Town clings to memories of good days (2024)

By John David Sutter| Oklahoman

But Picher's pulse continues to beat faintly — and it will for quite some time.

That's just the spirit of this town.

"Once the dust settles,” said resident Kim Pace, "then we get back up, and we dust ourselves off. And we go again.”

No one believes Picher will rebuild after an EF-4 tornado killed six people and contributed to the death of a seventh . It turned neighborhoods into mulch. No government money will go toward rebuilding, and almost none of the victims say they would want to rebuild here.

But residents still see some life in Picher. Maybe the town lives just in the memories they take with them. Or maybe it's alive with the handful of people who still live and work here, just down the street from a disaster zone.

Whatever the case, said resident Patricia Williams and others, "Picher may be gone — but it never will be dead.”

There's just too much history.

The mining industry shot up out of the prairie. A wagon train caught the first glimpse of ore, and soon 20,000 people were living in Picher in the early 1900's. Picher became the heart of what was one of the largest lead and zinc mining districts in the world. The metals were turned into bullets for use in World Wars I and II — a point of pride for many Picherites.

Eventually, the ore deposits waned. The numbers of mine workers dwindled — and in 1970, the last mine closed.

One-hundred-foot-tall mountains of lead and zinc mine tailings (called "chat” by locals) still loom over the town's tallest tree or building.

By 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started to address the issue. They named a chunk of northeast Oklahoma the Tar Creek Superfund Site — one of the most urgent toxic waste sites in the country.

Picher had long been branded a hard-knuckled mining town. But the discovery of the contamination led to new stereotypes, with out-of-towners calling Picher's children "lead heads” and "chat rats.”

The town held tight to its underdog identity.

With the environmental remedies seen as failures or partial successes, talk of a buyout emerged. Paying people just to get out of harm's way might be cheaper and more effective than waiting for a cleanup.

It wasn't until 2004 that Gov. Brad Henry initiated a plan to pay families with young children to leave. Then, in 2006, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, a Tulsa Republican , had new evidence to call for a buyout.

A study showed hundreds of homes in town were at risk of collapsing into the abandoned mine workings.

Inhofe called for a buyout of all willing residents. More than 200 homes relocated so far.

Picher found itself in an internal war over the buyout. Those who wanted to leave were cast as villains who would abandon the town. Those who would stay were seen as ignorant.

But at the center of the feud was a thick current of love for this small town. It's the only home most people here have ever known.

Then came the tornado.

The tornado leveled the southern half of Picher, creating an area that's been compared to a "war zone” and an "alien landscape.” Trees were shorn of their bark, and neighborhoods became piles of sticks.

But Picher's main strip of mostly abandoned shops was left standing. So was the school. So was Jack Green's house and probably about 250 other homes, said city officials.

Green, like almost everyone, is in line for the federal buyout. The government made the 85-year-old an offer of $56,000 for his three-bedroom home. He doesn't think it's enough to start over.

"I'm stuck here,” he said, "because this house is worth nothing. No one would buy it. If I wanted to get a loan to put a new roof on it, the banks wouldn't loan it to me.”

If he finds a way to leave, Green also will leave his memories. Green lost his wife six years ago to cancer. Her bathroom remains untouched — shampoo and shower caps right where she left them.

For residents who lost their homes in the tornado, the buyout process has been accelerated to a matter of weeks.

For those with undamaged property, like Green, the wait could be more than a year, said J.D. Strong, chief of staff for the state environmental secretary.

For those who aren't on the fast track out of town, Gary Linderman's Ole' Miners Pharmacy has become the social gathering point.

Linderman says he opened back up Monday so his displaced and customers could refill their prescriptions.

He doesn't plan to close until someone makes him.

Lynda Ramsey Martinez, a Picher native who now lives in Mesa, Ariz., runs a photo and memories site at The Web page has had more than 6,000 hits since the tornado, she said, and people from all over the place, even other countries, are posting pictures from the storm and signing guest books for the victims.

"Picher will always be home. Picher's not gonna die in our minds or in our hearts,” she said by phone from Arizona. "We're a band of brothers and sisters, and nothing's gonna kill our spirit — nothing.”

Patricia Williams, 62, has recovered only a few of her photos that were lost when her trailer blew away in the tornado. But she has sisters, and she said she'll be able to pile together enough of a story to pass Picher on to others.

She doesn't know where to go from here. She got money from the Red Cross to go buy new clothes, but she doesn't know where to begin shopping for a new life.

But, she said, she'll always have her Picher family to bring her comfort.

"We're a tough bunch,” Williams said.

"We hold each other up.”

Town clings to memories of good days (2024)


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