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The History of Mining in the Ozarks

With the advent of new technology and coal-powered factories in the mid-19th century, mining exploded as a booming business across the United States, and the Ozarks were no exception. For KSMU’s ongoing series, “Sense of Place,” reporter Emma Wilson explores the history of mining Missouri’s mineral heavyweight, lead.

[Sound: walking up steps, chatting of another tour in the background]On a recent Friday, I toured the Tri-State Mineral Museum in the Joplin Museum Complex to discover how the town went from being a rural area with few residents to a boom town at the turn of the 20th century. I was fortunate enough to speak with the resident expert.

“We’ve kind of stepped back in time,”

That’s Brad Belk, the director of the museum complex in Shifferdecker Park in Joplin,

“We’re over in the mineral wing, and this dates back to the 1930s. Actually, the building we’re in right now, Emma, is a former concession stand that was built in 1909”

And in 1909, Joplin was already a thriving hub of commerce, brought here by the lead and zinc mines. Belk gestures to the sequence of scale models chronicling the history of mining in the area, from early surface mining to the large display that fills up the room.

“So this is a 1930s mill. The mills were extremely important. They dotted the landscape in this tri-state area.”

We move on to a series of black and white panoramic pictures of nameless miners, dressed in their coveralls, standing in front of mills.

“The mining industry required so much labor, hand labor, to do the task underground and above ground. And so therefore it employed a lot of people,” Belk says.

To fully appreciate the history of lead mining in the Ozarks, we need to rewind back even further. In 1870, the Joplin area was as rural as any other at the time, with few residents. In 1873, the city of Joplin was established as a mining town. Almost as instantaneously, other businesses sprung up to serve the miners and their operations. Metal workers produced mining equipment and explosives, and bars, convenience stores, and gambling establishments contributed to the growth of Joplin as a boom town. The mines were in operation extracting zinc and lead ores until the 1960s. They are now entirely flooded.

Joplin and the other towns in the tri-state area were certainly not the only ones founded on mining. Since the very first European settlement in the Ozarks, mining has played a huge role in the economy of this region. There are many cases in the “Lead Belt” of the eastern Ozarks where towns were literally built by mining companies. These companies would build schools, roads, and other infrastructure for the miners and their families. Bob Roscoe has worked in the mines in the Viburnum area of central Missouri since the late 1970s. He’s now a general manager for the Doe Run Company, which owns most of the remaining operating mines in Missouri.

“I live in Vibernum, actually on St. Joe Street, which was named after the company that pretty well built the town of Vibernum. [The company] built the high school and the shopping center and the country club,” Roscoe says

That old mining company, St. Joe Minerals Corporation, eventually became part of Doe Run. Vibernum and the surrounding area is called the “New Lead Belt”—the so-called “Old Lead Belt” is about 40 miles south of there. The area is responsible for supplying around 80% of the lead used in the United States, which is mostly used for batteries. Doe Run also mines for zinc and copper along with the lead ore. Roscoe says that mining and the technology used have changed drastically since he began working. Today, the underground mines today are not exactly what you’d imagine.

Roscoe says, “It’s like a little city, actually. We supply our own electricity, we have fiber optics communication, we have lunchrooms, we have mechanical shops to repair our equipment, we have warehouses where we store all our parts.”

Coming from a mining family himself, part of what attracts Roscoe to the occupation, he says, is the unique culture and relationships cultivated between workers.

“We consider ourselves family. A lot of the people really are related, too, as well. There’s grandfathers and fathers and sons and cousins and a lot of people in different parts of our company that do work together. But because working together is so important for each person’s safety over time that creates quite a bond between people who are working underground,” he says.

Gone are the days of kerosene and lard lamps clipped to miner’s caps—today, miners have a fully wired underground city. Their grandfathers used a patchwork underground rail system to move ore and rock filled buckets but today’s mining has giant underground trucks that carry literally tons of rock and ore. Throughout all these changes, however, the bonds between miners remain the same. Though it has become relatively safer, working underground will always be dangerous and that work environment will always, as it has, create the unique communities that contribute to our regional diversity here in the Ozarks.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.