The Early Years
The Nittany Grotto had its origins in 1948 mainly through the efforts and interest of Robert A. Zeller, Jr. Bob was a local resident, veteran of World War II, graduate student in geology and mineralogy at Penn State, and an assistant scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 32 in State College. During the 1947-48 timeframe, Bob recruited a group of boy scouts to help explore local caves in the area. Mr. Zellers early interests are reported in an article in Mineral Industries, Vol 16, No. 6, in March 1948. Many of the early trips included Aitken Cave near Milroy (Mifflin County), Kooken Cave in Spruce Creek (Huntingdon County), and Veiled Lady Cave east of Centre Hall (Centre County), Rock and Rockview Caves near Dale Summit (Centre County), and a few small caves near Boalsburg (Centre County).
At many of the early trip locations, Bob conducted exploratory gravity surveys to investigate the technique for locating caves, which resulting in "sparking" interest in the origin of caves and in geology. As time passed, other university students from Penn State joined in on the various trips and the group formally organized as the Nittany Grotto and became chartered by the National Speleological Society (NSS) in 1948. The grotto's archives contain two different documents from the NSS indicating that the grotto was officially chartered on May 29, 1948 and on December 10, 1948.
Now that the group was formally organized as the Nittany Grotto, and was chartered by the NSS, Bob Zeller became the first president of the grotto. The following year during 1949, Bob left Penn State to work towards a doctorate degree (Ph.D) at the University of California (UCLA).
Among the early members of the grotto were: college student, Art Jaffe; engineering professor, Bill Shepperd, and local high school students, Allen Higbee, Allen Forbes, John Rowland, and Arthur W. Rose. One of the highlights of the grotto during 1949 was the attendance of eight grotto members to the second annual NSS National Convention held in Washington, DC.
The grotto became "stalled" for a year during 1950, due to a lag in interests following graduation of many of the founders and as other members moved on.
Of particular interest is that during and prior to this "stalled period" in 1950, Dr. Stuart W. Frost, a professor in Entomology at the college, had done considerable amount of work resulting in the mapping of Kooken Cave and Aitkin Cave, and contributed to the gathering of valuable information on bats and insects found in several central Pennsylvania caves.
In early 1951, Dr. Frost attracted interests in caving through several articles in the college newspaper and consulted the National Speleological Society regarding the status of the "in-active" Nittany Grotto. In April of 1951, Dr. S.W. Frost reactivated the Nittany Grotto along with 11 others at the college and initially acted as the grotto's president and then as the grotto's faculty advisor until 1956.
This new group of college students under the guidance of Dr. Frost met and had several field trips during the spring. In Fall of that same year, Bill Devitt, transferring from the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Philly Grotto, and leading his own group of cavers from the college, heard of the reactivation of the Nittany Grotto and joined forces with Dr. Frost's group. The Fall semester of 1951 saw the election of new officers and the grotto in full swing.
With William (Bill) Devitt, III elected as the new president and Dr. Frost as the grotto's faculty advisor, the grotto began holding regular meetings every other week to discuss business and past field trips, and to arrange for future caving field trips. Also during 1951, the grotto developed "rules for caving" purchased 4 sets of caving gear to be rented out to grotto members, and memership dues were established and set at $1 per semester. Meetings were held in Frear Lab every second Thursday and fourth Tuesday of the month, however this was later changed to every other Thursday.
1952 was a busy year with many "firsts" for the active grotto. Some of the grottos highlighs include: the issuing of membership cards, began publishing a newsletter, published the first cave maps of Aitkin Cave and McClure Cave, and designed the grotto first arm patch. On May 8, the grotto voted to seek accreditation as a regular college extra-curricular organization at Penn State and the first issue of the Nittany Grotto Newsletter was published in October of 1952 with a subscription rate set at 10 cents per issue.
The following year of 1953 brought the establishement of the Mid-Appalachian Region of the National Speleological Society, commonly referred to as MAR, in October 1953 at Shippensburg State Teachers College (renamed as Shippensburg Univeristy) which members of both Nittany Grotto and the MAR mapped the surface area of Milroy Caves in Mifflin County.
