Fifth-generation cave guide discusses ancestors, following in their footsteps
Mary Beth Sallee
Reporter, Hart County News-Herald
Just over 17 years ago, Jerry Bransford found himself returning to a place at which he spent a great deal of his childhood, a place that his relatives called home for over 100 years.
That place is Mammoth Cave.
At 74-years-old, Jerry works as a tour guide for Mammoth Cave National Park. Each time he steps into the park, each time he leads a group of visitors through the underground, he is reminded of his own enslaved ancestors from generations before him that played such an important role at Mammoth Cave.
“I get to walk in their footsteps,” Jerry said. “I tell their stories. I feel so proud when I walk down the trails at Mammoth Cave and see cousins, uncles, grandfather, great-great-grandfather, and uncles, all those people’s names. I feel like they left those notes there just in case somebody like me came behind and was able to know…”
For 101 years, members of the Bransford family served as tour guides for visitors to Mammoth Cave.
Brothers Nick Bransford and Materson “Mat” Bransford were brought to Mammoth Cave in 1838 by Glasgow attorney Franklin Gorin who had purchased the property from Simon and Hyman Gratz. Gorin hired out the two enslaved brothers from Thomas Bransford of Nashville.
Nick, Jerry’s great-great-uncle, was 17-years-old at the time. Mat, Jerry’s great-great-grandfather, was only 15. They, along with fellow slave and tour guide Stephen Bishop, were willing learners and considered among the original tour guides of Mammoth Cave.
When Dr. John Croghan purchased the cave in 1839, Stephen was sold along with the property, and Nick and Mat were once again leased as guides and explorers as before.
Both Nick and Mat along with Stephen spent years entering into the dark unknown of the cave.
Dr. Croghan passed away in 1849. Seven years later, Stephen was declared a freed man. However, he passed away shortly after in 1857.
Although many historians have written about the caving discoveries and adventures of Stephen, in no way whatsoever was he superior to the Bransford brothers. Both Nick and Mat had extensive knowledge of Mammoth Cave and were well-respected by tourists. After Stephen’s passing, they became the principle guides of the cave.
“A short tour in 1850 would have been 9 hours, a long tour 15,” Jerry said. “They took them (visitors) way out in deep places that I’ve been with other coworkers that scares the heck out of me now with modern lanterns and lighting equipment, but they went out with open-faced lanterns and candles…If you got lost and you were the first one over there, if you couldn’t find your way back, you were doomed.”
Jerry described his two ancestors as individuals who were aware of dangers that may arise in the cave, but also willing to face challenges head-on.
“They (Nick and Mat) were down on the Echo River, a place that we had boat tours for many, many years, but we don’t anymore,” Jerry explained. “The water came up quickly and Nick and Mat were down there with some visitors, free whites, and the water came up all at once, and they were actually pushing off the ceiling of the cave because the water was rising so quickly.”
According to Jerry, a U.S. Senator from Ohio was in the cave at that time and told the other visitors to follow Mat and Nick’s directions “…to the letter, or we shall all perish down here.”
“The boat overturned, and the lanterns went out,” Jerry said. “They were in 52-degree water, typically the temperature of the cave water, and they (Nick and Mat) were swimming around, singing and trying to comfort their guest…Hypothermia would soon set up.”
“I’ve been down on the Echo River, and it’s quite frightening when lanterns and lights go out,” Jerry continued. “They’re in deep, dark water holding onto a boat, hoping that someone would realize that they’re down there…The slave boys were singing hymns and songs to the guests, trying to comfort them until hopefully, a relief would come, and they could be rescued…They were gone for a long time, and people at the hotel realized that they’d been gone too long, came down, and rescued them. Otherwise, they’d of drowned.”
Throughout their time at Mammoth Cave, Nick and Mat also met many notable individuals, including poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, opera singer Jenny Lind, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, General George Custer, Brazil Emperor Dom Pedro, and Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth.
In 1863, a man from England by the name of F .J. Stevenson spent ten days with Nick exploring new parts of Mammoth Cave. Among their adventures included lowering a boat to the bottom of Gorin’s Dome and exploring the upstream part of the river.
