As residents of contaminated Treece await federal buyouts, they brace for a hard goodbye

TREECE — After years of fighting to get out of this contaminated community, longtime residents are facing the reality that they'll be leaving home for the last time when the government buys out their town.

Overall, support for the buyout remains strong, especially among families with young children, who are most at risk from the contaminated mine waste that surrounds this southeast Kansas town.

But for some longtime residents, leaving Treece is emotionally much more wrenching, now that the relocation program is getting under way.

In about two years, Treece will follow the neighboring town of Picher, Okla. —which faced similar environmental threats — into civic oblivion.

The land and groundwater here are polluted with lead and zinc well past the point of a public health threat.

The ground, Swiss-cheesed with a century of mine tunnels, has a tendency to sink under houses.

And for want of money and maintenance, the town is literally falling apart.

Some of the older residents recognize the need to go, but are facing the uncertainty of starting over in a new town for the first time in decades.

And a few say they plan to stay, no matter what.

Separation anxiety

Unlike many people in Treece, Clyde and Vickie Worthey have a clear plan.

They've already picked a house near Galena, about 16 miles northeast of Treece. They're managing it for the owner, who has agreed to sell when they get their buyout money.

"We knew this (buyout) was coming, so we jumped at the first sign we could get it," Vickie Worthey said. "It was an opportunity we may not have found later."

She said she's feeling a mix of emotions — excitement at having a nicer home in a safer area, but tinged with sadness at abandoning the house where she lived for 22 years and reared her children.

"We are bettering ourselves," she said. "We're getting out of the mining area.

"I don't want to worry about a mine shaft underneath. I don't want to worry about lead contamination.

"If you've got to start over, start over on a better foot."

But Worthey said it's not easy to leave Treece.

"I would come over here after being at the other place and working on it all day and I would sit up in that room there and just bawl," she said. "So I started detaching myself to get ready for this because it's harder than I'd ever dreamed it would be."

She hails from western Oklahoma, her husband from central California.

Clyde Worthey remembers that he was astonished by the scope of the mining activity in the Treece area — caverns the size of castles and mountains of waste from the underground excavations.

"Everything was so different, I felt like I was in a lost world or something," he said. "Now, I've been here so long, this is home."

But part of the problem is home itself is falling apart. The house needs extensive work, but "what we put into it, we won't get back, so it doesn't matter," Clyde Worthey said. "We're just leaving it the way it is."

Before all the buyout talk began, the Wortheys had bought building materials to fix up their home. They've taken the supplies to the new house to use there.

Although he agrees with his wife that the new house will be nicer, Clyde Worthey isn't as comfortable with the new reality as his wife.

Government officials call the buyout plan voluntary, in the sense that people don't have to accept it and can keep the property they have now.

But Clyde Worthey said it's essentially mandatory because Treece will become unlivable as it empties of people.

"They won't tell us we have to leave, but it's going to come to a point where it's so difficult, we'll have to," he said.

Planning to stay

Frank Moore and his wife, Leila, moved to Treece on Jan. 1, 2000.

Moore, 74, was out of work and short on money, and had been for a while. A truck driver by trade, he'd been laid off since his early 50s and couldn't get hired elsewhere because of his age.

"We found this place," Moore said, sitting in the living room of the couple's small, aging home. "We bought these five lots (with the house) for $9,000."

Despite government assurances that residents will get enough money to buy a home outside the mining zone, Moore worries that the money won't really be enough to start over.

"I don't trust them, mainly," he said. "They'll probably undervalue the property. They'll take one look at this house and the offer won't be enough to buy a piece of property just one acre with any kind of a house on it."

He concedes the house he has isn't much to look at.

Shingles are piled on the roof awaiting installation that may never come, and blue plastic sheeting helps keep out the rain. The house is faced with at least four styles and colors of siding, slapped on at various points in its history.

"You can see for yourself the house is maybe worth $500," Moore said. "But it's mine, the taxes are paid on it."

He said he feels like he's being forced out because when the city closes up shop, vital services will go with it.

"How would we be able to live here?" he said. "In my mind, that's the way they would force you to move, is to take all your sustenance away from you so you'd have no other choice."

Moore acknowledges that the community is crumbling from decades of neglect, but said he still likes it in Treece.

"People are friendly here,'' he said. "Nobody bothers us here. If we need help, all I got to do is walk across the street, or vice versa, you know, that's the way people are here.

