Five Rancho High School students helped the ‘Cave Lady’ more than 50 years ago

By Mike Henle

Rancho High School Class of 1969

Long before the problem of homelessness reared its head nationally, five Rancho High School students helped a woman who lived in a cave off east Bonanza Road near what is now the LDS Mormon Temple.

The name of the mountain is technically Frenchman Mountain.

Rancho High School 1969 graduates including from left, Donna Klingonsmith-Adams, Vicky Henry, Amy Carver, Colleen Lewis and Dave Ford all played roles in caring for the Cave Lady of Sunrise Mountain.

According to the Rancho graduates who are now in the process of presenting its 50th class reunion set for September 27-28 – the woman-without-a-name was happy with her residence and often conversed with anyone who would listen to her.

Among those Rancho students who would check on the Cave Lady were Donna Klingonsmith-Adams, Vicky Henry, Amy Carver, Colleen Lewis and Dave Ford. Even though it’s been more than five decades since the quintet aided the woman, each of the former Rancho Rams will never forget the woman.

“She was very happy living in the cave,” recalled, Klingonsmith, whose husband, Jeff, is a long-time executive with Western States Contracting, and is also a Rancho 69 graduate. “There was a group of us. I know we were all curious and very suspicious as to why a woman would want to live on Sunrise Mountain away from everything. Back in those days we did not have all the homeless living on the streets, so it was a little bit frightening and intimidating.

The interesting story has also been covered by KSNV television reporter Tom Hawley, also a former Rancho student who graduated from the North Las Vegas school in 1979. Both the Las Vegas Review-Journal and KSNV TV-3 worked hard to report on the woman.

The temple– and the woman’s cave – were both on the extreme easterly part of Bonanza Road. News 3 also came into possession of exclusive recording of the woman although the audio was never released to the public.

Dennis McBride, the Nevada State Museum Director, referred to the Cave Lady in his book “Out of the Neon Closet” as Mrs. Morgan although her true real last name is still unknown.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on the Cave Lady in its 1964 edition of the newspaper.

Ironically, one Rancho 1969 graduate – Colleen Lewis – said the Cave Lady actually told her that she wanted to build a temple near the current site of the LDS Church Mormon Temple.

“In 1964-65, I was 14 or 15 years old living in North Las Vegas,” Lewis remembered. “Our neighborhood ended at Pecos and from there to Sunrise Mountain was our playground. My brother and I heard from others that there was an old lady who was living in a cave on Sunrise Mountain.

“The location was where Bonanza came to a dead end. The cave was to the right and several yards starting up the side of the foothill. We were curious so we drove there to see for ourselves.

“It looked to be 15-feet wide, and 12 feet high. I don’t remember how deep it was. The woman had taken rocks and some kind of mortar and built a wall about 10 feet high directly in front of the cave.”

“The afternoon sun would have been intense for her in the summer and the wall provided shade for her. I remember the day we drove up there. She and a man were there at the entrance of the cave.”

Lewis said that the Cave Lady greeted Crabb, who gave her $5.00.

“We felt sorry for her. She would write our names down in her book as contributing to her temple that she was going to build. We thought she was old and a bit challenged, so we gave her money because we felt sorry for her.”

“She must have been in her 50s at the time with thick graying hair to her shoulders.”

Lewis said it wasn’t long before the Cave Lady disappeared, and no one knew what happened to her after she and her brother visited her.

“We heard she was asked to vacate the property because there had been a fire in the cave,” Lewis said. “There was a thick smoke ring around the opening of the cave. The last time I went to the cave was about two years ago. It is hard to tell that she ever existed.”

“What really blows my mind is that the cave is not that far from that very spot where the Temple is now located 50 years later.”

In a way, the Cave Lady of Sunrise Mountain became a part of the Class of 1969, which was comprised of more than 300 graduates. When graduation ceremonies were held at the old Las Vegas Convention Center, the graduates went on to become a part of various ways of life including the Vietnam War.

In each case of the five graduates of Rancho during the Cave Lady’s days at Sunrise Mountain, each former Ram has vivid stories about the woman who apparently loved her residence at Sunrise Mountain.

According to media reports, the cave dweller was known as “Mrs. Morgan.” Unique lifestyle was illustrated on KSNV Television and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. No one seems to know for sure what happened to Mrs. Morgan, and the cave has remained the subject of many conversations over the years.

The unique relationship between Rancho High Students and Mrs. Morgan remains vivid in the memories of all five Rancho Rams.

“It was my first experience with homelessness,” said Amy Carver. “I remember going to Sunrise Mountain with a few classmates to take the Cave Lady something to eat. She was appreciative but very cautious with us. We took fruit, bologna and vegetables because we knew she wasn’t able to cook or preserve the food.”

Added Vicky Henry, “We would usually go up there on horseback and drop off water and free Whopper cards. She was nice, but a little crazy.”

Rancho student Susie Allanson added “We used to live at the base of Sunrise. We rode up to see her several times.”

“My friends and I spent so much time visiting Mrs. Morgan,” said Sharon Edmondson. “We would stand below the cave and yell up to her for approval to continue up to the cave. We always went in the evenings. The view of the valley was beautiful. No cellphones. No cameras. Just being outside and talking and sharing stories. And being a part of Las Vegas history. Great memories.”

Another 69er responding to the story was Phyllis Lloyd, who replied “Oh, my gosh! I was just telling my stories of her last Friday. I rode my horse up to visit her and cook her homemade cookies quite often. I even got to go inside the cave.

“There are some very cool memories. Going to see the Lady in the Cave was one of my favorite trips on horseback. The first time I went, my mom drove me and we brought some fresh homemade cookies.”