In 1866, Cincinnati photographer Charles Waldack was assisted by Mat in capturing the first known photographs within the cave. Mat assisted in transporting the photographic equipment. By 1867, 42 photos were published and are now at the Library of Congress. Among the photos is one of Mat at the cave’s entrance.
“…Kings and queens, aristocratic, well-to-do, educated people were their guests,” Jerry said. “We think that’s how they learned to read, write to some extent. In the morning (when I’m working), I’ll pass by a place going down Broadway that my great-great-grandfather left his name on a cave wall that says, ‘Mat 1850.’”
“Every time we think we’ve seen the last one, we just keep finding (names written), sometimes seven and eight miles out from the historic entrance,” Jerry added. “I mean, these are places that they would have gone in the 1840s that kind of scare me now with modern equipment…”
Although Nick and Mat both enjoyed their time at Mammoth Cave, Jerry explained that the way his ancestors were treated under the ground greatly differed from how they were treated when above ground.
“When they (tour guides like Nick and Mat) left the hotel to get their tour party, they were free in the cave. They were celebrities,” Jerry said. “But guess what? Once they returned to the surface, they were in bondage.”
A story that had been passed down through Jerry’s family tree revolved around his great-great-uncle Nick.
Nick wanted to purchase his own freedom papers. He approached Thomas Bransford, inquiring about how much it would cost for him to buy his own freedom. Not taking him seriously, Thomas Bransford told Nick that he could be a free man for the price of $400.
Nick would tour guide during the day, but at night he would go back inside the cave, go down to the floodwaters at night, and capture translucent fish and eyeless crawfish to sell to visitors.
“Nick was given a nickel or a dime for those items,” Jerry said. “He was seven years buying his freedom papers, so he bought his freedom papers. Thomas said, ‘So, you wanna be free?’ You pay me and I’ll set you free.’”
With document in hand stating that he was a free man, Nick traveled back to Nashville. However, his dreams did not go as planned.
“He gets down to Nashville in the barn lots and hay fields, and he soon realized that just because a slave has freedom papers, people don’t treat you no different,” Jerry said. “He stayed one year and back to Mammoth Cave he came.”
Jerry also told of the gut-wrenching hardship that his ancestors experienced when it came to slavery and their children.
“My dad, David Bransford, who was born in Mammoth Cave…said that old folks told him that three of my great-great-grandfather’s children were sold (into slavery),” Jerry said. “They say his wife went into deep depression and despair. She didn’t even want to eat or sleep anymore.”
As story has it, a Union soldier during the Civil War asked Mat, Jerry’s great-great-grandfather, about losing those children, stating that often times it didn’t seem as though they were phased by the selling of their children.
“You know what my great-great-grandpa say to him?” Jerry said. “He said, ‘Oh, no, captain. Don’t you believe that. Don’t you believe that at all. Slaves got feelings just the same as free people. I’m a man, and I can bear such things because men don’t cry, do they? But let me tell you about my wife and what it did to her. When they sold that last girl last year, she went to bed, and she seemed like she don’t care about nothing no more. She don’t eat. She don’t sleep. She walks around talking out of her head…I cry, but when men cry, that’s a sign of weakness. When I cry, I go down in those woods, and I cry my eyes out. Now, after they sold that last boy, it’s been five years now, five years gone by Captain, my wife goes down that road looking for those children, thinking they’re going to come back…I don’t think they’ll ever be back here at Mammoth Cave.’ And that they didn’t.”
As years passed, generations of Bransford’s continued to work at Mammoth Cave and raise their families in the area.
Mat taught his only remaining son – Henry Bransford – the tricks of the Mammoth Cave tour guiding trade. Henry, who was born in 1849, began serving as a tour guide in 1872.
According to Jerry, his great-great-grandfather Mat passed away in 1895. Nick lived out the remainder of his life in Mammoth Cave, passing in 1897.
