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Rolater Park History

In northwest Georgia, situated in Vann’s Valley (named for a Cherokee chieftain) you will find the City of Cave Spring, Georgia.  It is approximately 15 miles south of Rome and 5 miles east of the Alabama state line. It has been documented that Native Americans inhabited the area prior to settlers and they called it Talalah which means “place of sunshine”.  In the mid 1820’s settlers of English & Scottish-Irish ancestry came to the area and established it as a town. These settlers left the homes of their families in middle Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to find a place of their own in Northwest Georgia. What they found was an area they would soon come to call Cave Spring. The settlers chose the area because of the abundant water source and it’s surpassing beauty. What they did not know is that the spring flowing out of the cave is fed by an underground aquifer that expels 2-3 million gallons of water every day. The settlers found the area around the cave so delightful they began to build churches, schools & houses surrounding it. They also made the area immediately surrounding the cave into a park for all the people to enjoy.

The earliest recorded description of the cave is from Adiel Sherwood’s 1837 edition of A Gazetteer of the State of Georgia. The Gazetteer included an article copied from a Rome newspaper dated January 15th, 1837 and was signed “W.K.B”. In the description it says:

“The county presents one and only one natural curiosity that has been discovered, and it is a subterranean cave, in the lower part of Vaun’s Valley, about 15 miles from this place (Rome).  It is situated on the summit of a lofty eminence, and the visitor before he untakes the ascent may refresh himself with a rich draft of pure limestone (water), which issues from the base of the hill in a stream, sufficiently large to supply all the water power necessary for the successful operation of a whole manufacturing village in New-England”.

“No man can visit this spot, and not be deeply impressed with the magnitude of nature, and nature’s God.” [i]

The author of the article also mentions seeing the bones of wild animals and even the skulls of human beings in the cave. He goes on to say:

“but every visitor has brought away something as a witness for them that they had been an adventurer, until the rude hand of civilization had taken from their homes even these relics of the dead. I, myself, felt more than compensated when I beheld the cave and pocketed a broken fragment of stalactite for my cabinet, and departed, full of thought and wonder”.

Other early records also describe the area as a great stream that flows from the bottom of a tree covered hillside with a grove of veteran oaks, hickories and elms which shade several acres of level land.

The town’s foundations were in their educational and religious institutions. In 1838 the Cave Spring Baptist Church appointed an education committee with the purpose of establishing a permanent school.  They began construction on The Manual Labor School for boys and classes began in 1839. The school was established to teach the skills of farming and other ways to make a living at that time. The school would later be renamed Hearn Academy after Lott Hearn bequeathed an endowment to the school in 1846 and the educational emphasis was shifted to preparatory academic work. Because of a fire the original building was replaced in 1910 with the present facility. The school prospered as a preparatory school until 1922 when the development of public schools in Georgia replaced many of its services. The School officially closed in 1925 and today is used for special events. [ii]

In 1846 O.P. Fannin, a teacher at the Hearn School, went to Connecticut to learn sign language so that he could teach some deaf children in the town. After his return he obtained a grant from the state for $5,000 and started with four deaf students who met in a one room cabin near the cave. Within a few years his class had grown to 14 students. Because of his efforts to teach the deaf the State built a new facility in 1849 and officially established the Georgia School for the Deaf. Fannin was appointed as its first principal teacher and they named the new facility Fannin Hall. This establishment brought new life to what was once considered a helpless and hopeless segment of our society. For more than 160 years the school has remained in the town of Cave Spring. Today they now have over 120 students, 480 acres and 18 buildings used for instruction, residence, food service and maintenance. The relationship between the town and the school is unique because many residents and businesses are able to communicate with sign language.[iii]

In January of 1852 the Georgia legislature granted a charter and the village officially became the City of Cave Spring.[iv]

During the Civil War both the Confederate and Union Soldiers also used the cave and town. From May 1862 to March 1863 the Confederate Nitre Bureau mined the cave for saltpeter[v] and from 1862-1867 both Confederate and Union soldiers used Fannin Hall for a hospital. In 1864 Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox of the Union Army observed:

“Cave Spring is one of the most charmingly situated places I have seen in Georgia”.

