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

ONE

Little Orval Ray came into the world on June 7, 1925. He was delivered by Dr. Heffelman in the Ray family home on Frisco Street, in the lead and zinc mine boomtown of Picher, Northeastern Oklahoma.

“The cost was $25 for this service. At this time, most babies were born at home.”

This is how Orval recalls his birth in his self-published, third person memoir, Just Call Me Hoppy. The nickname “Hoppy” stuck to the boy at an early age. Orval and his pals loved to haunt the local movie theaters, especially the Roxy and the Mystic, which featured the serials and pictures of their favorite Western stars. He says, “If you went to the Mystic on Saturday before five in the evening, the first 10 kids to get there… got to carry a sign that advertised for the movie. If you carried the sign around town for an hour you got to get in free.”

Each boy had a favorite Cowboy star. Some were loyal to Ken Maynard, some to Bob Steele, Buck Jones or Hoot Gibson. The singing cowboys were not very high on their list. Orval’s favorite was the white-haired William Boyd, “Hopalong” Cassidy.

Hopalong_Cassidy_photo one

Soon, Orval was known just as “Hoppy,” a moniker that has stuck to him for his 84 years. At age 13, “Hoppy” struck gold and got a job at the Roxy working the popcorn machine. He continues his youthful work roster in the years before he went down into the mines:

“He also helped to sweep the floors of the show at the end of the night. He liked to sweep the floors because he would find money on the floor. He would take his money and go to the Pastime Pool Hall on Main Street and Second Street. John Gibson owned the pool hall. He asked Hoppy how much he made at the Roxy each week. Hoppy told him $3. He said, ‘I’ll give you $3.50 and you can rack pool balls and play all you want.’ There were so many people in town that the place would be packed until midnight. Hoppy got so good at playing pool that John put him in against the drunken miners, playing ten ball and nine ball. He won as much as $20 some nights. He got half of what he won.”

Years later, after the Pastime Pool Hall had moved over to Connell Avenue, the main highway through Picher, Hoppy bought the business on the Fourth of July weekend, 1962. He paid $3000 for it and within 18 months he had turned a profit.  He describes how the Pastime evolved from pool hall to museum to music hall:

“Hoppy made a family recreation out of this business, so boys and girls could come in and play pool. It was a very popular place to have good, clean fun. Gabe McKinsey had a lot of old mining pictures on the wall of the Brass Rail Bar which was located two doors south of the pool hall. ‘Hoppy’ liked this idea so he decided to put some of him and his father’s mining pictures up on his wall… Kids would come in and say, ‘my mom and dad has some pictures like these.’ ”

Up on the wall all the photos went, dozens of them. Soon, other relics were given to Hoppy: old carbide-lamp miners’ hats, mining hammers and picks, zinc lunchboxes, and lots of ore samples. On the sidewalk out front of the Pastime, like a sentinel, rests an old, rusted ore can filled with rock. With all this stash at hand, it’s little surprise that in 1993 Hoppy got the place certified as a museum.

Hoppy’s beloved wife, Rita, passed away in October 1995. A short time after, a friend, Kenny Starling, who played harmonica with the “Wood Choppers Band,” told Hoppy that he and the band were looking for a place to practice. Hoppy promptly offered the Pastime, and soon Hoppy joined them on bass guitar. They became known as the “Pickers and Grinners Band.” Every Monday night they played for friends and for themselves at Hoppy’s “Pastime Mining Mini-Museum.”

They are still playing there in late 2009—after the mines are long closed, after Picher is no longer an active town, after all the residents have been bought out by the Federal government more than 20 years after it declared Picher a toxic Superfund Site, after sinkholes opened up 40 years ago and large properties had to be abandoned, and even after a tornado leveled dozens of abandoned and a few still lived-in homes last year. Hoppy told a CNN reporter that he would be the “last man standing” in Picher. Recently, his sons Steve and David moved him out of his Picher home while he was having breakfast at his favorite cafe. Hoppy Ray now resides in nearby Miami, seat of Ottawa County. He is still “standing.”

Several weeks ago, I drove out to Picher one Monday morning to take some photos for this essay. Here are a few of them:

Connell Street, looking south, Oct. 2009.
Connell Street, looking south, Oct. 2009.
“Chat” crushers, Oct. 2009.
“Chat” crushers, Oct. 2009.
Mine tailings, called "chat," approx. 60 ft. high, Oct. 2009.
Mine tailings, called "chat," approx. 60 ft. high, Oct. 2009.

On a hunch, I stopped by the museum with my sister-in-law, Charlene Lingo, who lives in Miami. Sure enough, Hoppy was out back. One of his sons fetched him. Charlene and I talked to Hoppy inside the museum, looked at the old mining pictures on the walls and inspected the cabinet of carbide lamps and ore samples. Hoppy had copies of his recent third person autobiographies and a DVD of a documentary that had been made about the history of Picher and its slow, inexorable demise.  The title is The Creek Runs Red.

