Orval Ray, Last Man Standing in Toxic Town—Part Two

ONE

This is the bar “The Brass Rail” as it appears in October of 2009. It is two doors down on Connell Avenue from Hoppy’s “Pastime Museum.” Now abandoned, it was one of the active drinking hot spots during Picher, Oklahoma’s freewheeling heyday.

As the mines began to close down through the 50s and 60s, and as the reality began to emerge that Picher was not just another small Midwest town losing population to high tech centers, residents hunkered town and tried to console themselves in the pride they had for their history and for their homes.  They were starting to realize that the huge chat piles of mine tailings all around them were, in fact, deadly. The last mine closed in 1970, leaving behind a sordid legacy of pollution, degraded land, and unemployment. It was once beautiful and fertile land, home to several relocated Native American tribes, mainly the Quapaw, who now knew that their sacred land, once leased to the mining companies, was forever ruined.

My first encounter with this northeast corner of Oklahoma bordering Kansas and Missouri was in 1963. I was a senior at Loyola University, Los Angeles, hoping to begin graduate studies the next year at USC Cinema School. I had hitchhiked to Norman, Oklahoma to meet up with Carol Littleton, then a student at OU. We planned to spend Christmas with her family in her hometown of Miami, a ten-minute drive south of Picher. I had heard much local talk about the towns of Picher, Cardin, Commerce and Treece and thought their closed down mines would make interesting photo essays. We drove up there, my 35mm still camera in tow, on a blustery post-Christmas morning. I was not prepared for the oversize scale of the chat piles, nor their proximity to family homes, nor for the pervasive feel of a community really down on its luck.

Carol eventually moved to Los Angeles. A few years later we married and began careers in film. The fate of these troubled mining towns went pretty much out of my memory until a recent return trip when I read about Picher’s long, slow decline. Here is a timeline chart of the town’s downward spiral:  just click “1914” to track the decades.

www.cnn.com article link

Several years after my 1963 visit to Picher, more sinkholes opened up, a mine collapsed, and nine homes were lost. Traffic was diverted around town; there was fear that Highway 69, the main artery from the Kansas border to the Miami entrance of the Will Rogers Turnpike, would be closed, the ground unable to sustain the weight of a stream of 18-wheelers. And in 1979, a local rancher found orange water bubbling up on his land from underground. It flowed into nearby Tar Creek. The water was found to be highly acidic and contaminated with lead and a cocktail of other heavy metals; it had streamed up from the flooded mines.

In 1981, the decade old EPA declares Picher an environmental hazard.  Most of the area is named the “Tar Creek Superfund Site” and it assumes the highest priority. Cleanup begins but the scale of the devastation is awesome: 47 square miles, over 25,000 acres of highly toxic land, 80% of Picher directly over mines and slowly disappearing into sinkholes.

The once close-knit town begins to unravel as many parents worry about their children’s exposure to the toxins (43% of the population are found to have diabetes; strange tumors erupt in children; high levels of lead are found in blood samples; school test scores drop and mental impairment is feared.) Other families, many with four or five generations invested in the community, want to remain and help clean up the mess. Patience wanes, tempers flare all during the 90s  as evidence of the cleanup seems scarce. Contaminated topsoil and land around homes is scraped and carted off, leaving front yards and basements vulnerable to flooding with the next rain. Mold blooms. The chat piles seem as high as ever.

In 2000, a relocation plan is discussed in the Oklahoma State Legislature. It is still on the table three years later, but at last is formally introduced in January of 2004. Five months later, Governor Brad Henry approves a buyout and relocation of all families with children under six years old.  In 2006, there are more sinkholes and collapses. Finally, the Federal and State governments agree to a buyout of all residents. There is no choice, even for diehard residents like Hoppy. No one will buy their homes or land; the already abandoned or torn down homes fester on the landscape as blight worse than the chat piles and sinkholes.

And on May 10, 2008, almost as an act of Mother Nature’s euthanasia, a tornado rips through Picher, missing the north part of town and Hoppy’s museum, but flattening block after block of the old clapboard homes. Below is a news video link.

What I find so moving about this clip is that it does not so much feature the physical devastation as the portraits of people who having had so little, have now lost everything.

Joplin resident, John Schehrer, who has compiled a comprehensive photo history of Ottowa Country from the mining days until now, documented the destruction done to Picher by the tornado:

schehrer2.homestead.com link

The end came fast. Those who had not yet accepted the government buyout, finally did so. In April of 2009, by a vote of 55-6, the remaining residents voted to dissolve the Picher-Cardin School District. That June, fewer than 50 students were left; only seven made up the last graduating class. By this past September, Picher, at least officially, ceased to be a town.

