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Leadwood mayor reviews challenges

The former Leadwood High School gym is now owned by Jacob Hedgcorth and is the site of various youth tournaments and activities. (Dan Schunks)

Former mining town said to be at crossroads

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series taking a look at the struggles and opportunities unique to two of The Parkland’s smaller towns, Bismarck and Leadwood. These communities each have a population below 1,600 and are representative of numerous other communities of similar size throughout Missouri. Reporter Dan Schunks, who was once mayor of Leadwood more than 20 years ago, provides his take at the end.


Perhaps no city in St. Francois County has struggled to acclimate to life after the closing of the lead mines than Leadwood.

Located six miles away from Desloge and, at that time, Flat River, Leadwood was effectively isolated by distance from the commerce of the other mining towns that shared common boundaries.

While the city enjoyed relative prosperity during the time St. Joe Lead operated the mines– the city even had a movie theater and a viable business district– in the years that have passed, the businesses have closed and buildings were demolished. Today, there are only two walk-up businesses in Leadwood: Dollar General near Highway 8 and Roy’s, the service station and convenience mart across the street from Dollar General.

Competition from box stores’ low prices in nearby communities made a noticeable impact on the local Leadwood business environment, with many residents only shopping at Leadwood businesses for items they needed immediately or when they didn’t have time or transportation to travel to the box stores.

The shrinking tax base from loss of commerce, as many city representatives and employees observed, severely limits what a community can do. Minor projects that should be addressed are left undone due to financial constraints, to develop into major, costlier projects that cannot be avoided or postponed.

Water progress

Arguably, the most severe and longest-running problem in Leadwood has been its drinking water. While passing state tests for safety, Leadwood’s drinking water has been the subject of public frustration for more than half a century.

The water system, built by St. Joe Lead more than a century ago, is obsolete, and Leadwood residents frequently attend board of aldermen meetings to deliver complaints of discolored and often foul-smelling water.

The city has been attempting to gain grants and funding since 2013 for improvement to the water system and finally, the “wheels are beginning to turn,” according to Tim Robbs, and engineer with Taylor Engineering, who is overseeing the project.

Robbs said the city has met its obligations, completed the paperwork, and now waits on the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to begin the actual process of replacing the system. The city is also waiting for funding from the state. State Rep. Mike Henderson, R-117th District, which includes Leadwood, is the Speaker Pro Tem of the Missouri House and there are indications he is attempting to bring his influence to help the residents of Leadwood.

Many Leadwood residents who post on social media have indicated, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to realizing the completion of the project has been Leadwood itself. Posts on Facebook have indicated very little cooperation among the various city councils and mayors with their successors throughout the years.

The continuity of projects, such as the water system, has been stalled, been subject to different priorities, and has had to start again due to missed deadlines. Now, according to city officials, the city is being advised by Tim Robbs, who has overseen this project since its inception in 2013, and it is beginning to move forward. Mayor Rob Crump and the board of aldermen have strongly indicated they are anxious to get to the next step.

Housing, property upkeep

Grass grows over a lot vacated more than 20 years ago in what was once Leadwood’s thriving commercial district. It used to be where Lumos Hardware and a grocery store stood. (Dan Schunks)

According to Mayor Rob Crump, “40% of our property is owned by people who live outside the city of Leadwood. It’s obvious that many of them are only in it for the money.”

Crump indicated, this is a common problem in small communities. Businesses from out of the town buy property and do little to maintain it. By buying significant amounts of property, they set the rate for rentals in that town, forcing families to pay prices that are far higher than the property merits. Many families have low incomes, with limited options for affordable housing in St. Francois County, so they take what they can get. Most communities do not have housing inspections before a house can be rented, so the renter is in the position of “let the renter beware.”

Like several other communities in St. Francois County, Leadwood does not offer trash pickup. Residents must contract with private trash haulers or dispose of their waste themselves. Some aldermen have acknowledged, it can be a serious problem when residents do neither and allow trash to accumulate, creating an unsightly, unhealthy, and unforgettable to someone visiting the town for the first time.

Although very little new housing has been built in Leadwood during the past 10 years, some houses could be reclaimed and turned into functional homes with a little effort, one official said.