Lloyd said The Cave Lady had a hitching post out front where you could tie up a horse and stay for a visit. She had a book and she felt it was a record of who was there in case something happened to her.

According to Lloyd, The Cave Lady was skeptical about the Lamb family.

“She felt safe in the cave because there was only one way in and one way out and she could see the entire valley,” Lloyd said. She also said that she had evidence against the Mafia and Lamb.”

“She was always friendly and welcoming with me, but she was suspicious. I looked at her as being very suspicious and slightly nervous.”

A half century later, the Cave Lady remains an intriguing part of Rancho’s Class of 1969, and the story is still an unforgettable part of a quintet of students from what might now be referred to as “North Town, The City with Heart.”

The Cave Lady’s stories have circulated numerous times with attention from the local media that also included former Las Vegas Sun journalist Mary Manning.

“She was a legend,” Manning said.

“Launa (Vance) Waugh and I used to visit her,” said Fran Hays Nelson.“She set up quite a house inside the cave. To me, she was a Hippie before it became popular.”

Las Vegas High School student Carl Knauff, who went on to form a dental business entitled “Carl’s Lab,” remembered Nelson.

“The cave was at the end of Bonanza Road and slightly south,” Knauff said. “I heard later that they filled up the cave.”

Susie Allanson Williams added “I don’t know except that she had really made a home for herself. We went one time and got in trouble for it later. I heard kids used to throw rocks at her, and that was so horrible. She wasn’t quite right mentally.”

Rancho 69er Dave Ford went to visit the Cave Lady many times with several of his friends.

“That was our group,” he said. “We started the Sunrise Riders when we were 14 years of age. We always got together. You could ride your horse up there. We used to call her “The old lady and the cave.” She was probably in her mid-40s who kept to herself un-kept. She was kind of straggly and had the hermit look.”

“We would go up to her cave on Friday or Saturday night. There was broken glass everywhere. Back past that glass was this old cave. It wasn’t very big and there was always black smoke around it. If we were getting rowdy, she’d tell us to knock it off. We didn’t have any homeless people up there. We would leave her some food. She wouldn’t come out and engage us at all.”

It was back in the years of the 1960s that Ralph Lamb, Eleanor Lamb and Larry Lamb handled anything that needed to be handled. The old lady was pretty harmless and she didn’t bother anyone so the Lamb family left her alone.

“We didn’t have Metro then. We had the Lamb family and Harry Claiborne was the district attorney.

“I have no idea what happened to the Cave Lady. I went into the Army and everyone including the Cave Lady was gone when I got back five years later.”

Further information regarding the Rancho Class of 1969’s 50th reunion can be found by visiting www.rancho69.org.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Mike Henle is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas. He has a website www.mikehenle.com, and can be reached at 702-279-3483.

7 comments on “Five Rancho High School students helped the ‘Cave Lady’ more than 50 years ago”

  1. Mary Manning Reply

    Wow, Mike Henle, how well I remember how easy it was to walk or ride a horse into the open desert, before freeways, before six-lane highways. And the Lambs would leave her alone. That cave, Gypsum Cave, and the Cave Lady seem to live on in Las Vegas history. Thank you for writing this story!

    • Mike Henle Reply

      Very interesting story, Mary, especially with the “homeless” angle. The fact that so many members of Rancho reached out to help the Cave Lady when she did actually live in a cave. However, the other part of the story that is crying for an answer is what happened to the woman? I have the feeling I will be writing more blogs and/or features on http://www.mikehenle.com. Also interesting is that neither Tom Hawley nor me ever went to the cave when we were at Rancho. However, Tom is really getting into the Cave Lady angle again now and you can bet it’s going to get even more interesting.

  2. Mary Manning Reply

    Mike,

    I feel the same way you do. In my senior high year and during undergrad days at UNLV, I was much more involved with the Cave Lady. Mind you, knowing how stupid I was as this young white woman, she intrigued me because she lived on her own terms. Our good, middle class, Roman Catholic family had a dark secret, my younger brother who would develop both a drinking and drug problem in later life (he passed away on April 5, 2001, age 51). So living in a cave appealed to my sense of escaping our often angry and violent family life. As the sole survivor today, with two homes, I still think of the attraction the cave lady presented.

  3. Mike Monko Reply

    I always marvel that, as rare as it is to meet someone who remembers “the lady in the cave” everyone’s story seems to be very similar. I was of the younger group so my memories are of my parents driving up to bring her food. This is mimicked by almost everyone who has memory of her. It appears she certainly did not lack for food. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see a picture?

    • Mike Henle Reply

      Mike:

      You’re so correct about the many stories that seem to have similar information about the Cave Lady. Thanks very much for input!

  4. Steve Miller Reply

    When I was a DJ at KRAM AM, I taped an interview with Mrs. Morgan. She told me that she would watch parties taking place at Maxine’s house just below her cave, and write down the names of notable guests she recognized. Maxine owned the first gay bar in LV located on Nellis. Mrs. Morgan told my audience that she feared retaliation from people who did not want to be identified as guests at Maxine’s “wild” parties. Mrs. Morgan also told me that Sheriff’s deputies took several shots at her cave one night that missed hitting her. She also said she included their names in a book she was authoring. When I went back several weeks later to check on her, all possessions were scattered about and her typewriter was smashed. Also, the transcript of her book was not there. She was never heard from again.

    • Mike Henle Reply

      Wow, Steve. Very interesting feedback! I had heard about some of this, but you were much more clued into the story than I was, for sure. Thanks again for the input!

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