The grotto's annual Spring Picnic, still held today, was also first established in 1953.
In February of 1953, Dr. Stuart W. Frost, the instigator of the reorganization of the present grotto and then faculity advisor (1952-1956), was made the first "Honorary Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto.
William Devitt, III, former grotto president (1951-1952),followed, as the second "Honorary Life Member" of the grotto in February 11, 1954.
The Intermediate Years
Throughout the years, the Nittany Grotto continued to contribute and advance the science of speleology as well as make numerous milestones in the grotto's history. The following is a highlight of some of the grotto's milestones.
In 1955, the former meeting times were changed to Wednesday evenings, which are still followed today. The second arm patch design was approved and six dozen were ordered. A highly successful mock rescue was held at Sharer Cave with Ginger McDuffee volunteering as the patient. Only a few cavers who set up the incident knew it was a mock rescue, all other cavers involved thought it was the real thing.
Dr. Stuart W. Frost resigned as the Grotto's Faculty Advisor and Dr. Charles P. Thornton was elected as the next grotto advisor in September 1956.
The Nittany Grotto won the "Ugly Man Contest", sponsored by the Penn State Faternities and Sororities in 1957, as Bill Bennett entered into the Independent Division as a dressed up scary muddy caver!
Also in 1957, the Nittany Grotto and the Outing Club formed a Climbing school. This later became the Rock Climbing Division of the Outing Club at Penn State.
On November 6 of 1957, Dr. Ralph Stone, was given the third "Honorary Life Membership" to the Nittany Grotto for his significant contribution to geology and speleology, despite never being a dues paying member. The following are a few impressive examples of his contributions:
Hosterman's Pit was discovered by organized cavers in 1959, although it had been known by locals. Originally, the pit was thought to be only a dead-bottom pit, little did the cavers know that it would be surveyed and mapped to be one of the largest caves in the state.
Dr. Lawrence Lattman was selected as the next faculty Advisor for the Nittany Grotto in October of 1960.
In September of 1960, the Board of Directors (BOD) of the National Speleological Society (NSS) formed a committee to standardize cave map symbols. This committee consisted of three Nittany Grotto members, George Deike, Jay Edwards, and Will White. The symbols were adopted at the NSS Convention in 1961 and were eventually published in the Nittany Grotto Newsletter, Vol XVI, No. 6, 1968.
In July 1961, the famous Post Office Box 676, became the official PO Box address for the Nittany Grotto as Jim Hixon, grotto member, suggested that the grotto use his box number. After Jim graduated from Penns State and left State College, the grotto retained his box number and continues to use it even today!
Exploration and surveying of Hosterman's Pit began in full earnest in 1961 when it was discovered that this earlier found pit was not a "dead-bottom" pit after all. The principal explorers were Nevin C. Davis, Thelma Davis, Nevin W. Davis, and Judy Davis.
In the Fall of 1963, the grotto changed the name of the former Nittany Grotto Newsletter to the Nittany Grotto News beginning with the September-October issue.
Early in 1964, Ken Stafford brought the Nittany Grotto into the "Computer Age" by computerizing the Grotto membership list using punch cards.
Also in 1964, the grotto started sending Christmas cards to selected cave owners to help with landowner relations. Hand made cards were sent for the first several years, after which, photo cards and purchased cards have been sent since.
On March 27, 1965, four individuals named, John Frantz, John Kosinski, John Van DeBoe, and John Marsden discovered J-4 Cave. Little did they know how popular this cave would be over the next few decades! This caves was so popular and highly visited over the decades that Nittany Grotto even made a special limited edition T-Shirt with map of J-4 on the front and a list of Centre County caves listed on the back in 1990.
1967 brought about another version of the Nittany Grotto patch. The third version of the patch was designed by Frank Haas, which consisted of a circular design using the colors of red and yellow on a black background with a caver rappelling in the center, and the words, "Nittany Grotto", "NSS" around its perimeter. 415 patches were ordered.
