The rift at Virginia's Luray Caverns

Special to The Washington PostMarch 23, 2013 

— On a busy summer weekend, the parking lot at Luray Caverns starts filling early. There are the bus groups of Asian and European tourists, couples on Harleys, families in minivans and SUVs with the stick-figure decals in the rear window. By day’s end, perhaps 3,500 people will have visited the Caverns. They will have marveled at the massive columns of fluted stone, joked about the formation that looks like two fried eggs, and perhaps had a drip of water from the ceiling go splat on their head, an occurrence that the guides refer to as a cave kiss and is said to bring good luck.

All of this takes place beneath the surface of Cave Hill, where time nearly stands still. The stalactites stretch an inch or so toward the floor every hundred years. The temperature is always right at 54 degrees. And other than the lights, technology is nearly nonexistent. Smartphones don’t work in the Caverns, and your Facebook update has to wait until the gift shop. The experience is all somewhat comforting and slightly nostalgic, if only in the way that a series of rock-filled rooms can be.

Luray Caverns is the third most-visited cave in the United States, trailing only Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Those are national parks. Luray Caverns is what is called a show cave, defined by the National Caves Association as “developed for public visitation.” In other words, show caves are there to make money.

People have been paying to go into Luray Caverns for more than 130 years. At the current rate of $24 per adult and more than 400,000 visitors a year, the revenue adds up, and the result is a modest tourist empire that through the years has expanded to include a golf course, two motels, two museums and a garden maze.

The Graves siblings, two brothers and four sisters, are the owners of this empire, what can properly be called the Luray Caverns fortune, worth about $20 million. It is a family business, run by a family that can’t get along.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when they began fighting over money, control and perhaps the future of the Caverns. Maybe it was after their parents invested with one of their brothers-in-law in an auto-parts store that then went belly up. Or maybe it was when a sister put together a comfortable retirement package and golden parachute for herself. Or maybe it was after the siblings clashed over the management of the trusts that controlled their inheritance. More recently, they’ve been in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg, Va., where the three youngest Graves siblings sued two of their older sisters and said the women had disqualified themselves as beneficiaries of the family trusts and should not receive any shares of the Luray Caverns Corp.

It’s easy to dismiss this as just another family squabble, albeit with a roadside-attraction twist. Think “Dallas” meets the National Geographic Channel. But it’s much more than that. Luray Caverns may be owned by the Graves family but it’s one of those places that in a sense belongs to all of us. Like the billboards up and down Interstate 81 that herald its presence, Luray Caverns has been intertwined for generations with summer vacations, reunions, school field trips. It is a touchstone, a shared memory of modest adventure.

A family divided

The slogan says famously that Virginia is for lovers, but it’s also for cavers. The land is riddled with them. More than 4,000 caves have been identified, ranging from shallow crevices to expanses spidering under the hills and hollows along the limestone backbone that runs northeast from Bristol to Front Royal.

It was the discovery of Grand Caverns south of Harrisonburg in 1804 that created the underground land rush that thrives here to this day. Grand’s early owners charged 50 cents a head for tours and held an annual ball inside, where hundreds of men and women danced while their shadows flickered on the walls. The cave stayed open for business even during the Civil War, and, if the dates and signatures scratched into the walls inside are to be believed, Union and Confederate officers visited on the same day.

Which brings us to Luray, about 40 miles to the north of Grand Caverns, and the tattered economy in this part of northern Virginia after the war ended. Even today, it is an isolated community, separated by the long ridgeline of Massanutten Mountain from the sweep and greater prosperity of the Shenandoah’s main valley to the west. With Grand Cavern’s commercial resilience well established, the idea of a cave as economic development was a common topic of conversation in Luray, but the available inventory was not up to snuff.

That changed on Aug. 13, 1878, when a small band of explorers felt the air rushing from a tiny hole on a knoll just west of the town. They widened the opening, and two members of the party clambered into the dark and, with candles in their hands, saw the splendors of the earth laid before them.

It’s quite possible that there was no better time to find a show cave. This was the age of the Romantics and the landscape tour, where wealthy Americans went forth to gaze upon the natural world. The railroad came to Luray in 1881, allowing tourists from Washington and Baltimore to arrive by train, then be brought by horse and carriage to the cave’s entrance a mile and a half away. Electric lights also were installed that same year, and visitors flocked to the town.

According to a history of Luray Caverns, its discoverers made $91 in admissions at its grand opening. But their chance for lasting wealth was short-lived. There was a legal dispute over whether they had deceived the property’s original owners, and the cave slipped out of their grasp. A subsidiary of the railroad eventually took ownership, packaging tours with transportation and overnight stays at a hotel built to accommodate guests. Then in 1905, Theodore Clay Northcott, known as the Colonel, bought the Caverns. The Colonel and his wife, Belle, had one daughter, and she and her husband had one son, Ted Graves, who died in 2010 at 87. His wife, Rebecca Graves, died two years later. Their six surviving children have been in near-constant litigation for most of the past 10 years, threatening a chain of ownership that now extends four generations.

