Treece to get siren, place in history

As the town of Treece awaits word on whether the Environmental Protection Agency will buy out and move its last 100 or so residents, both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kansas State Historical Society are taking an interest.

A USDA grant will allow the town to install a tornado siren to replace the warnings that used to come from the adjoining city of Picher, Okla., which the federal government has already bought out and shut down.

And if Treece ultimately follows Picher into oblivion, as residents hope, a state historian will be trying to preserve the town's history for posterity.

Like Picher, Treece was once a prosperous mining town.

But a century of production left it dangerously undermined and surrounded by abandoned shafts, flooded cave-ins and mammoth piles of lead- and zinc-contaminated mine waste known as chat.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has pushed for the EPA to move the residents away from the hazardous conditions.

Sarah Little, an aide to Roberts, said he doesn't want to see the federal government spend a lot of money in Treece but considers the storm siren an exception. It's needed for the immediate safety of the townspeople and can be moved if the town is bought out, Roberts' office said in a statement.

"With Picher shutting down, Treece will lose its closest first responders, so it is especially important to get early warning of dangerous weather," Roberts said.

Longtime Treece resident Denny Johnston welcomed the plan to put in a siren.

"Well, good deal, we need one," he said. "We always listened for the one in Picher. I remember hearing it the day that Picher got blown away."

Six people were killed in the twister that hit the south end of Picher on May 11, 2008.

The USDA will provide $15,750 toward the new siren through its Rural Development Office. Another $4,830 will come from Cherokee County and $420 from Bingham Sand and Gravel, a local business that mines and transports chat for disposal in asphalt and concrete.

The $21,000 project cost is about equal to Treece's annual city budget.

And if Treece does go away, state historians want to make sure it's not forgotten.

Donna Rae Pearson, collection development specialist for the state Historical Society, said she plans to visit the community to record some of its history and heritage and its struggles with pollution and the EPA.

She said towns like Treece are of particular interest because their experiences illustrate population loss and other issues that many rural communities face.

But in a lot of small Kansas communities that have gone away, there was no repository for the local history.

"All we have is a dot on the map and we don't know much about it," she said.

She said state historians don't want that to happen to Treece, and "we've decided to take a proactive approach."