About eight years ago a group of documentary filmmakers, led by Bradley Beesley decided to make a film about the decline of Picher. Its focus is on the people, not the property, nor on the dry statistics of Picher as a Superfund site. That frustrating saga is merely the frame for a deeply emotional narrative of vulnerable American families in crisis. Here is a trailer for the film, The Creek Runs Red. Hoppy is narrating:

The other two producer-directors of The Creek Runs Red are Julianna Brannum and James Payne. They all showed the finished film to Picher residents in September of 2007. Here are the directors’ thoughts on the making of the film- the whys and hows of their very engaged work:

www.pbs.org/independentlens link

What is only suggested in the trailer is the depth of lasting emotion about Picher among its remaining residents. There are parents who are in fear for the developmental status of their kids despite their ties to the town; the students, who have real community bonding and peer relationships centered around the activities of Picher-Cardin High School, whose mascot is the “Gorillas,” and, finally, the residents like Hoppy whose very identity is invested in the legacy of his town, come what may.

The high school campus, now a school only by virtue of the signage, shows none of the decay so evident elsewhere. The school was clearly a source of community pride until the very end. The Picher-Cardin football team had won the state championship in 1984 and “Gorillas” spirit still ran high, as if in defiance of the label of “lead heads” and “chat rats” hurled at them by competing schools. Here are photos of the school track and field house that I made recently.

photo two, part two
Picher-Cardin High School track.
photo three, part two
The fieldhouse.

And here are two contrasting photos, the first an abandoned home that somehow escaped tornado destruction and a single home a few blocks from Hoppy’s Museum that still shows pride of ownership.

photo four part two
An abandoned home.
photo five part two
A still maintained home, maybe Bill Lake's.

“D and D” is a local drive in burger joint a short distance from the high school. Despite its claim to being the last food joint in town still open—it is also now closed.

photo six part two
The D&D Drive-In, near Picher-Cardin High School.
photo eight part two
Sign on Highway 69, north side of Picher.

There is only one way to take measure of the grit of people who live in towns like this, whose sense of identity is so intertwined with the history of their communities. For those of us who live in the anonymity of large cities, it is impossible to gage the complex web of family, friends, church, school that so tightly binds some Americans, so tightly that even as they become ever more aware of the world beyond, and even as their kids leave for the temptations of the cities, they stay rooted to where they were born and raised.

This is the theme of The Creek Runs Red. It was shown last March on the PBS documentary series The Independent Lens. You can get a DVD of it online or in your Netflix chain:

datapanicdistro.com link

But PBS has placed the whole film online as well. Watching it, even here, is an hour of your time that will be richly rewarded. Here is the link:

The film was finished before the worst came; it tracks the recent history of Picher, but not the end game. You will meet some of Picher’s residents—Walter and Wilba Jones have lived in Picher for 40 years and refuse to move. Maude Smith, a Quapaw, and her grandson, JR Mathew, want out. They own 80 acres of now worthless land. Their family, the Crawfish, sees no future in the land that their ancestors were forcibly re-located to, from their native home in Arkansas. They will have been doubly re-located; they say that now people will understand how their people felt. John Sparkmann is a member of the Steering Committee for the relocation plan and an advocate of re-locating the children.  Bill Lake is a slightly wacky diehard resident and proud homeowner who wants to make a new Picher like the one he has constructed with his model railroad set. Betty Cole is the owner of “Betty’s Dairy In”; she discovers that she has a tumor and reflects on all the sick children, one of whom is young Jason Dixon, who had a very rare tumor removed from his spinal cord and who now walks with a limp. Sam Freeman is the three term Mayor of Picher who earns one dollar a year for all the aggravation he gets. Kim Pace is principal of the elementary school; she understands the conflicting emotions of her young students. Pastor Jim McFarland is a fiery evangelical who exhorts his congregation to “don’t give up.” Hoppy Ray plays and sings with his musicians at the Pastime, confident there will be a better tomorrow.

The film humanizes all these intersecting fears and hopes. It seems as if all is going to work out. In the final scene the Oklahoma governor has approved a re-location of some families and Picher’s folks celebrate a kind of victory at a local fair.

They don’t know that the worst is yet to come.

Picher_Tornado_121__Small_.JPG
Tornado devastation, chat pile in the distance.
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