Rural Missouri - August 2013 - (Page 10)
Mining a lead-lined history
Potosi and Washington County celebrate two centuries of heritage
Above: John Robinson, chairman of the Celebrate 2013 Committee, visits a log cabin being restored in Potosi, one of many historical structures in the 250-year-old town. Below: Jeff Higginbotham, secretary of the Mine au Breton Historical Society, shows off
a large chunk of galena, a lead ore found in the area. This specimen is one of many on display at the two museums in Potosi.
by Jim McCarty
be the ﬁnal resting place for Toussaint Charboneau,
t’s easy to underestimate the
an interpreter for
importance Potosi and WashingLewis and Clark
ton County once played in Misand the husband of
souri’s early history. When the
minerals that were the area’s reason
Potosi gave us
for being played out, so too did its
time in the spotlight.
But the region will be elevated to
the dean of Africanits rightful place in Missouri history
this month as Potosi celebrates its
Caledonia was the
250th anniversary and Washington
home of William
County turns 200. A year of looking
Eversole, who directback will climax Aug. 17 during the
ed atomic bomb
Washington County 2013 Celebration
research for a critical
at St. Joachim Church in Old Mines.
phase of the Manhattan Project.
“We want folks to come and
Thomas Benoist, born on a farm
experience it,” says John Robinson,
between Potosi and Irondale, contribchairman of the Washington County
uted greatly to the ﬁeld of aviation.
Celebration Committee and the chairAnd if you believe the research
man of the Bellevue Valley Historical
done by residents of Old Mines, that
Society. “There’s a lot of history here.”
French Creole village predates Ste.
The area oozes history from every
rock. For example, PotoGenevieve by 14 years as Missouri’s
si lost out to St. Charles
If that’s not enough to
as Missouri’s ﬁrst capital
secure its place in history,
by one vote. William VanPotosi can claim to be the
diver — who helped tag MisPotosi
only county seat whose
souri as the Show-Me State
courthouse was saved
— once lived in Caledonia.
by a ﬁsh. A nameless
Potosi’s founder, Moses
ﬁsh lived in an overAustin, was so important
sized tank in a courthouse
that the state of Texas tried to
ofﬁce. An electrical ﬁre threatened the
snatch his body from its burial place
courthouse, but the intense heat shatin the town.
tered the ﬁsh tank and the ﬂood of
The region gets credit for helping
water extinguished the blaze.
win the War of 1812. Accurate bullets
The committee has been workmade from Potosi lead helped turn the
ing since 2010 to bring communitide during the Battle of New Orleans.
into the celebration. Some places
too small for a road
sign have organized
County Fair, which
runs from Aug. 7
to 10 in Potosi, will
include history presentations, including the showing of
a 1940s ﬁlm shot in
the county seat.
At the event Aug.
17, French dignitaries will exchange ﬂags and medallions
with the Americans. There will be historical and cultural exhibits, authentic
food and crafts, music and historical
re-enactments. All three of Washington County’s historical societies also
will have displays.
The area dates its history to prehistoric times when American Indians
left behind rock carvings. Some of
these can still be seen at Washington
State Park and the village of Fertile
north of Potosi.
French trappers came to the area
in the 1600s, ﬁnding lead that was
so plentiful it could be plucked from
the ground. Philippe Renault left
France in 1719 along with 200 miners,
500 slaves and all of the equipment
needed to search for mineral wealth in
what would later become Missouri.
While Renault and his men mined
a number of locations, the most pro-
liﬁc mine was at the place known as
“Vielle Mines” by the French, or “Old
Mines.” Renault sold his claim and
returned to France, but mining continued from 1721 to 1742. Unless the
area was abandoned later, Old Mines
could claim the title of Missouri’s oldest permanent settlement.
Washington County was formed in
1813, one of several counties carved
out of the Spanish land grant districts.
Historians date Potosi’s beginnings
to a hunting trip made by a retired
French soldier named Francois Azor,
better known as “The Breton,” a nod
to the region of France he was from,
or the Americanized “Burton.” Led
by guide Pierre Boyer, Azor reportedly built a campﬁre next to what he
thought was a root. The root melted,
and Azor recognized it as lead.
Azor established Mine au Breton
along a crystal clear creek. The date of
this settlement, ranging from 1760 to
1780, is controversial.
Robinson says the committee used
1763 as the date, citing information
the Mine au Breton Historical Society
has accumulated over the years. Potosi
was a different settlement established
across the creek by Moses Austin, who
came to Mine au Breton in 1798.
Austin revolutionized mining and
amassed a wealth of $190,000. But a
bank failure nearly bankrupted him.
The elder Austin turned his mines
over to his son, Stephen, and set out
to colonize Texas. On the journey
home, he contracted pneumonia and
died after begging his son to continue
the Texas project.
Potosi eventually swallowed Mine
au Breton. It would remain a major
part of the old Lead Belt, the world’s
largest lead-mining district, for many
years. When the lead played out, miners turned to barite, locally known as
tiff, dug from open pit mines throughout Washington County. These too
played out, and at one point, the
county had the highest unemployment rate in Missouri.
These days, the county is again
thriving thanks in part to a new state
penitentiary built in Mineral Point
east of Potosi and tourism. Modernday explorers come to Washington
County for adventures in the many
acres of pristine National Forest land,
backpacking, riding off-road vehicles,
ﬂoating Courtois Creek or ﬁshing in
the Big River.
Many of the small towns in the
county have homes and churches listed on the National Register of Historic
Places. These, along with museums
operated by the three historical societies, are often open to visitors.
“It is important to preserve the heritage we have in the county and the
city of Potosi,” says John. “We really
want the younger generations and the
people who aren’t familiar with the
county to understand we have a rich
history within the state.”
For more information about the
Washington County-Potosi Celebration,
log on to www.celebrate2013.com or
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - August 2013
Rural Missouri - August 2013
Table of Contents
Mining a lead-lined history
Out of the Way Eats
Hearth and Home
Rural Missouri - August 2013