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Area ties: Oklahoma town gets double whammy

Managing editor

As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can never go home again.”

For Marion Police Chief and resident Josh Whitwell and his family, it is true, but pleasant memories remain.

Born in Baxter Springs, Whitwell grew up in Picher, Okla., — a community just south of the Kansas line and west of the Missouri line.

In 2007, townspeople of the small, mining town were paid to leave their community because of exposure to lead and the risk of cave-ins.

Lead and zinc mines brought prosperity to the town before World War II, boosting the town’s population as a high as 16,000. The mines were shut down in the 1970s, causing many to leave the town.

Whitwell lived there until he was 10 years old (1990). Most of his family lived there — his grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. And most remained until the buy-out.

Part of the Tar Creek Superfund site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined soil and water in the city and in the area around the mines were contaminated. State and federal governments spent more than a year buying residents’ homes and properties.

Besides pollution dangers, there also was a risk of the ground collapsing because of mining tunnels running underground.

“I spent nearly every summer in Picher after we moved,” Whitwell said. “I even talked about moving back my senior year in high school to help my Grandma.”

The Marion High School graduate said Picher was not much different from Marion.

“Everybody knows everybody else. Kids hang out in a park,” he said.

Whitwell said the town’s slogan was “The Town that Jack Built,” with “Jack” being a mineral mined in the area.

“They would pull ‘chat’ from mines and pile it up everywhere,” he said. “There would be 20 acres of the mineral. We would play on it as kids.”

EPA officials determined that piles of chat were full of lead, causing birth defects and developmental problems to the town’s children.

When Picher was a thriving mining town, there were miner tents and shacks throughout the town. However, it was a community with many poor people, Whitwell said.

His grandparents lived in Picher all their lives. His grandfather worked in Joplin, Mo., which was near Picher, and since has died.

When the buy-out began, it divided the community.

“Some wanted to stay, some wanted to go,” Whitwell said. “There’s a pharmacist there who said he wanted to be the last one to leave.”

Two years ago, Whitwell’s grandmother, Mary Sue Brookshire, sold her property to the government, a home she lived in for more than 50 years. She now lives in Miami. Other relatives have accepted offers and moved from their homes.

“There are still about 100 people there,” Whitwell said.

On May 12, 2008, two people died when a tornado tore through the town, destroying what little remained that wasn’t bought-out or torn down.

One of Whitwell’s childhood friends lost his wife in that storm.

According to Whitwell, his friend, and his friend’s wife and son were thrown from their home. The woman was found dead, covering her 4-year-old son. The man and son survived.

Whitwell also has a famous childhood friend. He played baseball with Joe Don Rooney, guitarist and vocalist with the country music group, Rascal Flatts.

Even though Whitwell cannot return to the home of his childhood, his memories will remain with him and his family. And the little town of Picher, Okla., will remain close to his heart.

Last modified May 13, 2009

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