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Lead Belt History

Browsing a used book store a few months ago, I came across this book, which is a 1992 reprint of a 1955 book by Henry C. Thompson, who wrote historical columns for St. Francois county newspapers, was a life member of the State Historical Society of Missouri, and worked for many years as an electrical engineer for the St. Joseph Lead Company. He served as the semi-official historian for the company, and his papers are now housed in the State Historical Society’s collection at Rolla.

Reading Thompson’s book (which is a collection of his columns), I was struck by the cyclical nature of the mining industry. An entrepreneur makes a find or develops a new technology, which permits extraction of a new amount of minerals, and then eventually the mine plays out, leaving devastated workers and land behind to cope as best they can. Here’s what the old St. Joe mine looks like today:

St Joe Mine

Photo from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources

In a brief but striking essay published as a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books, Wendell Berry makes a key point: “Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy. The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and ‘labor’—has been taken at the lowest possible price.”

It is tempting to view this trend fatalistically, as the consequence of the inexorable march of progress and improvement, a sort of social Darwinism of the landscape. The downtrodden, less fit for the rigors of the modern economy, must either “get big or get out,” in the words of Eisenhower Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, as quoted by Berry. Another way to see it is conspiratorial, the “they’re out to get us” mentality which was played on so successfully by Mr. Trump in last year’s election. I prefer to see the emptying out of Rural America as neither. The immense “agribusinesses” which have come to dominate American farm life, and the companies which remove the resources and which employ the labor (domestic if they’re cheap enough, imported if not), aren’t really out to destroy rural economies. They just don’t care whether they do, as long as the product gets extracted. And if it plays out, they can just move on, leaving behind the remnants of equipment and the people who ran them.

Glover smelter

The empty lead smelting plant at Glover, Missouri.

But while the logic of capital is not conspiratorial, neither is it inevitable, although it is immensely powerful. Rural communities across America are looking for ways to reinvent themselves, as I mentioned in an earlier post. The old St. Joe mine, pictured above, is now a state park, where vacationers ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers over the old mine tailings, and where the history of mining in Missouri is detailed in an excellent state historic site.

But to reach the State Historic Site stage, that mine had to reach a state of economic unviability. History’s closest companion is usually sadness, and one can’t think of these vast old enterprises without thinking of the laborers who built and ran them, just as I can never drive by one of the great wind farms now foresting our landscape without thinking of the human farmers who can no longer make a living on that acreage.


A wind farm in Michigan.

The extractive relationship between city and rural is a significant theme in my next novelThe Language of Trees, so perhaps this theme is just on my mind more than usual. But I do hope that our great American rural landscape is due for a cultural renaissance, although I don’t know where that renaissance is going to come from at present.