For being 201 years old, Lester Howe is looking pretty good.
Sitting in an armchair in his study at the entrance of Howe Caverns, Lester greets visitors to his famous cave with a cordial introduction and a brief animated film detailing how he stumbled across the opening where his cows stood in the summer to stay cool in the 52 degree breeze wafting up from underground.
Of course, Lester Howe has been dead for 123 years, but his legacy lives on in the form of an animatronic version of a man known as the “PT Barnum of Caves.” Designed by Garner Holt, which also does much of the animatronics work for Disney and other theme parks, the animatronic Lester has real human hair, eyebrow and smile functions.
He looks left and right to make eye contact with his audience. Not wanting to make Lester Howe more of a legend than a man, Garner Holt based Lester’s mannerisms on family histories, historical accounts, and the only two known photographs of the real Lester Howe.
The new Lester was introduced to the public Tuesday, April 12, at a reception in the attraction’s Tudor-like visitors center at 255 Discovery Drive.
While at the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions trade show in Las Vegas in 2009, Howe Caverns general manager Bob Holt saw an animatronic display and an idea struck. “We needed Lester Howe to tell his story,” he decided. Two years later, at the same trade show in Orlando, Lester Howe made his debut.
A face to face meeting with Howe Caverns’ discoverer isn’t the only thing Howe Caverns has in store for the nearly 200,000 visitors anticipated this summer.
With a July 4th opening date, Howe High Adventures, which features a ropes course and four ziplines, will, as John Lemery, president of Howe Caves Development, put it, “get kids outdoors and away from their iPods.”
There will also be a new banquet pavilion, featuring a full service kitchen and seating for up to 300 people, and an expansion of the gemstone mining shop, which will feature Patty Tobin’s exclusive Howe Collection of chunky gemstone jewelry.
“It’s always nice to meet folks who like to spend a beautiful day underground in a cave,” Lester says. And with all the new additions to Howe Caverns, the trip is a far cry from the ten-hour, lantern-lit excursions Lester Howe used to lead. Now those same folks, when they return to the daylight, can spend a little more time on all of Howe’s land.
|Ian Austin/Freeman’s Journal & HOMETOWN ONEONTA|
Lester Howe again greets visitors.