Current Park Board Members
Ken Landers, (Chairman), Norde Patterson and Betty Sue Hickman

Entrance to famous Rolater Park Cave, Cave Spring GA
Rolater Park Cave Interior
Rolater Park Spring Early Picture
Rolater Park Early Newspaper Clippings
Rolater Park Cave Spring Survey

In 1904 the record high recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey of Gallons Per Day was 3,444,868 and it has also been observed that during times of drought the amount of water flowing from the cave remains unchanged to this day. It wasn’t until 1916 that the town secured a permanent franchise to use the water from inside the cave.  At a cost of $2,000 they built a tunnel 200 feet long through the limestone wall next to the emerging spring.[vi] By creating this tunnel they were able to connect into the main room of the cave that was below the upper entrance.  The upper entrance was described as being approx 20 feet above where the spring emerges and having an opening of 4 by 6 feet.  Once you were inside the upper entrance you would climb down a short climb to a ladder that reaches the main room in the cave. It was here in the back of the main room in the cave where they installed a damn, two 12 inch drive pipes and two hydraulic rams. The rams were driven by the weight of the water coming into them and pushed the water at the rate of 50,000 gallons daily into a reservoir on top of the hill.  From there the water was then transferred into the homes and businesses in the town.  There is literally no filtering of the water because bacteriological tests frequently made by the health departments of Georgia proved the water to be always perfectly pure drinking water. Chemical tests from the geological survey of Georgia shows the following elements in the water: Manganous oxide, Silica, Chlorine, Sulphur trioxide, Carbon dioxide, Sodium oxide, Lime, Magnesia, Alumina and Ferric oxide. The town has even won several awards for the water.

The newly built tunnel also opened up a new opportunity for the town.  It now gives residents and visitors to the cave an easy walking passage to see what is inside.  For years many of them could only sit and wonder from the outside where all this water was coming from. The town installed electric lights and originally the city did not charge a fee to enter the cave.  Many local residents still recall playing in and around the cave as children.  Today visitors are asked to pay $1 to enter and it is open for visitation May through September.

Dr. Joseph B. Rolater was a successful doctor who received his early childhood schooling at the Hearn Academy. In 1881 he began the study of medicine under Dr. J.T. McCall, of Cave Spring, and the following year he entered the Medical Department of Vanderbilt University at Nashville, TN, from which he graduated in 1884.  From there he practiced medicine in Texas and then later in Oklahoma.  While practicing in Oklahoma he promoted the first hospital in the territory. On the account of his own ill health, in 1923 Dr. Rolater retired and moved back to the city of Cave Spring. He wanted to return to the place where he had so many happy days and spent the high hopes of his youth. With part of the wealth acquired by his labors, he purchased the wonderfully beautiful property now known as Rolater Park from the trustees of the Hearn Academy. He spent much of his time there making plans for its improvement until his death in 1932.  On October 23rd, 1931 Dr. Rolater deeded his property of 29 acres to the town of Cave Spring for the benefit of the residents. This included the cave, its spring and the nearby pool. Under the terms of his gift the land comprising the park can never be sold. It will always be a part of the City and for its residents and visitors to enjoy. This act of Dr. Rolater makes him the greatest benefactor that Cave Spring has had in its history.  The deed stipulates that the park shall be under the care, control, management and supervision of a self perpetuating board of three residents of Cave Spring. The first committee consisted of himself, Albert N. Tumlin and Andrew J. Casey with the provision that Miss Gussie Simmons would fill the vacancy of his own death. He also provided that the Governing Board shall never have the power or authority to sell the land or premises and they shall make annual financial reports to the city.

In the 1930’s during the great depression a grant through W.P.A was obtained for Civilian Conservation Corps to build a rock entrance at the cave, several rock bridges and the rock sides of the swimming pool.  The pool that was constructed is 1-1/2 acres in size, holds 1.2 million gallons of water, is fed by water from the cave and is in the shape of the State of Georgia. 

