Faye Bryant, 91, passed away in Batesville on Oct. 22 as a result of COVID-19 related complications. She was one of the first women to explore Blanchard Springs Caverns.
“She will be missed but her legacy and memories will forever be encapsulated in the beautiful formations of the cave that she helped discover for all who visit to see and experience,” said Norman Vaden, with the National Park Service.
Unlike the Hollywood portrayals of 1950s domestic monotony, life for this self-described “wilding” in the Ozarks was adventurous. She and her husband, Hail Bryant, were among the adventurous group of locals who explored Half-Mile Cave, which would later be named Blanchard Springs Caverns, which is about 75 miles northwest of Newport, in the Stone County community of Fifty-Six.
During an interview in December 2019, Bryant said that once her husband told her about the cave system, she was on board immediately to help him and his fellow spelunkers any way she could. They helped a group of cavers from Batesville build a winch system in order to be lowered into the hole that would later be known as the Half-Mile Cave.
Bryant said she saw two other explorers had gone down into the shaft previously and told herself, “If they went down there and made it back up safely, then I know I can do it, too.”
It took about 20 minutes to descend, and a deep trust in everyone at ground level, slowly lowering her down. It gave her eyes time to adjust in the darkness of the cavern.
“I was too scared to look down, so I just took everything else in. I looked at the walls in front of me, and around me, and asked myself ‘What on earth am I seeing?’ It was just amazing, and it was really something else. Hail was a stickler for safety, and such a good man, and made sure that when I packed my backpack that I always had three sources of light. I couldn’t stand to be cold, and I carried a wool Army blanket with me as well,” Bryant said.
The exploration wasn’t just for fun. At that time in America, the nation worried about the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union. Hail was civil defense coordinator, and part of their excursions were to find a place where local citizens could shelter in the event of an atomic attack.
Without technology the Bryants and other explorers did their best to document this subterranean wonderland. For example, the “Cathedral Room” in the cavern is the size of three football fields. After the caverns were officially surveyed, the measurements provided by the Bryants were only off by a few feet.
Each December the National Forest Service hosts the musical event “Caroling in the Caverns.” Bryant was able to attend last year as a guest of honor. She addressed the crowd and posed for pictures with staff and guests in what was a very special moment for all in attendance.
“She told me about Hail hoisting her down into the natural entrance of the cave and about their many camping trips where they would spend the night in the caverns. Though far removed from the days of her youth I saw the sparkle return to her eyes as she weaved her tale. For a few moments I traveled back in time with her as she laughed and smiled telling me of her love for the cave and her beloved husband,” Vaden said.
When they weren’t adventuring, Faye and Hail worked together at the family’s construction business.
Alpha May (Faye) Middlecoff Bryant was born near Moody, Missouri on Aug. 20, 1929. Toward the end of the Great Depression, her family moved to a 40-acre farm near Strawberry. After the sudden death of her mother in 1944, she took care of four younger siblings before marrying Bryant and moving to the community of Huff, then to Batesville in 1953.
“They were soulmates; they did everything together” said Tommy Bryant, their nephew.
An authority on Ozark wildflowers and friend of wildlife, she produced a video called “Arkansas Wildflowers, Shrubs, and Vines” and a video of her befriending a raccoon called “Backyard Friends” aired several times on the Animal Planet network.
The couple’s son, Dale, was born with a heart defect, which at that time, was untreatable. Despite advice to coddle him, the couple let Dale live his life on his terms. He moved to Texas and became a professional photographer before moving home prior to his death at age 24.
Faye and Hail were avid travelers and donated their mineral and fossil collection to Lyon College, and their Native American artifact collection to Independence County, where it is still displayed in the lobby of the courthouse.
The exhibit is dedicated to Dale Bryant.
When we sat down with Tommy Bryant on a cold and rainy Monday afternoon the recollections of his aunt’s fiery spirit filled the room with a warm glow.
“Faye liked it at Mountain Meadows. She lived there for three years and made a lot of friends out there,” he said.
Blanchard Springs Caverns, which are held by the U.S. Forestry Service, is the largest living cave system. Carlsbad Caverns, is larger, but not considered living, since it does not have water in it.
Although the caverns are closed at this time, Faye Bryant was able to attend last year’s Caroling in the Caverns holiday event. Photographs in the Batesville Daily Guard from that event show her visiting with park staff and children.
“Faye never met a stranger,” Tommy Bryant said.