A Legacy Unforgotten...
The Bransfords bore the pain of slavery; wore their plight proudly and became the most powerful slave guides at Mammoth Cave.They weren't just guides, they were explorers. These guides led prestigious individuals such as General George Custer, Kings and Queens, and some of the best-educated geologists and scientists in the world.
As Jerry Bransford states, it is important to tell the history of all of the black guides that dedicated their life to the cave. Including the Bransford family, other African American guides include Jonathon Doyles, Bob Lively, Stephen Bishop, Ed Bishop, and Ed Hawkins. However, Caucasian guides hold a role in this history as well. They trained the Bransford ancestors and passed on the traditions of tour guiding at Mammoth Cave.
Materson “Mat” Bransford was born in Nashville, Tennessee to Thomas B. Bransford in 1815. Being born African American, he and fellow slave Nick Bransford were subjected to slavery. When Thomas B. Bransford died in 1853, both Nick and Mat were purchased by his son, Thomas L. Bransford. While not related, Nick and Mat were very close in age and spent a great deal of their lives together.
Meanwhile, in Glasgow, KY, Franklin Gorin had growing hopes of exploring Mammoth Cave and intended to start a business. However, he required more help as he only had one slave. For the heavy price of $100 a year, Thomas L. leased out Mat and Nick to work in Mammoth Cave. This is where these men would work alongside the famous Stephen Bishop while learning the ins and outs of Mammoth Cave where they would lay the groundwork for the Bransford legacy.
Mat and Nick led lives that most slaves would envy. Unlike the deep south, where slaves were subject to long, hot days of hard work, Mat and Nick spent their days exploring the caves, acting as guides for cave tours, and conversing with the elite class that often visited the cave. Unlike other slaves, Mat and Nick were exposed to scientists, artists, politicians, and other important individuals from all over the world.
In 1850, Mat married Parthena Coats who would eventually give birth to his children Josephine, Thomas, Henry, William, James, and Lovel. However, it remains uncertain if all the census data is correct and if these children are direct descendants of Parthena and Mat.
Henry Bransford, one of Mat’s sons, went on to work as a farmer and as a Mammoth Cave guide. Henry was described as “the walking thesaurus of the cave” by visitor Adam Binkerd. Henry was very well liked during his career at Mammoth Cave and held the unforgettable Bransford charisma of his father.
Mat Bransford passed in 1886 and Henry shortly after him in 1894. However, Henry’s nephew, William Bransford, became a cave guide and in 1917 was made head guide at Mammoth Cave. Will “was responsible for distributing wages to both seasonal and year-round guides” and was even chosen to represent Mammoth Cave at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Mat Bransford’s grandson, Louis Bransford, also worked as a cave guide alongside Will. Louis’ son, Clifton Bransford, also went on to work as a cave guide. During a time of great segregation, Mammoth Cave was a place of unity both amongst the cave guides and those who worked in the Mammoth Cave Hotel. Black and white families often got together in the evenings to “drink coffee, talk about whatever came to mind, and chew tobacco”. Clifton’s cousin, David Bransford, is cited as noting, “When we moved away from there (Mammoth Cave) we found out it was quite a bit different.”
As segregation continued, work for the cave guides became harsher in 1917. The Ku Klux Klan held a meeting at the hotel in 1916, which coincidentally burned down that same year. A new woman named Donna Bullock came into control of business affairs. She had no mercy for the cave guides and made them work long unforgiving hours.