The first mentioning of the mysteriously illusive GWONK made its appearance in early 1967. The GWONK Show is a slide show with sound recorded on a cassette tape that featured the illusive GWONK as a cave vandal in Seawra Cave. The GWONK is a stuffed 'frog-like' creature. After many humorous attempts, several Nittany Grotto members finally succeeded in capturing the GWONK, thus saving Seawra Cave from further being vandalized. The creative slide show was directed and produced by Robert Haas, acting grotto president with photos by Nevin W. Davis. Contributing actors were the following 1967 grotto officers: Frank Marks (treasurer), Janet Rehm (secretary), Bob Haas (president), and Nevin Davis (former grotto officer and active member).
In August of 1968, Richard A. (Rick) Rigg, former Nittany Grotto president in 1964 and 1966, was made the 4th "Honorary Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto (as long as he paid for the newsletter) during the NSS Convention, held at Springfield, MO.
The Butler Cave Conservation Society (BCCS) of Virginia was formed in 1968 with the full support of the Nittany Grotto as a majority of the original 11 members were from Nittany Grotto.
1970 brought about more news of the fairly recent discovered J-4 Cave. A map of J-4 was published in the Nittany Grotto News, Vol. XVIII, No. 6, July-Aug. 1970. The map was a result of the cumulative effort of four surveying trips into the cave and one surface survey. Individuals whom contributed to the J-4 mapping were Nevin W. Davis (4 trips), Fred L. Wefer and Bill Decker (2 trips each), and Frank Marks, Larry Clark, Jack, Hess, Judy Davis, and Rich Olsen (1 trip each).
Early 1971 brought a change to Nittany Grotto's faculty advisor as Dr. Lawrence Lattman (acting faculty advisor since 1960) resigned and was filled by Dr. William B. White. Dr. William White, simply referred to by many as "Will", remained as the grotto's faculty advisor till September 2010. Will's tenure of 39 years was the longest acting faculty advisor for the grotto to date.
John A. (Jack) Stellmack, former Nittany Grotto president (1954 and 1957) and newsletter editor (1955), was made the 5th "Honorary Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto in 1971.
In February of 1973, Will White reported that the Penn State Student Council wanted a course on Caves within their curriculum. As a result, GeoSc 200 was instituted as a regular course to be taught by Dr. William "Will" White. The first course began in the Spring semester of 1973.
1974 brought big changes to the access to J-4 Cave. The previous year initiated the change when the Nittany Grotto approved a project to gate J-4 to restrict access to the general public due to safety concerns. The policy of gating and controlling access to the cave was coordinated through then owner, Martin Marietta, which gave permission and blessings to the grotto in managing the policy provided that release forms (waivers) were signed. So, in March of 1974, the limited access policy was implemented by the construction and placement of a gate at the caves upper entrance. The inner gate was installed and the lower entrance was sealed shut, however a caving trip on March 19 found the gate ripped off. So, on March 23, additional work was done by members to permanently seal off the lower entrance to the cave with concrete and steel bars. During the time to allow the concrete to harden, a guard was posted for 36-hours, and several trespassers were chased off the property. The additional work on the controlled access was finally done on March 28, when the inner gate was reinstalled.
In 1975, two individuals were bestowed with "Honorary Life Memberships" of the Nittany Grotto. Nevin W. Davis, former Nittany Grotto secretary (1962), vice president (1963), and news editor (1968-1970), and Dr. William B. White, Faculty Advisor to the Grotto (1975 to Current) became the 6thand 7th Honorary Life Members.
J-4 was revisited once more in 1976 when the former inner gate (see 1974) to the cave was replaced and a new outer gate was installed.
1979 was most remembered as when Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant facility, located near Middletown, PA, had a slight 'hick-up' as it made national media. However, closer to State College, Centre County was in the caving news as MAR Bulletin No. 11, "Caves of Centre County" was published in February 1979. The bulletin was compiled and edited by Gordon O. Dayton and William B. White and was a culmination of many years of work by the Grotto.
1980 was a glorious year for the famous illusive GWONK that reared his head again and made an appearance as being the Nittany Grotto mascot. The mentioning of this appeared in the Nittany Grotto News, Vol. XXVII, No. 2-4, Summer Edition. The GWONK's first appearance was in the GWONK Slide Show in 1967. Where has he 'officially' been for the past 12 years?
