Luella Agnes Owen was born Sept. 8, 1856 in St. Joseph. Her father, James A. Owen, was a successful lawyer, and her mother, Agnes Cargill Owen, was a well-educated daughter from a wealthy, slave-owning family. Luella and her siblings were all educated at home by their mother until they could read and write.
Luella was a tomboy by today’s standards. She liked to roam around outside, dig in the dirt, and explore caves — go spelunking. Her father worried about her and forbid her to go into caves alone, so she talked her friends and siblings into going with her.
When the Civil War came along and St. Joseph was occupied by Union soldiers, the family had to exercise great care due to their Southern background. Consequently, Luella and her siblings went back to home schooling and stayed very close to home.
Following the war, Luella attended the new St. Joseph High School and graduated with honors. It is thought that her higher education was self-taught as there are no records of her attending any college. She read and studied everything she could find on caves, rocks, and Missouri soil. She also continued to explore caves first hand.
After her father died in 1890, she began going on field trips with other spelunkers. As ladies were not allowed to wear jeans, she wore long split skirts that skimmed the tops of her boots. Sometimes she was not allowed to go because she was a woman, but most of the time she managed to go into the caves she wanted to see first hand.
Between 1890 and 1900, Luella explored hundreds of Missouri’s 3,500 caves, as well as many in South Dakota and other midwestern states. Becoming an expert along the way, she wrote “Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills,” which was published in 1898. It was the first and only book about Missouri caves for nearly fifty years.
Luella Agnes Owen was a scientist and explorer. Her published works gave others essential information about Missouri caves. She continued to teach, lecture, and write until her death on May 31, 1932. Owen is buried in Mount Mora Cemetery in St. Joseph.
Today there are more than 7,300 documented caves in Missouri. Only Tennessee has more.
In 1975, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, along with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Speleological Survey, and the Missouri Caves Associates, began pushing for legislation to protect and preserve Missouri caves. The Cave Resources Act was passed in 1980.
Spelunkers motto: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she syndicated her column statewide in September 2018 and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.email@example.com