Bill Caldwell: Judge O.H. Picher's lead company made Joplin famous

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Bill Caldwell, The Joplin Globe, Mo.
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Feb. 21—Joplin's early history was molded by a handful of men: Patrick Murphy, John C. Cox, Thomas Cunningham, Thomas Connor and William Byers, among others. A standout whose determination to be independent helped Joplin become an innovator in the lead and zinc industry was Judge Oliver H. Picher. His business acumen and civic-mindedness were exceptional in an era of larger-than-life characters.

Oliver H. Picher was born to Oliver S. and Mary Ann Picher in 1845 at Madison, Indiana. His father was an attorney who practiced law in Indiana and later Galesburg, Illinois. Young Oliver studied at Knox Academy and later Knox College. He graduated in 1864. With a group of his classmates, he joined the 137th Regiment of Illinois Infantry Volunteers. He was a first lieutenant.

At the war's end, he returned to Knox College as a tutor but moved south to Springfield, Missouri, to study law in 1866. He passed the bar in 1867 and entered practice in Carthage. His law partner, M.G. McGregor, became a circuit judge, and Picher was appointed judge for a newly created court of common pleas in 1869. He was elected for another term but left Missouri to practice law in Chicago in 1874.

Move to Joplin

He returned to Missouri the next year. He joined forces with his brother, William, and together they invested in mining land and smelter operations in Joplin.

At the time, smelting operations were inefficient. Lead fumes were not recovered but lost to the atmosphere. Elliot Moffet and Joseph Sergeant had founded the first smelters in Joplin. They attracted the notice of an entrepreneur, E.O. Bartlett, who had grown up working with his father making white zinc for paint in Pennsylvania. Bartlett was a plant manager with a strong sense of curiosity. He once asked a chemist in his employ about making white lead similar to the white zinc process. The chemist cut him off without explanation, saying, "It's impossible." That inspired Bartlett to do the impossible.

Bartlett moved to Joplin, and backed by financier George Lewis, Moffet and Sergeant, he built an experimental smelter to make sublimed white lead in 1876. It was successful, and Bartlett patented the process.

The White Lead Works' new frame plant cost $80,000, the only such plant in the world. A disastrous fire in 1880 consumed the building, though its 250 employees escaped. The plant was rebuilt, though Bartlett had traveled to the U.K. to establish a second plant.

Oliver and William Picher had established the Picher Lead and Zinc Co. on 1,200 acres of mining land in 1875. The white lead business was languishing despite having a unique product. White lead paint was impermeable to seawater, which became a selling point later. In 1887, Picher bought the plant from Moffet and Sergeant and approached Bartlett to purchase rights to the process. The company was reorganized as Picher Lead Co., with Oliver Picher as president and Bartlett as plant manager.

Bill Caldwell: Judge O.H. Picher's lead company made Joplin famous

Judge Oliver H. Picher was an attorney who with his brother, William, invested in lead mines and smelting in Joplin in 1875. They formed the Picher Lead and Zinc Co. in 1876, which became Picher Lead Co. in 1889. The company was instrumental in developing white lead used as a paint pigment. He invested heavily in mining as well as smelting. Credit —

In a time of handshake deals, the integrity of the two men gave them access to large-scale financial backing. Picher handled sales of sublimed white lead. The big break occurred when the U.S. government contracted for white lead to paint naval vessels, particularly battleships. It put Joplin on the map.

Picher himself was continually searching for better paint formulas. When his home was sold many years later, the new owner discovered the front porch was covered with more than 100 layers of paint. He had used the porch to test various formulations.

Civic projects

Picher had taken an interest in civic affairs from his early Carthage days when he chaired meetings, organizing that city's first school and first public library in 1870. He served as president of the Joplin Commercial Club for two terms. He was active in Republican politics, having been a staunch Unionist. Now with his fortune made, Picher was not content to retire from public life. After 1900, he focused his attentions on improving Joplin's municipal government.

Bill Caldwell: Judge O.H. Picher's lead company made Joplin famous

The Picher Lead Co. plant produced sublimed white lead used for paint pigments by means of a process invented by company director E.O. Bartlett. This postcard image of the plant is from 1906. Credit — Joplin Public Library, Historical Postcard Collection

Joplin had a partisan mayor-council municipal system. Picher thought a new commission system would let the city thrive. In 1906, he was appointed chairman of the joint charter committee with representatives of the Commercial Club, Trades Assembly, South Joplin Club and bar association.

He was made chairman of the Joplin-Springfield charter committees that asked the Missouri Legislature to pass a proposed draft for a new charter for commission government in 1907. Again in 1909 he led the effort, only to be defeated as Globe publisher Gilbert Barbee called in favors from around the state to oppose the change. He continued to pursue the change over the next three years, though the charge was led more and more by Hugh McIndoe.

In 1908, he began to suffer stomach problems. He moved to Pasadena, California, in hopes of improving his health. However, he slowly declined. Joplin residents learned he had died on Oct. 4, 1912, in Pasadena.

Tributes poured in as people remembered his zeal for civic betterment and personal integrity. Bartlett remembered Picher's determination to keep the company free from the larger national lead trust. He had reasoned the trust would depress lead prices, keep miners from getting the highest price for their ore and hurt the city's growth.

McIndoe, later the first mayor under the new city commission, recalled, "He placed municipal advancement above personal comfort. He permitted neither time nor money to stand in his way when he battled to get for this city a new form of charter that would have meant so much for future generations."

The Globe said that Joplin never knew a more efficient factor in its making and development. Picher bore himself modestly and unassumingly, awarding to his colleagues the highest possible commendation for the cooperation in those important enterprises which engaged his endeavors during many momentous years.

Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you'd like him to research, send an email to or leave a message at 417-627-7261.