West County Community Hope Center, a nonprofit organization, hopes to imitate the Habitat for Humanity model, except they will rehab older homes and make them affordable to qualifying low-income families. The members of this faith-based organization, comprised of individuals with ties to Leadwood, hope to reclaim older homes and provide improvement to the city as another positive civic step forward.

The city has contracted with tree trimmers to bring city properties up to acceptable standards, and has indicated they plan to cite those with blighted properties.

The Leadwood First Church of God on 909 School St. was first established in 1906. (Dan Schunks)

Community assets

The city of Leadwood’s park on the east side of town is seen as having great potential for development with the existing gazebo, basketball courts, a walking trail, and areas for picnics. Events held there include the Oct. 7, annual Mineral Area Bluegrass Festival at noon.

While no longer in Leadwood, West County R-4 Schools are a stone’s throw from the city limits, in Frankclay. The district has modern, high-quality facilities for high school and middle school and is planning additions to the elementary, considering a bond issue in April 2024. The district has historically received support from voters for past initiatives. The district has also enjoyed recent successes in academics, music, both band and chorale, athletics, and e-sports.

Future projections

When asked what his vision for the future is, Mayor Crump paused before he answered, thought, and then replied, “I just want people to like the way the town looks instead of talking about how it used to look.”

Dan’s take

Small communities generally have their own dynamic. Some seem to get things done and while they may not agree on all things, they share the belief in the welfare of the community and put aside personal and petty grievances, both real and imagined, to focus on the goal of improving the community for the community’s sake, not the individual or group of individuals.

The lack of continuity in Leadwood government is the perfect example of what not to do. As a result, the community languishes, and the residents suffer. But here is an opportunity in which government, private groups, and assets are aligned to offer the community the chance to change direction, stop spinning its wheels, and move forward. Such alignments are not common, but if they are ignored or if the age old stumbling blocks of apathy and cynicism found in many communities are not addressed and overcome, those opportunities will vanish.

That’s the way it’s always been,” is an excuse to do nothing but complain, the favorite pasttime for some. But a complaint without viable solution to the complaint, is no solution.

For Leadwood, this is a pivotal time. To ignore the opportunities is to be satisfied with the direction of the town and if that’s what the residents want, that is their choice. But if the water system becomes reality and the sewer system, which is now 40 years old, can be updated, the city will find itself in an unfamiliar position, a destination for business and growth. As the Park Hills area continues its growth, it may grow west. With that growth, the area around Leadwood will become more desirable for investment and what better way to encourage that growth than with an infrastructure that is ready to accommodate it?

Leadwood and Bismarck are emblematic of many communities throughout southeast Missouri. Because of their size they do not have city administrators or financial advisors. They rarely have enough city workers to get ahead of problems. They struggle to provide salaries to keep qualified workers, especially police, who enter the work force there, receive experience, and then move on to another locality that will pay significantly more with better benefits. They struggle to keep local businesses because chain stores and big box stores undercut local merchants due to their large buying power. Those communities not located with a state highway running through them often will watch business travel by without stopping, unless your town offers something unique. Add to this the problems faced by all communities of drug abuse, homelessness, and transient population and it can quickly become overwhelming.

The problems that small communities face rising costs and prices to maintain infrastructure, the need for increased salaries to retain workers in all facets of city employment, declining or stagnant populations, and expanding tax bases to meet the needs of the community, and other challenges are not insurmountable, but they are daunting. To successfully address these, state and federal assistance would be a great help, as long as it is practical for towns to go through the procedure to acquire them.

In the end, some of the answers may be found in the past. The ability to restore buildings and occupy them with unique businesses that draw customers or make it a must-see business can and has revitalized shopping areas. In a sense, a return to the old downtown shopping area, with both new and old businesses in existing buildings, is an option that some communities have explored with success. Creative thought is the key and the resilience of small towns is a strength.


  1. Tamera Hedgcorth on September 20, 2023 at 4:35 pm

    Jeremy Hedgecorth is listed as owner of the old High School Gymnasium in the 1st picture, it’s actually owned by his brother, Jacob Hedgcorth.

    • Sarah Haas on September 21, 2023 at 6:59 am

      Sorry about that, Tammy. The story has been updated, thank you for your correction.

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