New life envisioned for old lead mines

Sunday, May 27, 2007
Art Hebrank, left, site administrator for the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, walked in front of the unrestored buildings of Federal Mill No. 3, which he hopes one day might be part of his dream plan of renovation of the Missouri State Mine Museum site in Park Hills, Mo. He was joined by volunteer Ann Hampton, right, of Irondale, Mo. (Laurie Skrivan ~ Post-Dispatch)

PARK HILLS, Mo. -- Sometimes wind rattles the windowpanes and boards, but for the most part Federal Mill No. 3 is quiet. Smokestacks have rusted. More than 1,000 miles of underground mine tunnels have flooded with water.

Time has taken its toll.

At its peak, the 25-acre complex was the center of industry for the Old Lead Belt. Thousands of miners in the region worked for the St. Joseph Lead Co., which bought the mill in the 1920s. They called the company "Uncle Joe," and miners lived in nearby towns such as Leadington and Leadwood.

Lead was life.

Now, the complex is a historic site, and those who run it believe glory days of a different kind are ahead for this piece of Missouri history.

Art Hebrank, right, site administrator for the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, explains a model of the old power plant while giving a tour Saturday afternoon, May 19, 2007, in the museum at the old lead mine in Park Hills, Mo., May 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes) ** NO MAGAZINES, NO TV, NO SALES, SLOUT **

Perhaps no one believes it more than the site's administrator, Art Hebrank. He spends hours telling tales of the mining culture and geological history to the thousands of St. Louis-area children who visit what is now the Missouri Mines State Historic Site.

"This is my dream place," said Hebrank, 65. He and the staff want to expand the existing museum, restore more of the mining complex and display the artifacts they have but have never shown. If done correctly, the mining site that Hebrank says was once the largest of its kind in the world would become one of the best mining museums in the nation.

But with a $40 million budget to run 82 other sites and parks, the Missouri Division of State Parks has to be selective when it comes to spending.

Hebrank and others working toward the expansion just hope to see it in their lifetimes.

Hebrank has spent the last 40 years working for the state, mostly with the Department of Natural Resources' geology survey.

About 14 years ago, he became site administrator. He knows that labels on the displays shouldn't take more than 15 seconds to read. Otherwise, people lose interest, he says.

When it comes to museums, he also knows what this one could become.

When Hebrank takes a vacation he goes to other mine sites in the nation, bringing back ideas for the Park Hills museum. Name a state, and Hebrank can recite the names of the mining sites there.

The Park Hills complex was designated a historic site in 1980, about eight years after it closed. Drills, air compressors, shovels and ore cars were left behind. After the state took over, private donors and other museums began handing over collections.

What's on display at the site is only a fraction of what the museum has acquired.

The plans for the complex call for a replica of a mining company store near the entrance. Other buildings like the mill and machine shop would be restored.

Hebrank and the staff don't have an estimate for how much the project would cost. They don't have a timetable, either.

For now, they're using the funds they have to update the existing museum, which includes three galleries inside the site's 19,000-square-foot powerhouse.

Hebrank says he wouldn't put everything on display. "You have to think, 'What is the story we're going to tell?"' he said. "You can't just line it all up."

Hebrank and Delecia Huitt, of the Division of State Parks, will outline their vision in a development plan next month. These plans are written by all 83 sites and parks in the state on a rotating basis and outline goals for the next 10 years.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: