The Dobson Digest is a new weekly column by Mark Rogers featuring regional historical tidbits supplied by the Dobson Memorial Center Museum and Home in Miami.
On July 23, 1967 the front page of the Miami News-Record proclaimed “Picher Dealt Shock by Mine Cave-In.” The story was prefaced with a sub-headline: Residents ‘Ride’ Sinking Houses; None Badly Hurt.
An accompanying photo contained the caption, The George Foote Home dangles from the edge of the mine cave-in which awakened the 12-member Picher family with a roar early Saturday. The Footes escaped with minor injuries as did others in a sunken half-block area in Picher.
What follows are highlights from reporter Velma Nieberding’s account:
“It sounded like a sonic boom and then the floor began to buckle,” said Lewis Blunt. With his wife and their 10 children Blunt ran “almost a half-mile” to the home of friends. The cave-in happened in the northwest section of Picher.
Blunt said he realized at once the thunderous roar was a cave-in nearby, a disaster feared by every resident of this undermined town. The Blunt home is located some 200 feet from the main cave-in. The doom-like growl occurred shortly after midnight.
Within seconds a hole had engulfed two houses and five cars, leaving two other homes dangling precariously on the brink. It yawned a half-block long, 400-ft. wide and some 35 ft. deep.
Police and civil defense workers spent all day Saturday morning warning the curious not to get too close to the cave-in. For 30 feet beyond the major sink, the ground had developed foot-wide cracks.
Miraculously, nobody was injured seriously, but four families, including one without children, were left homeless.
One house, that of Bill Denny, 69, appears always to have been located in the big, saucer-like depression. When the earth dropped, it left his home, lawns, trees and even power lines virtually intact.
Mr. and Mrs. Jess Matteer’s 15-year-old daughter, Marilyn stat “We thought it was a storm. There were two ‘booms’ and then a big flash of light.”
“When we moved in here 21 years ago we had a $10 washing machine and two suitcases,” Mrs. Matteer said. “Now I don’t know what we have.”
The Matteer’s car was recovered, but Marilyn was looking Saturday for her cat. The pet hadn’t been seen since Friday night and may be a cave-in casualty.
Five cars were pulled from the hole with the use of winches.
The Ottawa County Sheriff at the time was Bill Schulein (who would later become State Senator). Carl Patterson was the Picher Fire Chief.
The cave-in occurred at what is known as the old Netta White mine, one that has been inactive for several years. The property is now owned by the Eagle-Picher Co.
Loyd Wetherell, manager of Tri-State Eagle-Picher mining division speculated that the cave-in could have been caused by collapse of a pillar supporting the mine roof 200 ft. below the surface.
Cave-ins are not uncommon in this area, but officials said this was the first major cave-in at Picher involving personal property damage.
Volunteers worked through the day retrieving the belongings of Denny, the Matteers and Mrs. Owens from their homes.
The Foote home, perched on an unstable spur of earth and leaning toward the deepest part of the depression at about a 45 degree angle, was in too precarious a position to enter.
“We didn’t have a chance to pick up clothes or anything,” said Foote, a 39-year-old disabled ex-serviceman.
Mrs. Beulah Owens, a 69-year old widow who was visiting her daughter at Blanchard, arrived back home about 9 a.m. Saturday and asked tearfully, “Do you think they can get my pictures?”
Later a box of photographs was recovered and her daughter explained, “They are pictures of her son, my brother. He was killed in Vietnam two years ago.”
The story concluded with general information about the community and news of a proposed public housing development:
Picher began as a tent city in 1914, grew into the largest town in Ottawa County, its population in the 1920s reaching past 20,000. Today it has around 2,500 population.
At one time some 143 mines were in operation in or near the town that “jack” built. But the bonanza days, when the Picher area was the largest lead and zinc producer in the world, are over. Loyal residents have sought to keep the former queen of mining towns alive.
Recently the Housing and Urban Development Authority approved a $512,105 loan to the Picher Public Housing Authority. The loan will finance construction of some 56 housing units, some located not far from Saturday’s cave-in scene.
It was also reported that donations (a flood of furniture and clothing) immediately became pouring into the Picher Fire Dept. from across the area, as far as Pittsburg, KS. The Foote family included children ages 2 to 14.
The Dobson Museum, 110 A S.W., is open Sun., Wed., Fri., and Sat. from 1 to 4 p.m. You may also tour the historic home, the former Dobson residence, next door. There is no admission charge.
Visit our website at dobsonmuseum.com
Let’s make history together!