On one side are sisters Rebecca Graves Hudson, Katherine Graves Fichtler and Elizabeth Graves Vitu, known as the older siblings. John Graves, Rod Graves and Cornelia Graves Spain, the younger siblings, are in the other camp. None would talk, but a working account of their disagreements takes up several feet of space in the Page County Courthouse. Reading through the files, there is a sad and sedimentary quality to their fighting, layers upon layers of complaints built up over time – like the flowstone in the Caverns – then slowly fused into one solid and tangled block.

One version of events has sister Rebecca as the central victim. She began working for the Caverns in 1982, around the time her father had a stroke, was promoted to general manager in 1988, then president in 2004. Smart, tough and ambitious, she brought in consultants to improve the Caverns’ operations and fired longtime employees who she thought didn’t toe the line. Then in 2004, Rebecca was demoted to a staff position, in part, according to this version, because her jealous younger siblings, led by Cornelia, turned their parents against their eldest daughter. She was asked to resign, refused, then was notified of her removal as president in a terse three-paragraph letter from her father.

The other version has Rebecca as an overbearing manager who let power go to her head and tried to enrich herself at the expense of the business. Her brother John complained to her in 2004 that she was freezing him out of decisions. “I know very little of what decisions are being made about management-level employees, when I should know, as your personnel director,” he told her. He added that he was looking for another job. But he remained at the Caverns and is now president. Rod is vice president. Cornelia works in marketing.

Daniel Carrell was an expert witness for the Caverns in a lawsuit related to Rebecca’s firing. In a deposition given in 2008, he noted that she had been very good at her job. “Then for reasons I don’t understand,” he continued, “and I don’t know if anybody does, she began to act more and more imperial and ... potentially putting at risk the years of success that had been accumulated.”

Among the actions to which Carrell is referring were golden parachutes, known as “salary-continuation agreements,” that Rebecca helped craft for herself and her two brothers. They were put in place in 2002, without a board vote, and it is alleged that she had told her brothers that the terms of the three agreements were equivalent. But they weren’t. Hers was sweeter, and in the upheaval that followed, she was removed from her office, then sued by the Caverns to rescind the agreements. The two sides settled for undisclosed terms before the case went to trial (her brothers voluntarily rescinded their agreements).

What followed has been a swirl of litigation. The Caverns sued Nathan Miller, the attorney who advised Rebecca and had been the corporation’s general counsel. Miller was also a trustee on the two trusts that controlled most of the shares in Luray Caverns Corp., and he sued the other trustee, Rebecca’s mother, to be released from that duty. Then the older siblings battled their younger siblings and their parents over who should replace Miller.

In the middle of all this fighting, their parents rewrote their wills and put in no-contest provisions that would be triggered if any of the siblings opposed their parents on appointments to the trusts. So last June, the younger siblings sued Katherine and Elizabeth to void their inheritances. The case was dismissed for technical reasons in February. Judge Michael Urbanski of U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg said Rebecca needs to be a party to the case, and, because of that, the matter needs to be heard in state court.

Further complicating matters is that none of the older siblings currently works for the Caverns, and two live outside Virginia. Although Rebecca lives in Luray, Katherine is a potter in Montana, and Elizabeth is a bell ringer in France. Elizabeth and Katherine both said in depositions that they were encouraged to follow their passions and pursue careers away from the Caverns in part because of the knowledge that the Caverns’ stock – their inheritance – would be available in their retirement.

Told of the chain of events, Charles Gallagher, director of the Family Business Forum at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business in Richmond, said over and over: “Oh, my goodness.”

Family businesses can be quite successful, he said, but the managing and intermingling of blood and commerce, insiders and outsiders, requires a deft hand, planning and enormous amounts of trust. “Once you lose that trust, once it’s breached, it’s almost impossible to restore that relationship. There’s no recovery plan for that. Once you bring in the lawyers, it’s a lose-lose situation.”

Bound together

The silent party to all the fighting is, of course, Luray Caverns. Businesses can suffer when their owners are at war with each other. George Peterson, an attorney in Fairfax, Va., who has represented the younger siblings and their parents through much of the litigation, said in one hearing: “There has been a huge family divide that has been affecting the operations of the Luray Caverns Corp. This issue needs to be decided. . . .” That was in 2005, and many lawsuits later, the divide appears to have only deepened.

Chris Marston, editor of the Luray Page Free Press, grew up with the Graveses and he thinks that the parents, until they got too old and too sick, had kept much of the fighting in check. “It was ready to unravel, and it unraveled faster than anyone imagined,” he said. The attorneys for the younger siblings aren’t commenting on whether they will appeal the dismissal or refile their case against their sisters in state court. But Urbanski’s ruling suggests the litigation isn’t about to stop just with his order. This case is, he wrote, “simply one skirmish in the complicated and contentious battle that has been waged between the descendants of Col. Northcott over the distribution of stock and control of Luray Caverns.”

In August 2000, the Graves siblings met to discuss how the shares in the Luray Caverns Corp. would be held after the death of their parents. They settled on what’s called a buy-sell agreement, which is a fairly common structure for family businesses and restricts the ability of existing shareholders to sell to non-family members. In essence, it has bound the Graveses together, for better or for worse.

Ken Otterbourg is a former editor of The Winston-Salem Journal. He lives in Winston-Salem, and writes frequently about business and politics.

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