Guests to Crystal Cave are often greeted at the front counter by owner Eric McMaster in the beautiful and educational gift shop before taking the 1 hour guided tour. Photo by Paul J. Seeling
Guests to Crystal Cave are often greeted at the front counter by owner Eric McMaster in the beautiful and educational gift shop before taking the 1 hour guided tour. Photo by Paul J. Seeling

SPRING VALLEY, WI – Crystal Cave of Spring Valley, Wisconsin was honored at the Pierce County Economic Development Corporation (PC EDC) 2017 Annual Dinner at the University Center Riverview Ballroom, on the beautiful University of Wisconsin – River Falls Campus as the Pierce County Small Business of the Year for 2016. The dinner was held on Tuesday, January 24, 2017, from 5:00 to 8:00 PM. 

Prior to the awards, (which are determined per number of employees) the members and guests of the PC EDC listened to an informative presentation by Danielle Campeau, CIBD UWRF & Katherine Fossler, SBDC UWRF.

There will be a broader report on the PC EDC 2017 Annual Dinner in the Sun-Argus next week.

This week I will report on Crystal Cave the 2016 Pierce County Small Business of the Year for 2016. I will draw on material from an interesting conversation I was fortunate to have with Crystal Cave owner Eric McMaster prior to his leaving for a buying trip to Tucson, Arizona for the wondrous and beautiful Crystal Cave Gift Shop. It was this buying trip that prevented Eric from attending the EDC Dinner, but he was represented by his partner and wife Kristen McMaster and Manager/Cast member Logan Toftness. They received a lovely Lucite standing plaque from PC EDC Executive Director Paul Schwebach.

I will also be using material graciously provided to the Sun-Argus from Heather Hines, Office Manager, PC EDC.

Crystal Cave was discovered in 1881 by two local farm boys, William and George Vanasse. The cave remained a local curiosity until 1942 when Henry and Mary Friede purchased the property, installed lighting, pathways, and built a visitor center over the cave entrance.  In the years since, the cave has been owned by several different families and been a tourist destination stop in Pierce County.

Eric and Kristen McMaster, the current owners, purchased Crystal Cave in 2012. Eric and Kristen were active cavers in Tennessee before moving to the Midwest. Both are Life Members of the National Speleological Society (NSS) and active in local and national caving organizations. They met Jean and Blaze Cunningham, the former owners of Crystal Cave through a caving club in Minnesota.

Eric and Kristen met at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN and one of their first dates was caving! Eric received a Masters of Engineering from Vanderbilt. Before taking the helm at Crystal Cave, Eric's last job was President of KWIK SEW Pattern Co., Inc., a multinational corporation founded by his mother, in the home sewing and quilting markets. Eric sold KWIK SEW to McCall’s Pattern Company, based in Manhattan N.Y. and exchanged his business suits for caving gear, and hasn’t looked back!

“I can now wear jeans to work every day,” said the smiling McMaster.

Kristen McMaster received her Ph.D. in Special Education at Vanderbilt. She taught for several years in Nashville public schools, and is now a Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Kristen works with school districts and the U.S. Department of Education with the goal improving education for diverse learners. A childhood dream of Kristen’s was to run a summer camp, and Crystal Cave is the realization of that dream. Eric proposed to Kristen in a cave in Colorado and the spelunking couple honeymooned at a cave in West Virginia.

Since 2012 there have been many changes at Crystal Cave. They have embraced the Japanese management practices of Kaizen and all staff is taught the basics of continuous improvement.

“It means we are always looking for a better way of doing things,” Eric said earnestly.

Crystal Cave also has incorporated the guest-centric teachings of the Disney Institute. Even though Crystal Cave is a small business they try to incorporate best practices of other companies, such as Disney.

Employees are “cast members,” customers are “guests.” Areas of the property where there are guests is “on-stage,” private cast member areas are “off-stage,” to name a few.

Crystal Cave is a seasonal business, open April 1 through October 31. During the summer, they have about 26 cast members and during the winter it drops down to only 3 cast members!

With so many seasonal staff, training is a big component and it takes roughly 45 hours for a new cast member to be certified to give tours.  The focus is on the guest experience that doesn’t have to visit Crystal Cave, but if they have a great experience, they will come to visit it again.

Obviously, this has paid off at Crystal Cave where the visitor numbers have increased from 30,000 to 45,000 per year that includes hundreds of busloads of students coming to Spring Valley for the fun and educational experience that a one hour tour of the cave provides.

In addition to the guided tours of the cave the Crystal Cave gift shop is also an educational area where you can find fossils from 100’s of thousands of years ago and a many types of geological materials from beautiful geodes to agates and more in one of the largest rock shops in the Midwest. Visitors come from all over the region just to shop the huge variety of rocks found here in Spring Valley at Crystal Cave.

Another fun and educational feature to be found at Crystal Cave is their covered “Prospector’s Creek” panning sluice where you can pan from your purchased bag of material for minerals and fossils. There a cast member is on hand to help and answer any guest questions.

“We have garnered the Trip Advisor ‘Certificate of Excellence’ three years running now,” stated a proud McMaster.

Looking forward, Crystal Cave is planning on continuing to provide high quality educational tours and also incorporate additional attractions such as the 10-acre prairie-planting going in this spring. For Crystal Cave, it is a goal of not only continuing to grow visitor attendance to the cave but also to bring more tourists to Spring Valley and Pierce County! 

Congratulations to Eric and Kristen McMaster and the “Cast” at Crystal Cave on being honored as the Pierce County EDC 2016 Small Business of the Year!