WEST MINERAL, Kan. Like a mountain in the distance, Big Brutus rises above the Kansas horizon long before visitors are anywhere close it. This part of Kansas is coal mining country. And Big Brutus — the world’s largest electric shovel — is the last vestige of southeast Kansas’ heyday in the mining industry.
Travel along the back roads and there are glimpses of ghost towns and strip mines. Forty years after Big Brutus’ engines went quiet, this area of Kansas — where the Ozark hills and hardwood forests meet prairie — still has an industrial feel.
At one time, between Cherokee County and Crawford County, there were 63 mines that produced a third of the nation’s coal.
But the mining industry went through a downturn in southeast Kansas following World War II and never really recovered. Picks and shovels gave way to monster machines that could spit and haul the precious minerals from the land. Big Brutus was among the biggest of the big. By the 1970s, the mining operations had stopped producing, Brutus went quiet and much of the land was depleted.
The per capita income for residents in Cherokee County is $20,075 and in Crawford, it is $19,763, according to U.S. Census statistics for 2010; that compares to $38,882 in Johnson County, the state’s richest county.
Hardscrabble and tough, that’s how folks in some of the poorest counties in the state describe themselves.
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