The Pennsylvania Cave Database came to realization in 1981. The database was sophisticated computer system developed to maintain the caves of Pennsylvania on computer. Gordon Dayton was the prime mover, Will White was the advisor, and Keith Wheeland developed the computer specifications. The developed system was originally maintained on the mainframe computer at Penn State University as a public service. Later, in 1985, the system was converted to run on a personal computer. The early history of the Pennsylvania Cave Database was published in the Nittany Grotto News, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer 1981.
Also in 1981, the Nittany Grotto helped contribute to publishing another MAR Bulletin with the aid of York Grotto. MAR Bulletin No. 12, "Caves of Mifflin County" was published in July 1981. The bulletin was compiled and edited by Gordon O. Dayton, (field coordinator and cartographer), and William B. White (technical editor), and Elizabeth L. White (production manager).
The Nittany Grotto designed and ordered t-shirts in May of 1982 that exhibited a modified Grotto patch on the breast.
In July of 1984, Keith Wheeland, grotto member and software developer of the Pennsylvania Cave Database, reported that after 3-years from it's inception, all of the caves from publications that he had access to were entered into the database. The number of caves at that time was 866 entries, which included caves and a few mines.
Arm patches sure are popular over the years! 100 Nittany Grotto arm patches, of the 1967 design created by Frank Haas, were ordered in 1984 at a cost of $186.15.
In 1985, a gate was constructed and installed over the entrance of McAlisterville Cave in accordance with a permanent arrangement worked out with the owner the previous year. The arrangement, coordinated by D. Scott Jones and Keith Wheeland, stated that instead of permanently closing the cave, Nittany Grotto would control access to the cave via gate key and mandatory release forms (waivers). Both Nittany Grotto and Mark Haas, a local caver, have access keys. Mark designed, built and installed the original gate, which was later vandalized and replaced in March of 2002 by Chris "Foom" Sanders and other Nittany Grotto members.
On October 16, 1985, Keith D. Wheeland, developer of the Pennsylvania Cave Database and guest editor of the Nittany Grotto News, was made the 8th "Honorary Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto for his contributions.
The Pennsylvania Cave Database system was transferred to a personal computer by Keith Wheeland in 1985 from the mainframe computer at Penn State University in anticipation of his retirement from the University in 1986.
Gordon Dayton, was made the 9th "Honorary Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto on September 14, 1988, for his numerous years of acting as treasurer (1978), news editor (1978-1979), president (1979-1980), and secretary (1982) for the grotto and his contributions as editor of MAR Bulletin No. 11 (1979) and MAR Bulletin No. 12 (1981).
The year of 1988 also saw an article published on April 4th in the Centre Daily Times, the State College, PA newspaper, that announced the land, which Hosterman's Pit resided on, was for sale by the then owners, Bethelem Steel. The owners made its intention of selling off its existing farmland, consisting of 2,600 acres, located in the Millheim area. The land was purchased by a local food processing company, Hanover Brands, and cave access relations with the Nittany Grotto remained in good standing.
In a few years, the Centre Daily Times reported in 1991, that Mr. Confer, then president of Con-Lime, of Bellefonte, had a sales agreement to buy 500 acres near Aaronsburg and was interested in mining the property. The property interested was a portion of the original property purchased by Hanover Foods from Bethlehem Steel in 1988 and included the location of Hosterman's Pit. The threat of Hosterman's Pit and the beginning of Nittany Grotto's efforts to save it begins!
On February 6, 1992, the Centre Daily Times reported that Con-Stone, Inc. finalized the purchase of 492.5 acres of land near Aaronsburg, which Hosterman's Pit is located, for $1.11 million. In response, the Nittany Grotto begins an aggressive letter writing campaign to DER and other interested parties along with the attendance to numerous public hearings. The grottos extensive efforts to save Hosterman's Pit, coordinated by Mark Jancin and Keith Wheeland, last for several years. As a way to raise money to save Hosterman's Pit, Keith Wheeland and Andy Fluke designed a special limited edition Hosterman's Pit t-shirt in January 1993, which displayed a map of the cave on the front and the text, "Hosterman's Pit", "I did my part to save the cave" on the back. The grotto originally ordered 3-dozen shirts followed up with an additional 3 more dozen due to its popularity and demand.