Hoppy told us he’d continue picking away with his band at the Pastime on Monday evenings until the state closed him down. A widening of Highway 69 from the north had reached the Kansas-Oklahoma border and Hoppy feels certain it is just a matter of time before a four-lane highway comes through Picher, down McConnell Avenue, and sweeps away all the abandoned storefronts with it, including the Pastime Museum.

Hoppy and me, Monday Oct. 12, 2009.
Hoppy and me, Monday Oct. 12, 2009.

In June of this year CNN broadcast a report about Picher, from its heyday to its last days. Hoppy was the featured narrator. An environmental activist, Rebecca Jim, midway through the story provides a capsule summary of the environmental disaster that forced the dissolution of the town: for his part, Hoppy prefers to think that much of the toxicity comes from rusting mining equipment abandoned in the now flooded mines. He returns at the end of the video, sitting in a chair in his museum, leaning on his cane, not happy, but whistling softly, resigned to Picher’s fate. Here’s the report:

www.cnn.com video link

And here’s the link to a full article by John Sutter, a more in depth portrait of this stalwart man—along with more photos:

www.cnn.com article link

TWO

When Orval Ray was born in 1925, Picher was already a thriving community. Its many mines provided employment that allowed the town to grow to over 19,000 workers and residents. A roll call of the names of some of the mines can only suggest the fervid activity that was roiling beneath the busy streets. “The Golden Rod,” “Cactus,” “Nellie B,” “Red Bird,” “Netta,” “Turkey Fat,” “Wyskbroom,” “See Sah,” and  “Blue Goose,” are just a few of the mines that ran ore through the Eagle-Picher Mill. As the town continued to grow, the number and height of the dozens of mine tailing hills or “chat piles” also grew apace. Residents saw these small mountains as markers of prosperity, not as the towering symbols of toxicity that they one day would be labeled.

Down in Miami at the Dobson Museum, there is a wall stacked with photos of mine crews, from early in the century to the last mine’s closure in 1970. Their ranked rows of miners, frontally posed, look much like the Miami High School graduating class portraits hanging on the adjacent wall.

Picher became an incorporated town in 1918. By then, it was already a thriving if hardscrabble place to live. So rapid was its growth that few homes or public places had indoor toilets:

Life above ground was not much easier than that below. In August of 1918, the first hospital, Elmhurst, was opened to treat injuries and to deal with the occupational hazard of “miner’s con,” consumption, what we now call tuberculosis. The “powder monkeys,” “machine men,” “cokey herders,” “screen apes,” and hundreds of men with dozens of other specialized jobs, streamed out of the mines on nights and weekends seeking release from the dirt, danger and claustrophobia of their work. Their wives and children grew up surrounded by the mines. The chat piles hosted children’s “King of the Mountain” games in summer and served as sled runs in the winter.

Hoppy says that at its apex, Picher bragged as many as five movie theaters, two skating rinks, two bowling alleys, and twenty-two bars. He doesn't mention any brothels. If you could reach up to the bar to put down a quarter, you could get a drink. In more polite society, this was the era of the speakeasy. Hoppy talks about these days in his memoir:

Picher was the place to be on a Saturday night. People would come from all over the four state areas to shop and visit. It was so full of people, it took an hour to walk across town . . . There was not enough parking on Main Street at this time so they parked in the middle of the street.

Main Street.
Main Street.
Traffic.
Traffic.

A comprehensive gallery of photos of Picher in its glory days has been compiled by John Schehrer. In the left margin at this site click on “Picher, Oklahoma, 1-5.” There are also rare photos of the mines and its denizens:

schehrer2.homestead.com link

Efforts to unionize the work force began in spring of 1935. Here is Hoppy’s recollection of the struggle:

… The CIO Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Union had a series of meetings… .The miners had no benefits, no insurance, and no hospitalization… The miners staged a strike. They had a large meeting at Galena, Kansas. Things got out of hand, a riot took place, there were 9 people killed at Galena. (Two rival unions battled it out on the streets along with scabs, for several years, during which martial law was declared and troops were brought out to quell riots) The final agreement was signed in 1939; the CIO won this battle (and) the miners got the benefits they were after.

There was a lot of pride as well as patriotism in Picher. Many of the mining crew photos, especially ones taken between 1942 and 1945, display an American flag alongside the miners. Hoppy says it was these mines that provided the lead bullets that went into the weapons of American troops in two world wars. He reflects that there should be a memorial built to the town, not a dismantling.

photo eleven 1937 mine crew
Eagle-Picher Crew, June 17, 1937.
Eagle, Picher crew, 1943 "We do our part."
Eagle, Picher crew, 1943 "We do our part."

Eagle-Picher Mill closed off four square blocks of downtown in December of 1949. Despite all the shoring up inside the mines, parts of Picher were in danger of imminent collapse. Many businesses had to be relocated. A few years later, the price of lead and zinc had dropped so much that mines started to close. It was a downward spiral that would not stop—not until May of last year when an EF 4 tornado coming out of the northwest, drove a stake through its barely beating heart.

Part two will continue the story of Picher

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