Last Man Standing in Toxic Town: Part Three

This past Memorial Day dozens of American flags flanked the perimeter of the G.A.R. Cemetery next to historic U.S. highway 66, on the northern edge of Miami, Oklahoma. American flags whipping in the prairie breeze are a common sight in this part of the country on the day that celebrates the dead of our nation’s far-flung and seeming never-ending military ventures. I was at the cemetery to honor the grave of a World War II Pacific Theater veteran, Jesse Orville Ray. He was known to his friends, as well as to the national media that had discovered him late in life, as “Hoppy,” a nickname that had stuck to him since his childhood obsession with cowboy movies, especially those of Hopalong Cassidy. Hoppy’s grave is in a newer section of the cemetery; the headstone sits flush to the ground. He rests next to wife Rita Lou who passed on October 1,1995.

Hoppy had died shortly before Christmas, just about the last remaining resident of Picher, Oklahoma, a once thriving mining town (lead and zinc, mainly) that became one of the nation’s most infamous Superfund toxic waste sites. After years of back and forth wrangling at county, state and national levels, the residents of Picher were bought out of their homes and businesses by the Oklahoma state and Federal governments. The sad history of this once prosperous town nestled in the tri-state corner of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, as well as Hoppy’s role as citizen, historian, and media spokesman for Picher, is described in some detail in the two part essay I wrote for this site last November. If you’ve not read it, I think you will find this quintessential American story to be deeply affecting. Here are the links from the archive:

John’s Bailiwick—“Orval Ray Last Man Standing in Toxic Town—Part One” blog entry

John’s Bailiwick—“Last Man Standing in Toxic Town—Part Two” blog entry

An hour-long documentary broadcast on PBS’ series The Independent Lens tracking the plight of Picher was made by three Oklahoma filmmakers. The DVD is difficult to find but you can view a trailer on YouTube.

When I first met Hoppy last autumn he was still working in Picher; he continued to have Monday evening musicales with locals and musician friends at his mining museum/pool hall on South Connell St. His son Steve recently had moved him to nearby Miami, the nearby seat of Ottawa County. It may have taken something out of Hoppy who was then 84. He didn’t live out the year.

After leaving the cemetery, I drove up to Picher to see what remained of the town, as I had heard that full-scale demolition was underway. The café across the street from Hoppy’s museum, a place where he regularly ate breakfast, is now just a concrete slab.

The whole block is deserted; only passing trucks coming down Hwy. 69 from the Kansas border and headed to the Will Rogers Turnpike a few miles south, break the eerie quiet.

The store window next to Hoppy’s place looks like something out of an Atget photograph.

Hoppy’s “Pastime Mini-Museum” now has a “Keep Out” sign on the door, and sheet metal covers the front window; there recently had been a burglary attempt.

Hoppy’s cowboy photos, souvenirs from his childhood that he lovingly placed at the street entrance have been battered by sun and rain, the window boxes now warped and leaking.

All city services have been largely cancelled and it is not considered advisable to be out on the streets after dark. Many of the still-standing homes and businesses have been vandalized for copper wiring and anything else that can be carted off.

Shortly after 2 pm on Monday April 12, Hoppy’s son, Steve, stopped off at the museum and noticed the rear door had been forced open; inside were two intruders in their early twenties. When they tried to escape to their vehicle, Steve shot out the tires with his 9mm pistol, hailed a passing car, called the police, and arrests were made. Here is the story with photos from the Tulsa station website of KOTV:—“Three Arrested in Picher Museum Robbery” link

As I drove around Picher again, on this Memorial Day weekend, I saw more houses that had been demo-ed, the land cleared. There were also a few businesses and many recently abandoned homes spray-painted with the “X” code that we know now from hurricane Katrina.

Just west of Connell Street is what’s left of the city park, now closed off with barbed wire fencing. The Picher High School gorilla mascot still hunches proudly at the entrance.

Nearby, a rusted-out mine pump rests like a junk sculpture by Richard Stankiewicz.