In March of 1995, Fred L. Wefer, former grotto president (1971), was made the 10th "Honorary Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto.
The Later Years
With the Internet revolution starting up and taking over the planet in the mid-90's, the Nittany Grotto got into the action as Scott Askey and Chad Ambrosius set up the Grotto's first webpage and listserv in 1996 on Penn State's server. Since that time, the website has evolved into several pages and was greatly enhanced over the years by Mike Glass and others. In 2008, with the decision of the Nittany Grotto to become incorporated, thus forming the NG caving club, the original student portion of the grotto, and a new incorporated part, consisting of the non-student members, resulted in the grotto having two websites. The student portion of the grotto falls under the student activities section of Penn State and continues to be managed and hosted by Penn State servers. The incorporated portion of the grotto, which remains as the chartered chapter of the National Speleological Society (NSS) since 1948, is hosted by the NSS servers.
Also in 1996, the grotto changed its bylaws to allow for paid-Life Memberships besides the existing Honorary Life Memberships. The rate was set at twenty times the current annual rate of $9, thus offered at $180. Andrew Churlik became the first member to take advantage of the new membership category. Other Nittany Grotto members who quickly became paid-Life Members also are: Dave Felix, Brian Kolka, Dianne Okunewick, Phil Okunewick, and Joe Turchick.
1998 was a special year for the Nittany Grotto as it celebrated its 50th Anniversary and hosted the Fall MAR Field Meet. The special event was held at beautiful Mountain Acres, a private lodge near Potter Mills, to celebrate its 50th. A special t-shirt was co-designed by Romana Josefczyk (front) and Mike Glass (back).
On October 3, 1998, during the program to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Nittany Grotto, Elizabeth L. (Bette) White was made the 11th "Honorary Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto. The enthusiastic response from the hundreds in attendance at the ceremony attested to the fact that Bette was deserving of this award. Bette has been active in Grotto affairs as early as 1960 when she served a editor of the Nittany Grotto News (1960-1961) and in charge of the Grotto Scrapbook from 1960 through to 1983. Although Bette has been an active part of the Grotto, she has never been a dues-paying member. Bette has served as Production Manager for the Mid-Appalachian Region (MAR) Bulletins which were produced by the Nittany Grotto as well as those compiled and edited by others.
In 2000, the Nittany Grotto adopted a conservation policy specifically aimed at protecting bats during bat hibernation. The policy listed specific caves in Pennsylvania and listed specific dates for a voluntary moratorium on visiting those caves. the policy was published in the "Nittany Grotto News", Vol. 46, No. 3, July 2000. In February 2003, the list was updated and the dates adjusted. Primary 'movers' behind the policy were Chris "Foom" Sanders and Keith Wheeland. At the time, it was the intention that the MAR (Mid-Appalachian Region of the NSS), the NSS regional organization which the Nittany Grotto and the State of Pennsylania reside in, would hopefully adopt this policy, however the MAR's support wouldn't come till a few years more when the destructive White Nose Syndrome (WNS) appeared! (See 2006)
As published in the "Nittany Grotto News", Vol. 48, No.1, January 2002, J-4 is declared "officially" closed as the grotto learns that the owner, Graymont Mining (Pennsylvania) has posted newly installed "No Trespassing" signs around the property in which the highly visited cave is located on. It is believed that the new signs were posted sometime in early 2001.
The gate of McAlisterville Cave was re-visted. This time, due to vandalism to the original gate installed in 1985 by Mark Haas, a new gate was designed and installed by Chris "Foom" Sanders in March of 2002. Due to the lock location, this new design proves to be challenging for both vandals and cavers alike.
Will White, acting faculty advisor for the Nittany Grotto retired from Penn State University at the end of June 2002, where he was Profesor of Geochemistry. A special celebration was givin to him on July 24th at Stone Valley, where approximaltey half of all graduate students who had studied under Will over the years made an appearance. Will continues to be the faculty advisor for the grotto.
In 2003, John C. Taylor, became a "Paid-Life Member" of the Nittany Grotto.
