© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Beacon update: Missouri's caveman - and son - rock on in Festus cave home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2009 - When William Curtis Sleeper listed his Festus cave home on eBay last winter -- asking price $300,000 -- he was hoping for a little attention to his quest for refinancing. What he got was an internet-driven frenzy that caught the fancy of people around the world.

Sleeper did get a new mortgage, and the cave story rocks on: His son Perry recently hosted a party for 25 local teens for an episode of MTV's "Teen Cribs."

Set against the nation's mortgage crisis, Sleeper's man-fights-to-keep-cave story stood out from the millions. It was widely reported by local media, plus the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, ABC News -- and then went international. Russian TV featured the cave, and a reporter in Taiwan requested pictures of the family's 15,000-square-foot subterranean abode, plus surrounding three acres.

Sleeper, a self-employed web designer, has also been dabbling in some new ventures. He still operates www.caveland.ning.com, a website he set up to handle the overflow of response from his eBay listing, which quickly tallied more than 1 million views. He's also trying to start a Jefferson County news website: www.JeffCoScribe.com.

In an email to the Beacon, Sleeper said that the new cave mortgage has been working out for his family.

"What LSI [the lender] did for us is personal. I do not have any higher priority in my finances than to pay back this generous loan,'' he wrote.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below.

William Curtis Sleeper opened the door of his cave on a spring-like March afternoon and sized up yet another reporter who'd come to Festus to see his down-under twist on the American Dream.

Sleeper's man-fights-to-keep-cave tale has been driving about the Internet since he listed his family's 15,000-square-foot subterranean abode on eBay several weeks ago. Opening bid for the condo in a cave, plus surrounding three acres: $300,000.

On this day, Sleeper was reporting good news to his followers on caveland.ning.com, a website he set up to handle the overflow of response from his eBay listing, which has tallied more than 1 million views.

He's so sure that a refinancing deal is "in the works" that will allow him to keep the house he constructed in a former sandstone mine that he is planning a celebration - with bands, games and a caveman costume contest March 27 at a friend's party cave in nearby Crystal City.

Sleeper, 46, said the deal with a private real estate investor is for a 15-year loan at an "acceptable interest rate" that looks like a traditional mortgage and would enable him to pay off a five-year $83,000 note coming due on the property.

Such refinancing, Sleeper insists, is all he ever wanted from his eBay promotion. Until the paperwork is complete, though, he will continue to pursue all options.

"I've been willing to talk to anybody and everybody until the goal is met," he said.

'I Never Asked for a Rescue'

Amid a tidal wave of Americans losing their homes to mortgages they can't afford, Sleeper's story stood out from the millions.

In the space of a few weeks, the "caveman" was featured on print and broadcast media, morphing from a local human interest story into an international curiosity. People have sent him links to reports from Canada, London, Australia, Paris and Germany, all posted on his website.

Sleeper, a self-employed web designer, said he expected to garner attention by listing his unique home on eBay -- that's why he did it, after all. But he got way more than he hoped for.

While hundreds of well-wishing strangers have been so captivated by the story that they have offered save-the-cave donations, others have skewered him for biting off more than he could chew.

Sleeper insists that he politely refuses all donations and was never looking for a bailout.

"I'm trying to keep the entire thing clean. I'm not accepting donations," he said. "It's re-fi, sell or lose. Nothing else. No ulterior motives. I'm not trying to swindle or cheat. Even with that said, there are multiple people on multiple blogs who just go off on us. 'This idiot should never have taken a loan he couldn't afford. He needs to get a job and pay his bills like the rest of his us.' I never asked for a rescue or a bailout. I was just trying to solve a problem."

Sleeper maintains that he makes a comfortable living and is able to provide for his wife and three children, including an infant son born at home several weeks ago. He insists that his refinancing problems did not stem from a lack of income but from a lack of credit: In the current credit crunch, what bank is going to finance a self-employed web designer's home in a cave?

At least one homeowner who is under water on his mortgage asked if Sleeper could market his home. Others have pronounced him a mastermind of marketing.

"As flattering as that may be, I can't claim such brilliance," Sleeper said. "It was just a story that had the right timing."

Oh, and a cave.

"I expected the story to be well known in Missouri and maybe a national blurb, that's it," Sleeper said. "I didn't expect to be on the front page of the largest newspaper in Germany. I didn't expect the Russian television network to fly in next Tuesday, all the way from Moscow to do a story on us."

Proof, yet again, that the world is just a computer click away. Even for a man living in a cave.

Pardon Our Dust

Seated in his front room -- an expanse divided into a family room, office and fully equipped gourmet kitchen -- Sleeper is clearly a man who is proud of his cave.

The three-bedroom loft-style house - about 2,000 square feet of living space - is constructed on multi-levels, just inside the cavern opening. The home's only exterior wall is constructed of recycled sliding glass doors that allow natural light into the tunnel-like cavern.

