, in putting it on the map.

“I always tell people that you can’t get into heaven if you haven’t gone to Luray Caverns,” he said. Of the fighting that has consumed the Graves family for so long, Presgraves said simply that it is heartbreaking. “I think in the end, everything will be okay. They’re all a good bunch of people, and they’ve been good to the community.”

Others aren’t so sure it will all work out. I spoke with Chris Marston, editor of the Luray Page Free Press. He grew up with the Graveses and wrote a poignant remembrance about matriarch Rebecca Graves after she died in 2012. He thinks that the parents, until they got too old and too sick, had kept much of the fighting in check. “It was ready to unravel, and it unraveled faster than anyone imagined,” he said. Like Presgraves, Marston also subscribes to the view — at least publicly — that there’s no villain among the siblings. “They are a wonderful bunch of people, individually, but do they get along? No. That is a soap opera up there.”

The attorneys for the younger siblings aren’t commenting on whether they will appeal the dismissal or refile their case against their sisters in state court. But Urbanski’s ruling suggests the litigation isn’t about to stop just with his order. This case is, he wrote, “simply one skirmish in the complicated and contentious battle that has been waged between the descendants of Colonel Northcott over the distribution of stock and control of Luray Caverns.”

In August 2000, the Graves siblings met to discuss how the shares in the Luray Caverns Corp. would be held after the death of their parents. They settled on what’s called a buy-sell agreement, which is a fairly common structure for family businesses and restricts the ability of existing shareholders to sell to non-family members. In essence, it has bound the Graveses together, for better or for worse.

About that time, there was also discussion about whether the family should keep running the Caverns or turn over management to a third party. That idea was rejected. Instead, the family has invested more deeply in bolstering its main attraction and keeping the visitors coming. The Luray Valley Museum opened in 2010. It’s small, but well-appointed, and among its holdings are a collection of iron stove fronts from Rod Graves. The Caverns have also been trying to cut costs, working with vendors to develop self-guided tours that would reduce the need for the men and women who, flashlight in hand, still guide visitors through the Caverns and explain the science and point out the formations that look like a shaggy dog or a monkey playing the bongos.

On my last visit to Luray Caverns, the woman leading us asked our group of 20 or so whether we wanted her to turn out the lights. She told us to not move, then she went a short way up the path and pressed the switch. What was interesting was not just the total darkness but also the silence that accompanied it. The guide hadn’t asked us to keep quiet, but we did anyway, and for the brief period of pitch black, we were all together and apart beneath the limestone hump of Cave Hill, unable to see even our hands, waiting in the stillness and the dark for the lights to come back on.

Many of the people I spoke with in the caving community describe caves — even show caves — in almost a religious sense, that an environment born of such isolation brings clarity to the mind and appreciation for the abundance of the world. They are places for reflection, not litigation, they note, and a cave that took 400 million years to assume its present shape will likely outlast the disagreements of a family, even one named for another type of hole in the ground.

Ken Otterbourg lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he writes frequently about business and politics.

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