By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
MIAMI, Okla. —
Billie Crawford, 89, sat in a director’s chair Monday afternoon in the lower level of the Dobson Museum and recalled in front of a video camera all that he could about his 50 years in mining.
“I can remember where I worked the first day and where I shoveled,” Crawford told the interviewer, Tom Mast. “It was May 16, 1942 ... at Central Mill for EaglePicher.”
The scene — miner, interviewer, director’s chairs, video camera — is one that will play out dozens of times in the coming weeks as a documentary team gathers footage for “The Ozarks Uplift: The Story of Tri-State Mining.”
It’s a production that backers believe will be the first of its kind.
“It’s going to involve all of our states and will explain who we are and why we are,” said Steve Roark, president of the Newton County (Mo.) Tourism Council, which has headed up seeking investors for the project. “All of the things we have today were either an offshoot of or were promoted by mining. A lot of it we take for granted, but we can trace what this area is now back to the zinc, the lead and the coal that was used to get the ore out of the zinc and lead.
“We want to try to hit very hard on the human side of the story: how it affected families, what it meant to them. There are a lot of compelling stories out there.”
One such story is the one told by Crawford, an Anderson, Mo., native who worked in Oklahoma to build what would become an iconic chat pile at the Central Mill, located between Commerce and Picher. It was 365 feet high and more than a football field in length.
“It took 15 million tons, they figured,” Crawford said.
He also helped to clear the pile when the mine closed in 1970. Until he retired in 1992, mining was very much a part of his family’s everyday life. Danger also was an everyday part of life, he said, from the lung disease silicosis to cave-ins, and he saw several men die as a result. But they didn’t worry too much about it, he said.
“Everybody back then, you were just looking for something to eat,” he said.
The documentary crew that will be filming stories like Crawford’s, along with thousands of photos and historical documents provided by area museums, is under the direction of Paul Wannenmacher, of Springfield, Mo. Roark pointed to him as the brainchild for the idea.
Wannenmacher has three previous credits in conjunction with the tourism council: a documentary on Thomas Hart Benton, a native of Neosho, Mo.; a documentary on noted Western artist Charles Banks Wilson, of Oklahoma; and a documentary on the Newtonia Battlefield in Newton County.
“We believe this one has the potential to be our crown jewel,” Roark said, noting that the documentary will include not only the prosperity that mining brought to the area, but also the human and environmental costs of mining.
“I think people just knew it was a story worth telling,” said Wannenmacher, who worked in an Ohio steel mill during the summers to put himself through college in the late 1960s and describes his upbringing as “very blue collar.”
“Somehow eons ago, the movement of the earth here deposited great ore into two counties in Kansas, two counties in Missouri and two counties in Oklahoma,” he said. “This area did not know state lines. State lines today are hurting us. People in Southeast Kansas actually have more in common with Southwest Missouri than with people in Wichita. Perhaps they just haven’t realized it.
“And individually, perhaps each of those areas doesn’t have a strong enough story to attract interest, to attract someone coming through the area on their way somewhere else. But put them together, and it’s stronger.”
Roark telling the story with a regional approach could serve to benefit the museums and historical attractions in the Tri-State Area.
“We have wonderful museums in these areas,” Roark said. “There are a wealth of resources we think have a very important place in tourism. We want to try to break down these natural barriers we call state borders to cross-promote tourism efforts.”
The one-hour documentary will air on Ozarks Public Television out of Springfield and will be sold at area museums. Any footage that ends up on the cutting room floor will be organized and made available to museum archives for research.
“It has the potential of really unifying the area and opening up a better dialogue,” Roark said It’s a very important part of our history, a history that touches all of us.”
THE CREW WILL FOCUS on interviews at museums in the Kansas communities of Baxter Springs, Franklin, West Mineral and Pittsburg, and in the Missouri towns of Joplin, Granby, Carthage and Seneca.