After numerous years of use, the Nittany Grotto retired the 1967 design of the arm patch created by Frank Haas, which was the grotto's third patch design, in 2003. Michael Ristey created the fourth design of the Nittany Grotto patch that is in the shape of a 'keystone' with a blue background and a hanging bat in the center. The original version of the patch had "NSS-PSU" on the bottom and the dates, "1949" and "2003" on the top. The 1949 is an error as the grotto was officially chartered with the National Speleological Society (NSS) in 1948.
Three members of the Nittany Grotto, Will White, Keith Wheeland, and Jack Stellmack, were all honored for their 50 years of membership to the National Speleological Society (NSS) by receiving a special 50-year NSS pin and a letter from the NSS in early 2004. The letter states, "On behalf of the Board of Governors, it's my pleasure to provide you with the enclosed pin commemorating your fifty years of membership. We hope you'll wear it with pride as we take pride in having you as such a loyal member."
In early 2005, The Nittany Grotto standardized its memberhip ending dates to August 31, meaning that all renewels would now become due on September 1st for all "regular paying" grotto members. A new prorated system was also implemented that allowed new members to pay 'prorated' dues according to the month of their application for membership. Life memberships were noted to be $300.
Starting in 2006, cavers began hearing about a devastating condition that was affecting bat populations, called White Nose Syndrome (WNS). White Nose Syndrome, commonly referred to as simply 'WNS', refers to a white fungus, easily recognized as a "fuzz", on and around the noses of affected bats. The first docmented case of WNS was during the Winter of 2006-2007 in New York State and has since spread throughout much of the United States.
On February 24, 2007, the responsiblity of the Pennsylvania Cave Database, originally developed by Keith Wheeland back in 1981, was transfered to the Pennsylvania Cave Conservancy (PCC). Under the PCC, the cave database would continue to have a database administrator supported with several new county stewards that would manage information on caves within their own respective county(s).
The Incorporated Years
In 2008, because of onerous retrictions being gradually placed on student organizations at Penn State University and the fact that Penn State did not condone life memberships for student organizations, Keith Wheeland led an effort to split the grotto into two complementary organizations. The former Nittany Grotto (a Penn State student organization) changed its name to the Nittany Grotto Caving Club (NGCC), consisting of mostly students. The second organization was the incorporation of the Nittany Grotto to form Nittany Grotto Incorporated (NGI), which is a chapter of the National Speleological Society, consisting of mostly non-student members. All members of the 'caving club' automactically become members of the NGI and both organizations meet, work, and socialize togethor.
On July 30, 2008, the newly re-organized Nittany Grotto (NGI), held its first annual meeting to elect officers, approve articles of incorporation and bylaws, and to conduct other organizational business. Newly elected officers for 2008 were: Amanda Martin (Chair), Gary Dunmire (Vice Chair), and Keith Wheeland (Secretary-Treasurer), Rob Martin and Joe Turchik (directors at large).
Due to the operational changes and logistics between the Nittany Grotto Caving Club (NGCC) and Nittany Grotto Incorporated (NGI), the former Nittany Grotto webpage, started in 1996 continues on the Penn State servers for the Caving Club and the "official" Nittany Grotto webpage, was created in the Fall of 2008, and is hosted on the National Speleological Society (NSS) servers for the Corporation portion of the Grotto.
On March 26, 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a statement advising, "A voluntary moratorium, effective immediately, on all caving activity in states known to have hibernacula affected by WNS, and all adjoing states, unless conducted as part of an agency-sanctioned research or monitoring project". White Nose Snydrome (WNS), originally documented during the Winter of 2006 in New York state, was noted to be present in several Pennsylvania locations, including 2 caves in Mifflin County during the Winter of 2009. As a result, the Nittany Grotto immediately indicates its postion on the moratorium and supports the USFWS advisory.
September 2010 brought another change to the Nittany Grotto's faculty advisor. After a tenure of 39 years, the longest faculty advisor tenure in Nittany's history, Dr. William B. white (acting faculty advisor since 1971) resigned. Dr. Jenn L. Macalady was elected as the next grotto advisor (5th for the organization) and remains as the grotto's faculty advisor to date.