"My lifestyle's kind of simple," he added. "I'm a bluegrass musician, so about the only thing I look forward to, you know, I just sit here and work crossword puzzles and go to bluegrass festivals in summer."

Moore said he's not worried about the ground caving in, which concerns many of the homeowners here.

"There is one shaft that goes underneath this front corner of the house only, goes out there about 174 feet and stops," he said. "This back here, where the bus is parked and all the cars, that's on solid limestone about 100 feet down, so I'm not worried about a cave-in."

He said he's past the age where he'd worry about pollution-caused illnesses that take decades to develop.

"At my age, I don't have any desire to go anywhere else," he said. "I have nowhere else to go. My children, my youngest daughter's 40 years old and they're from here to yonder.

"Why in the world should I dig up roots and try to start over somewhere in a strange location? I mean that's just unreasonable to me."

From hate to love

Jan Leatherman, 65, started her garden to create a refuge from the realities of having to live in Treece.

It's an eclectic mix of flowers, vegetables and native vegetation she transplanted.

"I didn't know how to get along with myself here without being able to leave, so I learned to work in the yard," she said. "That's good therapy.

"I believe you're closer to God in the garden than anyplace else on Earth. When you're digging in the earth and the sun's on your back and you can smell the earth, good things come from it, it's wonderful."

She lives in a modest but well-maintained home, clean but, she admits, cluttered with decades of memorabilia and books.

An avid reader and writing enthusiast, she's 10 pages into writing a treatise memorializing the town and its culture.

"I'm not ashamed of where I live and the people here who have different ways than I do — and some of them do — are sweet," she said. "If you need them, they're here to help you; sweet, good people."

A member of the City Council and former city treasurer, Leatherman didn't always have such warm feelings for the town. In fact, she said she hated Treece for a long time after she moved here in 1969.

Living conditions were primitive with dusty, unpaved roads surfaced with the lead-contaminated gravel called chat, a nasty by-product of the mines that drove Treece's economy when it had one.

Leatherman recalled that most homes were heated with wood stoves, and she was one of the first in town to get a washer and dryer.

"A few years ago, I would have been gone before the dust settled," Leatherman said. "I really did not like it here. I didn't grow up here, and I didn't understand the culture of mining people and/or their descendants."

She didn't have much choice.

"We didn't even live here until my husband, at the age of 27, had a massive cerebral hemorrhage in his brain and had surgery and was left paralyzed on his left side."

At the time, they had a 5-year-old daughter, a 3-year-old son and a 4-week-old baby.

"After his stay in the hospital, we had to come back to where he grew up because he had no memory of anyplace," Leatherman said. "We came back here, much to my chagrin."

She held part-time jobs as a teacher's aide and a receptionist and came within two months of a nursing degree, but had to quit when her husband's health took a bad turn.

His family helped her care for her mostly bedfast husband, who eventually had to go to a nursing home and died in 2003.

Even so, he outlived a lot of his relatives, Leatherman said.

"My husband had eight or 10 uncles and aunts and within 10 years, they all passed away," Leatherman said. "They don't live very long when they work in the mines. They get black lung; they're just worn-out people.

A native of the ranching country around Alva, Okla., Leatherman said she felt like an outsider.

"It took a long time for me to quit being homesick for my way of life, a long time," she said.

But eventually, she warmed up to Treece and its people, and they to her.

In the 1980s, she successfully lobbied then-Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum for federal money to pave the streets and install a modern water and sewer system.

"When I was treasurer, I received a check from the government for $383,000 and you can bet I didn't keep it in this house very long," she said, smiling.

Now, Treece is home.

"I argued with God for years about why I had to be here," she said. "But finally I gave up and said, 'OK, God, you've made me content and I'm willing to stay here till I die.' "

With the buyout, she won't be doing that. She looks across the state line at the few remaining residents of Picher and can't imagine herself living in a decaying ghost town.

"I'm afraid to stay here without enough people and try to manage by myself, so this will be another milestone for me," she said.

She said she'll have to jettison many of her possessions, each of which has memories attached.

"Everything on this corner lot and my beautiful yard and my house is who I am," she said. "And it's almost like a death for me right now.

"But I have good friends all around the other communities and I'm sure I'll fit in somewhere and be OK.

"Once I'm there and settled, I'll be OK. I think I'll be OK."

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