I came to the southeastern corner of Kansas to meet with the sons of my birth mother. While the story on my adoption and the search for my birth family is for other forums, it led to an unanticipated journey through the life of the father that raised me.
Ken Feagan had been born in Galena Kansas, or at least that is what the 1910 census suggests since they didn’t offer birth certificates when he was born in 1904. I had never been to Galena but it holds the family graves of my grandparents (Elmer 1880-1928 and Mary Belle 1872-1942) and their daughter (Ina Woda 1892-1966). For me, Ina was Nana, the closest thing I ever had to a Grandmother. She came to live with us after spending most of her life in the Alaska territory. She went to Alaska at the end of the gold rush spending many years on her large boat fishing salmon near Ketchikan.
Dad was on a different frontier. The family moved to Picher Oklahoma only a few miles from Galena, part of the tri-state mining area of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. My father mined lead and zinc ore in his teen years as did most of the other family members. Picher grew rapidly to a population of 14,252 and the area produced more than $20 billion in ore from 1917 to 1947; more than 50 percent of the lead and zinc consumed in World War I
But that mining had a downside. In 1983 the Picher area became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Site and remains the number one Superfund Site in America. With 1,400 mineshafts, seventy million tons of waste tailings, and thirty-six million tons of mill sand and sludge, environmental clean up remains a monumental task.
The town was abandoned after a 2008 tornado devastated it and provided a final incentive for citizens to accept buy-outs. (NBC story) The street grid remains but most buildings were razed. It is a truly surreal vision as the slag heaps of mining detritus tower over the hushed landscapes.
Fortunately, my father was able to escape. A doctor in Picher helped him attend a pre-med program at the University of Kansas. I walked that campus in Lawrenceville spending time in front of the buildings that were standing in the 1920s when he was a student. He didn’t finish college but rose up the ranks to major, earning a Bronze star, and leading a M.A.S.H. unit in Korea.
In fact, I stopped on the way to Galena when I saw signs for Fort Leonard Wood, a major army installation in the middle of Missouri, off of Interstate 44. Having met in post-war Europe, my parents had their first home at this base after getting married.
Reflecting on my father’s life course and his service in Europe and Korea, my mother’s bravery in heading to Korea and Europe with the Red Cross and my Nana’s adventures in the Alaska territory, I walk away inspired and appreciative that I was able to take time to walk in my father’s footsteps.