Oklahoma ghost town: What's left of Picher, Okla. in 2016
PICHER, Okla. (KTUL) – The people who’ve moved away from Picher still talk about their high school teams and their 1984 football state championship, but most of all they miss the town that team represented.
There are now just five occupied homes in a town that was home to 14,000 people in the early part of the 21st century.
The mining scars on the land are obvious, but the real problem is the lead and other heavy metals in the water and the soil beneath their feet.
Former Mayor Sam Freeman says it’s sad.
"I love the place. Don't really care for the environment," Freeman said with a smile.
Like many others, Freeman started working in the lead mines as a teenager. He followed generations of Oklahoma miners who provided the lead to fight two world wars.
The work helped his family, but the mines were the death of his town.
While he's moved a few miles away, he's glad a few people have stayed in Picher.
“Some of the finest people on earth came from right here in Picher, Okla. Yeah, we had our problems, but you'll never find a prouder group of people anywhere," said Freeman.
The town was dissolved when it was learned that more than a third of the children had lead poisoning.
In addition, the people who remain face a constant threat of cave-ins.
A lot of the area’s land belongs to the Quapaw Tribe, their environmental director says it’s because of the mining methods that were used.
“There really weren't any mining rules back then, 100 years ago," said Tim Kent. "Sometimes they'd mine until they'd see tree roots.”
Opal Alexander now lives nearby in Commerce, but she grew up in Picher. She says she’s afraid to drive through the area.
“I had seen one cave-in when I was a kid, just two houses down from my mother," said Alexander. "It caved in under one woman's bedroom."
Despite its problems, Alexander says she’ll never forget her hometown of Picher.
“It was like family, everybody was like family. If you needed something there was somebody here who was going to help you get it. It was just that way," said Alexander.
While she realizes Picher is gone for good, there are plans to save this troubled land. Uncle Sam plans to return much of the remaining land to the Quapaw Nation, and the tribe is already restoring some of the area.
The worst of the land could become a wildlife refuge, but most of it will be returned to pasture land.
A restored prairie is a better backdrop for people's memories than empty buildings and boarded up doors.