PICHER — Two years ago, Orval "Hoppy” Ray vowed it would take someone meaner than him to make him leave the town where he was born. But now the crusty, 84-year-old former miner is moving out, leaving behind a blighted, ghostly landscape, its soil, water and air poisoned by generations of lead-ore extraction that produced bullets for both world wars.
After two heart attacks and a tornado that badly damaged his house, Ray lost whatever fight he had left and decided to accept a government buyout, as nearly all his neighbors in Picher have already done. "You can’t fight City Hall,” said Ray, who worked Picher’s lead mines in the 1940s and, for now, runs a musty pool hall on the main drag. "They’ve got you squeezed seven ways from Sunday.” Under the $60 million cleanup program, homeowners and businesses in and around Picher are being bought out, and the buildings will eventually be bulldozed. Some of the contaminated soil has already been hauled away; next to go are the 100-foot-high mountains of lead mining waste that loom over the town.
Once a town of 20KBy early next year, Picher will be little more than a name on a map. From 20,000 people at its peak and about 1,700 when the buyouts started two or three years ago, about 80 are left. Ray and a few dozen other people who had hoped to make a last stand here changed their minds after a tornado tore through in May 2008, killing six people and leveling more than 100 homes. "Dad had to say yes to a buyout,” said his 62-year-old son, Steven. "I had damage. Wallpaper’s buckling. I got to get the hell out of there.” Some guess as few as four residents, a dozen at most, will stay, in many cases because they are too stubborn or fearful or sentimental to move, despite buyout offers of around $60,000 for a modest house. The people who do try to stay, like Jean Henson, will have to survive in a near-wasteland without utilities, police or laws. "I grew up in the country; we had to haul water,” said Henson, 58, who has asthma, emphysema and other ailments. "If I have to, I can do it again.” These are scenes from a town marking its final days: A dust-coated General Electric wall clock sits in a store window, its hands stopped at 2:20.