Mat’s nephew, William Bransford, was born in 1866. He began guiding in 1888 and even represented Mammoth Cave with an exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Mat’s son, Henry, passed in 1894, leaving behind two sons – Louis and Matt Bransford – who later served as the third generation of Bransford guides at Mammoth Cave.
Louis began as a tour guide in 1895, with Matt beginning as a lunch carrier in 1897 and becoming a full guide in 1905. Both worked as guides into the 1930s.
By 1930, the fourth generation of Bransford tour guides included George, Elzie, Clifton, Eddie, and Arthur, sons, and nephews of Louis. William died in 1934, and by 1935 the younger Bransfords stopped serving as guides.
Matt retired from guiding tours in 1937 and Louis in 1939.
Although, the Civil War had been over for some time, segregation laws still brought forth hardship to people of color. African Americans who traveled with their white counterparts were limited in where they could eat and sleep because of such laws.
Seeing this, cave guide Matt and his wife, Zemmie Bransford, provided food and lodging at the Bransford Summer Resort. The resort was the first location in the history of Mammoth Cave where African Americans could experience the same comforts as white visitors to the area. The resort was eventually sold in 1934 as Mammoth Cave was planned to become a National Park.
Not only did all 507 families on the 53,000 acres lose their property as a result of eminent domain, but none of the remaining tour guides were grandfathered on with Mammoth Cave National Park.
“My grandfather and three of his brothers were there, aunts, and my grandfather was given about $3 an acre for his farm in 1937,” Jerry said. “He was told to be off of it in 16 months…Not only did the black men lose their land, but I think in the 1930s they didn’t know that their jobs were in jeopardy.”
By 1941, the cave and land had officially become known as Mammoth Cave National Park.
Just a year before that in 1940, all of the Bransfords had left Mammoth Cave, the place they called home for over 1010 years through four generations.
But 64 years later in 2004, descendant Jerry Bransford returned to carry the torch where his ancestors had left off.
“I was working for a major corporation in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and I had actually started my research and study of the (Bransford) family and how we came to Mammoth Cave,” Jerry said. “I knew some of the story, but there was so much more that I didn’t know.”
“Joy Lyons invited me to come to work (at the park) after I had a 30-year career with this big company in Elizabethtown,” Jerry continued. “I came to work for Mammoth Cave National Park at 57 years of age, 17 years ago.”
In addition to having great pride in walking the same grounds that his ancestors did, Jerry said he would love to see the Bransford family cemetery and his tour guide relatives honored with a beautiful memorial statue.
The project that Jerry has been working on has made progress, but it must be approved from Washington D.C. as it would be on national park property.
“My big goal, and what I’ve been wanting to do for about seven years now, is get a memorial in there that’s nice, approved, and it would be there years after I’m gone, and put something in that cemetery with the names and dates that nobody can take away from my old kinfolks,” Jerry explained. “You know, there was so much taken away from them, and nobody is mad about that. It’s just an unfortunate thing in history of how we were doing things socially, but now that we know better, we’re doing different.”
“I can put some things down there that let you always know that the Bransfords were ther
e,” Jerry added. “ For 101 years, they were there, they were guiding tours, they were exploring that cave for 101 years before it was deemed America’s 26th national park, so that’s one of the driving forces behind that memorial. When you walk down the woods to our family cemetery, you’re going to see this stately memorial with Nick’s and Mat’s name lasered on it. I’ll be so proud when I can get the approval to get that done.”
Jerry said that it is a great honor to not only work on the memorial project, but also walk in his relative’s footsteps at the cave.
“It’s like I can feel their presence,” Jerry said of his ancestors. “I know they’re not there, but it’s almost as though I can feel their anxiety and their sadness that they left behind. I can imagine how they felt being black men with not much education even during days of bondage, but they were able to take in kings and queens (on cave tours)…That’s how they learned the tricks of the trade. That’s how they became educated, and I can really see how special they must have felt during their time because there’s something special about working in that cave called Mammoth Cave.”
As for retirement, Jerry said that he will continue on through the cave, guiding where his ancestors guided, one footstep at a time.