MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — Spray-paint graffiti and cartons from six-packs of beer litter the underground treasure once known as Black Cat Tavern.
Formerly a well-known nightclub, the cave is now home to snakes in the summer, overgrown foliage and uneven terrain that makes it more dangerous than daring. No longer open to the public, the original entrance is bulldozed and filled with boulders, while the windows and openings in the collapsed walls are barred.
The remnants of two chimneys are the only thing that rise above a gully filled with greenery.
“Up until the ’70s and ’80s there was still furniture in here,” says Nate Williams, recreation superintendent for the Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation Department.
Armed with a flashlight and sturdy pair of shoes, Williams leads the way into an opening created from crafty teenagers years ago. For protection of anyone who would think to dive into the cave, he asks the location remain unrevealed.
“Hope you aren’t offended by the dirty words,” he says with a half-hearted laugh.
Once you look past the profanity and see the remaining walls and windows, you can almost hear the echoes of a jazz band, the din of conversation and even Ma Neely calling from the kitchen as the Black Cat Tavern would have been in generations past.
The cave, which housed a club in the 1920s and 1930s, had three rooms divided by concrete blocks, which are speculated to be a bar, a kitchen and a dance area. It is believed the club had electricity because Walter Hill had street lights in the 1920s and 1930s, supplied from Murfreesboro Power and Light Company.
Stories are told of it being a storage space for Civil War soldiers, as well as a keep for prisoners. Later it was overtaken by bootleggers.
“It was a tavern,” says local historian Greg Tucker. “It was run by a woman everyone called Ma Neely. She took it over from someone else.”
Who, though, is unclear.
“There have been rumors that it was a jail used in the Civil War,” Williams says.
“For years people have speculated it was a speakeasy, but I’ve never been able to prove that,” Tucker says.
Williams traverses the narrow spaces left between the low cave ceiling and overhang and constructed walls to point out two fireplaces that coordinate with the chimneys.
“We think this may have been the bar, because that is the main entrance that was bulldozed with the boulders. I think the boulders came from some road construction project,” he says.
Large rocks were pushed down an embankment to close up the opening, collapsing some of the constructed walls. There is no certainty that it won’t fall in at any moment.
“It’s kind of eerie down here, isn’t it,” Williams asks, though clearly from his conversation he is fascinated with what was the Black Cat Tavern. “Someone put a lot of work into this. Makes you wonder who and when.”
Following the statement, there is silence except for the trickling of an underground stream.
Williams’ co-worker, Bart Fite, shares a story about his father, Murfreesboro’s former city manager, who was seen at the Black Cat Tavern in its glory.
“The only thing I can really remember is my father telling me he was in a band that played down there,” Fite says. “His name was Clyde Fite, and he and his sister, Evelyn Anderson, and two or three other ones played in a little jazz band down there. He said it was kind of a night club, a speakeasy kind of place. As far as going in there, I’ve never gone in.”
The tavern “was fair-sized,” according to Tucker, since it “was big enough to have a small dance floor.” Perhaps it was true, but the low ceiling doesn’t allow for much other than slow walking.
“A man named Tom Cannon, he actually went down there, he told me. He used to take dates,” Tucker says. “Gus Webb, who lived across from the cave, was talking about how often there were fights down there and how good the hamburgers were down there.”
“It was a rough place,” Tucker goes on. “Obviously, if it was a speakeasy, it was illegal. There may have been raids. That’s just the hearsay that I’ve heard.”
After years of neglect inside the cave, Williams’ concern is that people will get adventurous, go inside and get hurt or lost.
“It is not open to the public. We have more than a little work to do before it is safe for people to be down here,” he says. “But we are in preliminary discussions about how to make this space available to people.
Williams would like to see the area cleaned out and made into a tour stop, but for now, the only beings to see this piece of history are the cave crickets who reside there.
While the VA hospital took possession on Jan. 1, 1938, the Black Cat Cave was donated to Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation Department in 1971 by the Veterans Administration.
“The VA sold the (property) to the city for $1. The deed requires it to be maintained as a park. Clearly, it had been blocked off,” Tucker says.
It was blocked off for safety reasons, said Angela Jackson, assistant director of Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation.
“Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation Department currently has no plans for the restoration of Black Cat Cave; there are also no plans in place to make it open and accessible to the public.”
And it will remain so until the Parks and Recreation Department can make it otherwise.
“I know there is a lot we can do with it. I think this is a piece of history that people should be able to experience,” Williams says. “They are just going to have to wait for a while.”