The hand car wash next to the pharmacy is abandoned, as is a “halfway house” on the block south of Hoppy’s. At the end of the block the Methodist Church is also boarded up.

I found one lone building that had been given a temporary reprieve.

One block to the east, all houses had been removed, a lone stop sign bearing witness to the once flowing traffic.

On YouTube I found a brief video of a couple who drove through recently occupied residential streets, block after block of “buyout” houses, not yet demo-ed, overgrown with prairie grasses. It makes for disquieting viewing.

Picher High School’s buildings still stand, though the once immaculate field house and running track are looking distressed.

The sports honors roll still stands.

But a recent arson of the school’s nearby art building signals the possible fate of the campus, as more scavengers and opportunists close in.

Looming over it all are the toxic “chat piles” that resemble desert rock outcroppings; they are slowly being reclaimed as highway paving filler that, once mixed with asphalt, will become new roadways, their toxicity rendered inert—or so they say.

The only remaining sign of life is the Ole Miners Pharmacy just north of Hoppy’s museum, resting in the shadow of the Picher water tower, the one sure homing point left standing. It was closed when I stopped by, but inside, a sign was taped to a shelf of basic off the shelf drug offerings, the lit-up soft drink machine posed sentinel-like against the back wall. The hand lettered note promised that the pharmacy would open as usual after the holiday.

In fact, owner Gary Linderman has been hanging on. He is not content with the buyout offered to him by the Federal government; nor, it seems, are more than one hundred Picher residents who feel they were coerced into unsatisfactory buyout compensation deals. They filed an appeal that has recently been taken up by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Here is a quote from the Joplin Globe story of last January:

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has agreed to review an Ottawa County court decision that shot down a lawsuit filed by more than 100 Picher-Cardin residents alleging problems with the recent buyout. Missy Beets, a former Picher resident who has relocated to Miami, said she is hopeful the high court will side with residents who allege they lost thousands of dollars when the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust and its appraisal companies “low-balled” the value of their properties. “I hope justice is served. We all have that in our hearts,’’ she said last week. Beets said it is difficult to let go of what’s happened to her family so that she can move on with her life. “I’ve quit concentrating on it because it was interfering with my daily life,’’ she said. “When you feel like — when you know in your heart that you have been wronged — it becomes all consuming. I try to block it out, but it’s always going to be there. I think about it every day.’’

Here is the full story:— “Oklahoma Supreme Court Accepts Picher Appeal” link

I recently spoke to Linderman about the ongoing saga of frustration that Picher home and property owners have in reaching what they deem to be an equitable settlement. He fears that the fight will be ongoing for years. On top of this, as reported in the May 5 edition of the Joplin Globe, a Rogers County judge has ruled that there was improper review and awarding of the $2.1 million demolition contract for 156 houses in Picher and Cardin.—“Judge Rules Picher Buyout Trust Violated Open Meetings Law” link

If it weren’t already bad enough that many folks had lost their homes and businesses, their very identities, it is now apparent that old demon graft and greed is afoot. But the simple reality remains that there are some longtime residents who, despite the hazards of continuing to live in Picher, just don’t want to leave. Their life stories are tied to the history of this town.

Linderman told me that, despite occasional vandalisms and burglaries, he feels safe. His utilities are still intact even with threats that services will be cut. His pharmacy continues to serve what is left of the surrounding communities of Treece and Cardin, and there is plenty of southbound traffic along Connell Street (US Hwy 69) that pulls into his place for a snack pit stop. He says that he has had no break-in attempts. One block south of the pharmacy stands a partial mural, left crumbling, of a demo-ed building proclaiming Picher to be “drug-free.” (some wrenching irony).

The month before Hoppy died, Linderman had been featured on national TV. He remains at the leading edge of Picher residents’ negotiations with the government.

Linderman also told me that although Hoppy’s Pastime Museum is boarded up, all the photos and artifacts of mining history are safely inside, and that Steve Ray is considering options to relocate them to a new venue, possibly to the nearby town of Commerce, just outside the toxic perimeter. I think Hoppy would reluctantly consider that to be “just fine.”



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