The Legacy of Lead

Lead has played a pivotal role in the history of Missouri. More than 17 million tons of lead have come out of the ground in the state over the last 300 years, and that has left a lasting impact on the state economically, environmentally and culturally. KBIA is exploring that history —and future—in our special series The Legacy of Lead.

Rebecca Smith / KBIA

Forest City is a very small town of about 250 people, nestled in very small, very rural Holt County in Northwest Missouri. The whole county has about 4500 residents.

Mayor Greg Book was born and raised in Forest City, and he refers to his home as “a Mayberry type of town.”

The town is quiet and charming, but there isn’t much to it. There is a diner, open until 2:00 p.m., a historic city hall, open until 2:30, and a Drug Store Museum, open for four hours every Sunday.

Daniela Vidal / KBIA

Penny Crump sits at her desk, and opens up a lavender-colored binder she calls her “lead binder.”

As the lead coordinator for Jefferson County’s Health Department, she’s in charge of keeping track of the children in the county who have elevated lead levels. Each case is in that lavender binder.

“This is the list of my kids. So this is basically the one I just got that was high. The date we opened her case. When is she next due?” she said.

Crump makes phone calls to parents, guardians and doctors to make sure they’re following up on the child’s lead testing.

Nathan Lawrence / KBIA

While you’re reading this, Winston Kliethermes is probably thinking about batteries.

He owns B & W Battery & Auto Repair in Jefferson City, and he says he’s been working with car batteries since 1974.

There are a lot more kinds of car batteries around now, but almost all of them have one element in common: lead. Lead-based batteries have long been the standard for transportation like cars or boats, and companies across the globe also use lead-based batteries to power their servers in case of emergency.

It’s a well proven system.

Legacy of Lead: The Right Place to Teach Mining

Aug 23, 2017
Sophia Zheng / KBIA

Today, Missouri is home to three major lead districts and the state has accounted for more than 90 percent of the nation’s lead production over the last century. But actually getting that lead out of the ground requires a lot of scientific knowledge and the hard work of underground laborers. Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla plays an important role in the history of lead mining in Missouri.

“The university is really, really good,” Professor Paul Worsey said, “It’s got a good reputation, for practical engineers.”

Fencing surrounds a patch of grass that used to be a neighborhood in the center of Herculaneum, Missouri. A sign in the grass reads, "No Trespassing. Lead Contamination."
Bram Sable-Smith / KBIA/Side Effects Public Media

Bill Haggard is the mayor of Herculaneum, Missouri, a town of 4,000 about a 30 minute drive south of St. Louis. He’s also the fire chief, president of the historical society and a retired teacher, among other distinctions, although he identifies first as a “lifelong resident.”

For more than a century this town was built up around the lead smelter that sat along the Mississippi River. Today, though, most of the houses remaining in the hollowed out center of town are marked in spray paint with a bright orange ‘X.’

“If they have an ‘X’ on them they’re coming down,” Haggard says while driving by houses slated for demolition.

Kristofor Husted / KBIA


With a tackle box and a fishing pole, Gary Sanders baits his hook with a worm and casts his line into the river outside of Desloge, Missouri.

 

“I caught a couple little bass,” he says. ”I think they were small mouth. They weren’t very big. They were only about that big -- only 6 inches long.”

Sanders is posted up at the Big River. He moved here from St. Louis a few years ago to live a more outdoors lifestyle. You won’t see him or many other fishermen in this area take home their catch for a fish fry though. That’s because these waters are still dealing with lingering contamination from lead mining.