Andy Lee Collins was born in 1895, the fifth born child out of eight brothers and sisters. Andy was a younger brother of Floyd Collins. Although many people may not know much about Andy Lee Collins, his last name will need very little, if any, background to those familiar with the history of the Mammoth Cave region. There isn't much written about Andy Collins' caving activities, but there is little doubt he was an active player in the cave region both before and after Floyd's premature death in Sand Cave. And although there are certainly many other names that come to mind first when discussing those who made an impact on the history of the region, Andy Collins is still a very interesting character.
If only through association with Floyd Collins, it would have been impossible for Andy not to be intertwined with the cave history of Kentucky. In his early years, Andy almost would have certainly accompanied Floyd on occasional cave adventures, looked for caves to be used as a good place to store canned food or fruit during the summer, and if nothing else poked his head into caves simply to satisfy natural curiosity. The point is, you can't grow up on Flint Ridge and not spend some time in caves!
Regardless, and with all conjecture aside, when a 30 year old Floyd Collins discovered Great Crystal Cave in 1917 the entire Collins' family would be thrust into the commercial cave business. Andy, then at the age of 22, would have been instrumental in assisting with the hard work required to open Great Crystal Cave as a show cave. Floyd's other two younger brothers, Marshall and Homer, would have been 20 and 14 years of age respectively.
Andy certainly would not have been immune to the "cave fever" that frequently struck those living in the vicinity. He must have dreamed of finding fame and fortune, and who could blame him, just like he had seen other attempt to do his entire life. In support of this theory I offer the following evidence, discovered personally by the author.
In Northern Hart Country, Kentucky, there is a cave now known as Lone Star Saltpetre Cave. Unfortunately, there isn't much documented history about this cave. As the name suggests, at one time there was some amount of Saltpetre mining in the cave, has thousands of names and dates scratched on it's walls, a failed mushroom farming operation and at one time, owned by caving legend Bill Austin.
In October of 1999, while visiting Lone Star Saltpetre cave looking at old civil war soldier signatures, the name Andy Collins was found among the multitude of other names.
At that time, there was no way of knowing if the name was authentic or a prank by some anonymous visitor. At first glance, the signature did have a few characteristics that supported the argument that it was authentic. The date associated with the signature was faded or damaged, but was definitely sometime between 1910 and 1920. That would have made Andy Collins between 15 and 24 years of age. Lone Star Saltpetre cave is a considerable distance from the Collinses home and therefore one could safely conclude that a trip to the cave would have only been made be a motivated individual. Either way, it stands to reason that if Andy Collins made the journey to visit this cave, he would have most certainly been visiting the many other caves closer to home.
By a stroke of luck, while participating in Stan Side's course "The Exploration of the Mammoth Cave", I found an Andy Collins signature on a rock in Great Onyx Cave. The signatures were almost an identical match! The only subtle difference was the calligraphic "C" as opposed to the more rudimentary "C" in the Lone Star Saltpetre cave signature. Most likely, although there is no way to know for sure, the change is style is due to a more mature Andy Collins, who had become a more experienced name scratcher. All the other letters are written in such similar style, if used in a court of law would stand a 98% percent chance to convict!
Such similarity leave little room for doubt of the authenticity of the Lone Star Saltpetre Cave signature. According to popular belief, Floyd Collins' signatures are only considered authentic if they are written in cursive style. Apparently, it is believed that Floyd was unable to read and write, but was taught to sign his name in cursive. Personally, I've always been skeptical about this belief, but due to the powerful list of cave historians making this claim, I have to concede it is truth. On the other hand, clearly we see Andy Collins signature in print, not cursive writing. Either Andy was more educated that his older brother or the notion that Floyd couldn't print could stand to be revised.
As an interesting side note to this story, I decided to turn the Andy Collins signature rock over to find more clues and found the following written on the back:
FIRST PARTY THRU THIS ROUT
ANN E. WIRAM
GLADYS MEYER PHELPS
VIRGINIA J. PHELPS
W? J. PHELPS
MAY 12 - 192? (Note: date is possibly 1920 or could be 1928 or 1929)
On the night of December 17, 1917 an excited Floyd Collins burst into the sleeping Collins' house creating quite a stir. The 22 year old Andy, along with the rest of the family, listened to Floyd describe the incredible discovery of a magnificent cave a stones throw from the house. In April of 1918, after rigorous effort by the entire Collins' family to prepare the cave for tourist, Great Crystal Cave was opened for tours. Between the years 1918 and 1925, visitors to Great Crystal Cave were few and far between. In fact, the cave was actually the creating a rift in the family. Lee Collins, the father, wanted to sell out. Operating a commercial cave, farming and no doubt feeling his age, was all taking a toll, but Floyd wouldn't agree to sell. Perhaps, with all the strain the cave was placing on the family, that is why in 1922 Andy Lee migrated to Kewanee, Illinois to try his fortune there. In fact, there is no record of Andy Lee's visit back to Kentucky until Floyd was trapped in Sand Cave. The following is an extract from the book TRAPPED [pg. 143 - by Murray & Brucker]:
"Another family member at the cave on Friday was Floyd's remaining brother, Andy Lee. With several days' growth of beard on his chin and his hat slouched down over one eye, he had arrived that morning with his wife and three children, having driven in a mad dash from Kewanee, Illinois. On the way they had had two car accidents, but fortunately no one was hurt. Upon viewing the mouth of the shaft for the first time, Andy Lee fainted and, like Miss Jane, had to be revived in the hospital tent. Dr. Hazlett suspected, and some observers claimed, that Andy Lee's real trouble was too much liquor. In any case, he continued to be so distraught that friends eventually took him to Cave City and away from the tension of the rescue scene altogether. Before leaving, however, he leveled charges left and right, primarily blaming Johnnie Gerald and his own father for Floyd's plight."
Also revealed in the book Trapped [pg. 263]], "Andy Lee did not return to Illinois after the tragedy but remained in Kentucky. He farmed in Hart County for a while and then opened a small commercial cave that he called Floyd Collins Crystal Onyx Cave. He died in 1940 at age forty-five, leaving four children behind."