The upstairs is partitioned into small bedrooms, but in this main living space, the walls are au naturel.

While some people watch clouds, Sleeper says, he loves to watch the light play on his rock walls.

"My walls distract me from television," he said.

To be sure, cave life isn't for everyone, he acknowledges. And as striking as the photos of his home are, they don't quite capture cave life. Think House Beautiful, with grit.

"There are some people -- and nothing against them, it's just not me -- whose houses are so immaculate at all times. I don't think they'd do well here. They'd drive themselves crazy. The sand sheds. I have sand in my house almost at all times," Sleeper said. "Once a year I'll bucket it up and throw it outside. And that's OK. A lot of it's just minerals."

And there's the humidity. Sleeper has commercial-grade dehumidifiers to dry the air in the living area, which is walled off from the rest of the cave. Still, there is a hint of mustiness in the air.

"Most people like to keep humidity in the 30 percent range. I keep it in the 60s," Sleeper said. "I don't let it go over 80 because 80 is where you create life."

Sleeper, a St. Louis native, found the cave and slightly less than 3 acres of land listed on eBay in December 2003. Within months, he and his wife, Deborah, sold their house in Sunset Hills and paid half of the $160,000 purchase price, with the sellers financing the balance with a five-year note.

The Sleepers lived in a large dehumidified tent in the cave while they constructed the house, designed and built with the help of friends. They paid for building materials -- about $150,000 worth -- with a family inheritance.

The city of Festus approved the house for occupancy last May.

No Threat of Foreclosure

Sleeper said he has received thousands of emails from around the world, including sad stories of people who have lost their homes to foreclosure -- a worry he never faced. If he did not find refinancing, he is certain he could sell the cave and recoup his equity.

In fact, Sleeper said, the note holders are "lovely people" who have never threatened foreclosure.

"A lot of the blogs around the world are slamming them as evil beings. They're not. They loaned me $83,000 -- without knowing me -- for five years. That's not evil, in my opinion," he said. "I've never used the word foreclosure -- the 'f' word. But some of the media picked up the story -- family forced to foreclosure. But you never heard the word from me."

He has been touched because so many strangers have offered to help him, but he encourages them to help people in their own neighborhoods, instead. He said his stance against accepting charity helps him defend his position that this isn't about a bailout.

"I do respect personal responsibility," Sleeper said. "I do respect the consequences of our choices. And, duh, I knew it was a bet when I laid the dice down. It was an easy bet for me, and it still really will be for the long run because I only owe $83,000 on my home."

Sleeper believes there is a time and place for bailouts -- but he isn't one of them.

"There has to be some level of support as a society to those who can't support themselves. I don't think that's our corporate citizens," he said. "I'm talking about elderly, children without medical care, single mothers -- whether they've been left that way or put themselves there is irrelevant. No comment on the octomother. There are people who can't do for themselves. Those we should do for."

Sleeper said he is ready for the attention to subside "so I can go back to work building websites and helping small businesses in my community and paying my bills.

"My family - my wife - you are not seeing here. She's really not interested in the publicity. My son loves it. I suspect he's a bit naive to the consequences of what you say. I've tried to remain somewhat very thoughtful. I try to stop and think before I say something, before I say the wrong thing and end up being the biggest jerk in the country. I want my 15 minutes up before 16 minutes because that's usually when you get yourself beat up."

Welcome to Bedrock

Sleeper's cave is within walking distance of downtown Festus, and just a few blocks from a grocery store. His closest neighbors live in houses on Cave Drive, just a stone's throw away -- and above. Yes, there's a subdivision up there, atop the back end of Sleeper's old mine tunnel.

On Main Street -- a busy strip, where front doors stand open on a mild spring afternoon -- the caveman story is taken in stride. Perhaps because Festus residents of a certain age have their own memories of Sleeper's old mine. "Caveland," as it was known, used to house a roller rink and was a concert venue where musicians like Ted Nugent and Tina Turner performed.

Richelle Zimmermann, who owns the Festus Flower Shoppe, said she met Sleeper at a downtown progress meeting and wishes him well in his financing quest. The same is true for Theresa Welch, who owns The Kritter's Den, a pet shop down the street. Welch's daughter goes to school with Sleeper's daughter and was invited to a sleepover in the cave.

"I think it's cool," Welch said.

Confident that his cave is on solid ground financially, Sleeper is once again cranking up his promotion machine - to hype his thank-you celebration, dubbed "The Cave Party 2009." The event has its own website -- https://www.thecaveparty.com/Home_Page.html -- and Sleeper is looking for volunteers, vendors and corporate sponsors. Admission is $10, necessary, he says, to cover the cost of port-a-potties, insurance and such.

And, should his deal fall through, Sleeper said, the party's still on.

"We'll celebrate one way or the other."

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.