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‘A calling of peculiar dignity’

The mining history of St. Francois County, the Old Lead Belt and Missouri at-large is a rich subject, stretching backward in time for centuries and, in many cases, running for miles under our feet.

While many may be interested in the area’s mining history for any number of reasons, one man has dedicated the majority of his life to collecting, interpreting and communicating the story of mining in Missouri.

Art Hebrank is the site administrator at the Missouri Mines State Historic Site outside Park Hills. He was recently recognized for his more than 50 years of service to the state, first in the Geological Survey and with the parks department for the last 25 years.

“My interest in rocks and minerals probably began when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Hebrank said. “My dad had a small mineral collection and used to do geology and mineralogy merit badges for the scouts.

“My mother was a very patient person with little formal education, but very patient with a kid who had a million questions a day. There were days when my mother would take me by the hand and we would walk up to the branch library three blocks from our house in St. Louis to look stuff up three or four times a day. I learned very early that anything you needed to know was in a book somewhere.”

Beyond the impression made by his parents, Hebrank said he was further encouraged in his geological interest by a fifth grade science teacher and a high school biology teacher who presented biology initially using the fossil record of early plants and animals.

Saving his money to buy mineral specimens from St. Louis rock shops, Hebrank said it didn’t take long for him to decide that he wanted to be a geologist. After high school, he attended college at Rolla, earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Geology with a minor in Mining Engineering in seven years.

“The reason I took so long to get a (bachelor’s degree) is that, like so many geology students, I have no aptitude at all for math,” Hebrank said. “My one collegiate claim is that I hold the school record at Rolla for the most attempted Calculus and Analytical Geometry courses. I enrolled 16 times, I think, to pass four Calculus and Analytical Geometry classes — so I have persistence.”

In addition to a classroom knowledge of mining and geology, Hebrank worked summers at mines in both Idaho and Washington County, Missouri. In Idaho, he worked at what he described as a “now-infamous” mine called the Sunshine Mine, which was the number one producer of silver in the country.

“I learned everything you could learn about early mining,” he recalled. “We’re talking about a mine that still used wooden timbering, still had one-ton ore cars, a lot of handwork and a small area of operation. When you’re talking deep mines, you’re talking 110 degrees. I always say, every day I went to work there, I said to myself, ‘If you live through this summer, you will never, ever go in this mine again.’ It was very unpleasant and very hard work. But I learned so much stuff there.”

Now 76 years old, Hebrank said although the working conditions were excruciating, his work at the Sunshine Mine probably ranks number two in the most important experiences of his life.

In 1967, he went to work for the Missouri Geological Survey as a subsurface stratigrapher. He also served as an information-education geologist, charged with providing the public with information regarding geology and mining processes.

In the 70s, Hebrank was notified that a rock and mineral collection housed in the Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City was going to be thrown away. Saying if the specimens ended up being worthless, he could “throw away rocks with the best of them,” he traveled to the state capitol and retrieved seven vanloads of mineral specimens, many of which had belonged to the Fayette P. Grave’s Collection and had been displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Those materials were stored at the Missouri Geological Survey for a period of time, but when Hebrank took over as site administrator for the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, the collection came with him.

Missouri State Parks Director Ben Ellis described Hebrank as an individual who can convey information to his audience no matter their age or background, making him an invaluable asset to the parks department.

“Art cares deeply about what he does, and he take seriously his role as steward of the invaluable resources for which he is responsible,” Ellis said. “He also has an uncanny knack for sharing his vast, technical and historical knowledge in ways that virtually any audience can understand and enjoy.

“He can explain the geologic creation of Elephant Rocks State Park to a group of 10 year olds, or he can expound on complex scientific theories to a group of geologic scholars. Regardless of who is in the audience, he is able to connect with and profoundly impact them, which is a rare gift.”

Despite being at the site for 25 years now, Hebrank said his plans for what the museum could be have only partially been accomplished.

“In my mind, I have these mental display cases,” he said. “There are pedestals in there. Some of them have specimens on them and some of them don’t. So it’s like a lifelong search, trying to fill those pedestals. When you find one of those minerals, it’s like ‘Eureka!’ And we have almost all of those empty pedestals filled now.”

Hebrank said he has at least rough plans for more than 80 more exhibits that have not been displayed at the historic site, which is what he works toward every day, as he’s able.

“This is not completed,” he said. “There’s a whole lot left to do and it’s going to be really neat when it gets done. People are going to love it.”

In crafting the exhibits, Hebrank said the primary goal is not just to show off relics of a bygone era, but to tell the human story behind each piece — what it was used for, who made it, who used it, where it came from and what came after it.

In describing the human element of telling the stories of Missouri mining, Hebrank quoted a line from Georgius Agricola’s “De re metallica,” which was published in 1556 and detailed the accumulated knowledge of mineralogy and mining at the time. Agricola described mining as being “a calling of peculiar dignity,” which Hebrank said rings true when he imagines the average miner, toiling in uncomfortable or dangerous conditions, providing such a necessary service and receiving little to no thanks by society.

Hebrank’s lifelong dedication to the collection, preservation and display of some of Missouri’s most historically significant machines and mineral specimens could similarly be described as a “calling of peculiar dignity.”

As Parks Director Ellis put it, Hebrank’s work to preserve the history so inherent to the foundations of Missouri is a true calling which he has worked elegantly toward.

“To find one word that aptly describes something to which a person has devoted not just most of his life, but more than half a century, seems impossible,” Ellis said. “The term ‘vocation’ doesn’t even make the list and ‘career’ falls short as well.

“This is especially true for Art, because to him it was so much more than just getting up and going to the same office or job site over a long period of time. Much more appropriate are words like lifework, passion, mission and calling. I think for Hebrank, the past 50 years has been all of those, and perhaps more.”

To view the collections and exhibits curated by Hebrank and his staff, visit the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, located off the Flat River Drive exit of Highway 32 in Park Hills. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays through October. For more information, visit www.mostateparks.com/park/missouri-mines-state-historic-site

Missouri Mines State Historic Site Administrator Art Hebrank has served the state for more than 50 years, half with the Geological Survey and the last half in his current role.

Missouri Mines State Historic Site Administrator Art Hebrank has served the state for more than 50 years, half with the Geological Survey and the last half in his current role.

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at jscott@dailyjournalonline.com.

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