In the 1960’s the city replaced the water pipes inside the cave and built a new brick wall to protect the water source. 

In 1973 Allen Padgett with the assistance of Karen Hingston (now Padgett) was allowed to survey the portion of the cave open to the public. Allen drafted and prepared for publication the first known map of Cave Spring Cave. In the Georgia Speleological Survey for that year, the cave was listed as being 350-400 feet in length and moderately decorated. Due to the city’s fear of polluting the water the surveyors were not allowed to go beyond the brick wall or doors to survey the major feature of the cave, the water supply.[vii]  

It 2010, Brad Barker with the Clocktower Grotto in Rome, Georgia resurrected the project of the Caves of Floyd County, Georgia. This project was originally completed by Beverly J. Osborn as a Geology project while attending Shorter College in Rome.  She worked on the project in 1964 and published her research in 1965.[viii] Brad is in the process of re locating all of the caves in the county to update their descriptions and survey any caves that need a map. Through this project he was able to meet with current members on the board governing Cave Spring Cave.  He proved his commitment to the board and they allowed Brad to start the re survey of the Cave.  In December of 2010, Brad led a trip that consisted of himself, me, and Jason Hardy.  It was on this trip that the board allowed us to go beyond the doors to finish the survey of the cave. This was the first time that cavers had been allowed to visit the location of the water supply. Brad is in the process of finishing his survey and his report on the Caves of Floyd County, Georgia and will publish it in the near future.

Although other caves in Georgia have been commercialized in the past the only present commercial cave still in operation in the state of Georgia is Cave Spring Cave.  It has been open for visitors for nearly 100 years and over the past two centuries thousands of people have depended on this cave for a water source and thousands of others have visited the area to see the natural beauty and learn of its history.   To this day very little has changed in the town and visitors still visit the spring to fill up their jugs of water. There are nearly 90 historical buildings and sites within the town that have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Among these still standing are the Olde Baptist Church and the Hearn Academy.  The town even offers several of these buildings as locations for private and public events. This town has come together to preserve and celebrate the buildings and the environment around a cave that its ancestors built over a century ago.  For the past 35 years in June the town’s historical society hosts the “Cave Spring Art Festival”.  The funds from this event are used for the upkeep of the historical buildings in Cave Spring. The town also boasts several other yearly events such as a 5K Road Race benefiting the Georgia School for the Deaf and Trout Unlimited also sponsors a fun fishing experience for children of most ages with a fishing rodeo held around the large pond in the park.

In the summer of 2010 a surprising discovery was made during the renovation of the former Greene Hotel in downtown Cave Spring. While removing the wooden siding dated from the 20’s hand-hewn logs were spotted beneath. This discovery has sparked quite the interest in locals and historians alike.  It is speculated that the 2 story log cabin could have been built by the Cherokee Indians who used this area in the early 1800’s.  Martin Cipollini, a biology professor at Berry College, and his students are using a process called dendrochronology, which is based on patterns of tree rings, to help determine the exact date of the building.  They also believe the structure was built using long leaf pine because the tree is native to the area.


If you decide to make a trip to the town of Cave Spring, Georgia you will not be disappointed.  It is a quite, quaint town with the feeling that not much has changed over the past 150 years. There is only one stop light in town and keeping with the historical ambiance, Cave Spring sustains a lively trade in antique shops, distinctive country gift shops and local artists and craft persons offering their works.


[i] Smith, Marion O., GSS Bulletin, Notes on the History of Cave Spring Cave, Floyd County, Georgia (1973)


[ii] Cave Spring Georgia Historical Society


[iii] Georgia School for the Deaf


[iv] Harris, James Coffee, Cave Spring and Van’s Valley (1927)


[v]Smith, Marion O.,  Cave Spring Nitre Works


[vi] Harris, James Coffee, Cave Spring and Van’s Valley (1927)


[vii] Padgett, Allen


[viii] Osborn, Beverly J., The Caves of Floyd County, Georgia (1965)

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