The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 6, 2013

N.Y. photojournalist, radio team honor former Kansas town

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni

BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. — The ZIP code 66778 is no good anymore.

The only place Treece, Kan., still exists is on Google Maps — for the time being, at least.

Type it in and you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of a three-block by five-block settlement dotted with trees and homes and a city hall on the Kansas-Oklahoma line.

Zoom out and you’ll see large patches of white — scars on the landscape that speak to the mining past of the town and the chat piles that used to surround it.

Drive there and you’ll see nothing. The streets are gone, even the 100-year-old elm tree that Mayor Bill Blunk’s wife, Judy, cherished in their front yard at 435 Kansas no longer stands.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency began a buyout of the 91-year-old town, once a top supplier of lead and zinc ore during World War I and World War II. It was included in Tar Creek, the largest EPA Superfund site in the United States, an ironic result of the mining that spurred its early growth.

The federal government allocated $3.5 million to Treece and appointed a trust to manage the funds. The average appraisal of a home there was less than $20,000, which residents were to use to relocate.

By June 2011, the Blunks had moved their trailer 12 miles away, and by 2012, almost all of the remaining 105 residents had left, scattering to Galena, Baxter Springs, Columbus and other Four-State Area towns. Their homes were auctioned and hauled away. Heavy equipment operators tore out the streets and bulldozed down the trees, including the Blunks’ elm.

But what happened between the buyout and the abandonment wasn’t lost to time. Numerous times during those three years, a photojournalist and a team of radio documentarians came to Treece.

Dina Kantor and Chaela Herridge-Meyer, both residents of New York City, whose projects ran simultaneously but not in partnership, both said their purpose was to honor the former town of Treece and document the residents’ collective story. Both were funded through grants by the Kansas Humanities Council.

Their paths would cross eventually, and last Tuesday, the two presented their bodies of work together as a photo slide show accompanied by an audio narrative to a few dozen Treece residents who reunited at the Baxter Springs Heritage Museum.

‘Distinct story’

“It’s a distinct story,” said Herridge-Meyer, who represents The Recollective, a multimedia storytelling collaborative.

“Ghost towns happen all the time. People grow up and move away and little by little, it disappears,” she said. “But in this case, people stayed. They had no way out. They couldn’t sell their homes, because they were living on condemned land. The buyout and abandonment — it’s a more abrupt ending than other ghost towns.”

She and other Recollective team members recorded 17 interviews, six of which were included in the 30-minute radio documentary “Treece, Kansas: Ghost Town in the Making.”

“Some were three hours long at several kitchen tables,” Herridge-Meyer said. “Several took us back to Treece, and we walked and saw where the mayor had lived or the outline of a garden.”

“To my eye, it was just gravel roads, driveways — but to them, they could still see the town. ‘That’s where I learned to ride my bike,’ one would say, or ‘That’s where this person lived, or that person lived.’”

Kantor, the photojournalist, made five trips to Treece, usually three weeks at a time. She said she worked sunrise to sunset and shot 600 rolls of film to capture images.

She soon learned it wasn’t an easy decision for Treece residents, many of whom had lived there for generations, to leave.

“You, by nature, want to be surrounded by people you have always known, to live where your memories were made, and we discovered that not everyone wanted to leave. There was a huge roller coaster of emotions,” Kantor said.

Tar Creek memories

But still, the orange banks of Tar Creek loomed in most residents’ minds. Blood tests of Treece children showed lead levels three times the national average. A couple whose children were planting a tree in their backyard and could hear water rushing when they dug the hole feared a cave-in and left.

Doug Gatewood, a Columbus native who at the time of the buyout was the Kansas state representative for the 1st District, which included Treece, was present Tuesday night to hear The Recollective’s radio documentary and to see Kantor’s slide show of dozens of images and her framed photo exhibit.

“It’s not a question of if we’re going to have a cave-in. It’s when,” Gatewood says in the radio documentary.

Gatewood recalled asking for a town meeting to discuss the buyout.

“I passed around a notebook and asked for name, address and whether they were for or against (the buyout),” he said.

Of the 79 in attendance, 76 supported it.

“There was some real reluctance,” he said, “but they supported the concept.”

Jeremy Johnston, 39, was one who didn’t. He chose to remain, living just at the outskirts of town.

“I’m fine,” Johnston said of his health.

“This is home. This is all I’ve ever known as home. And I’m perfectly content being here. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here now.”

As he and other Treece residents gathered at the museum to view the photo slide show and listen to the radio documentary, Judy Blunk dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

“It just brings back a lot of memories,” she said. “I lived there 22 years. I feel like my life was ripped away from me. We lost our sense of community.”

They won’t go back, her husband said, as that is “a past chapter of our lives.”

But they are glad to have had their story documented.

“I think they did a wonderful job. It’s nice to see our story preserved,” Judy Blunk said of the photo and audio projects.

Kantor wants to return to Treece at least one more time, however.

“The trust is making preparations to auction off the land,” she said. Whether it is used for grazing cattle, or hunting, or wildlife preservation, I would like to photograph that. It’s a story that should be told.”