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Cover Story July 15, 2004


 

by lyle e davis

by lyle e davis

 

A lot of what we know today as America began here - in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

It was the jumping off point for the exploration and, later, the settling of the western portion of America.

 

Today it has become a melting pot of a variety of people that help to make up the faces of America.

 

The face of America, as we have all discovered, is not one face but hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of faces.  Each face has a story.

 

We propose to examine those faces.  Up close and personal.

 

Some of those faces will be of individuals, other faces will be of a community, a state, a nation.

 

We begin with St. Louis.  For that is where much of what is, began.

 

To look at St. Louis today it’s hard to imagine what it must have been back in its infancy, or, indeed, when it was “discovered.”  Today, St. Louis is one of the more popular cities for tourists of all persuasions to visit.  There are many reasons.  One, St. Louis offers more free, major attractions than anyplace outside of the nation’s capital.  These include the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center, Missouri History Museum, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, the Old Courthouse, Cahokia Mounds, Purina Farms and the Grant’s Farm Animal Preserve.

 

According to a recent survey, 54 percent of leisure visitors cited the “variety of things to see and do” as their main reason for coming to St. Louis.

This year is the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis & Clark Expedition so St. Louis is geared up to entertain in a grand style . . . something they’re quite comfortable doing.

 

In The Beginning . . .

 

Prior to 1764 the land was a fertile valley occupied by about 20,000 Indians known as Missippians.  Then, in 1764 a band of scruffy, sweaty, hard working fur traders from France stumbled across this valley, liked what they saw, and decided they’d found a city.  The city, they decided, should salute their beloved King, Louis IX.  After many rounds of drinks they settled upon a name.  “We will call this city, St. Louis,” they said.  And they said it in real, live French, seeing as how English had not been invented yet, at least not in this part of the country.  That was to come later.

 

Originally, St. Louis was built on a high bluff, in Spanish territory, just 18 miles south of the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers - a perfect site with which to trade with the Native Americans in the fur-rich lands to the west.

 

Laclede's Landing, named for Pierre Laclede, St. Louis' French founder, is today a vibrant entertainment district just north of the Gateway Arch along the Mississippi River. Back then, though, it was the hub of river trade where fur trappers rendezvoused.  Now,  music echoes off the Landing's cobblestone streets, and restaurants, music clubs and shops fill the former warehouses that once held tobacco, cotton and other products brought to St. Louis by steamboats. On the edge of the Landing, modern casinos recall a time when gambling boats plied the Mississippi.

 

If there's one place that conjures up images of St. Louis' river past, Laclede's Landing is it. Streets in the nine square block area of the Landing are the same as they were when Laclede laid them out in his original plan.

 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Landing was a busy area of manufacturing and commerce.

 

Today the Landing's preserved historic brick and iron façade buildings house some of St. Louis' best restaurants, exciting music clubs, the country's longest running dinner theatre, the unique Dental Health Theatre and the Laclede's Landing Wax Museum. At the foot of the landing is the President Casino, St. Louis' only downtown casino.

In addition to its role as an entertainment district, Laclede's Landing is a retail, commercial and office center. In fact, the Landing has the largest concentration of rehabbed office space between Chicago and New Orleans.

 

Steeped in St. Louis' river past, Laclede's Landing was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

 

How did we manage to acquire this fantastic real estate from the French? 

 

In 1800, France regained the rights to St. Louis from Spain but Napoleon turned right around and then sold the Louisiana Territory (which had also been named after King Louis IX) in 1803 to an American by the name of President Thomas Jefferson.  Most observers think President Jefferson made a pretty good deal.

 

After acquiring this property (which effectively doubled the size of America) President Jefferson decided he’d like to find out more about this land that he had just purchased.  Enter Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  One year after acquiring the land, Lewis & Clark began their expedition.  At that time there were only about 1000 residents of this little village of St. Louis, which had the absolute audacity to think that someday it might amount to something.  There were mostly French, Spanish, Indian, and both free and slave blacks living there at the time.  Though small by today’s standards, it had already become the center of America’s fur trade.  Fortunes, many of them, were to be made in St. Louis.

 

Two years later, when Lewis & Clark had returned from their epic expedition to the Pacific (they missed Disneyland and Seaworld by only a couple hundred years), St. Louis had already become the last stop for mountain men and trappers, heading to the newly opened frontier.  The fur trade would last till 1840 but a larger trade was looming.  The emigrant trade.

 

Many pioneer families would buy and stock their covered wagons in St. Louis.  They would make a number of St. Louis merchants wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

 

And speaking of dreams, the immigrants would strike out in pursuit of their dream.  Of land, gold and glory - and they started from St. Louis.

 

Steamboats began arriving around 1817 . . . this increased commerce considerably.  The sleepy little village began to grow.  In no time, it had become a town, then a city. 

 

You began to see more and more diverse immigrants. 

The Germans came, intrigued by the Rhine-like Missouri River valley.  They would plant vineyards and produce wine, and beer, of course.  St. Louis is very well known for its beer, being the home of Anheuser-Busch.

 

The Irish arrived, leaving the famine struck island nation and heading for the city on the Mississippi where legend said that fortunes could be made.

 

The legends were true.

 

In 1874 the Eads Bridge was completed, an engineering masterpiece of a bridge that crossed the Mississippi, built by a man who had no engineering training and had never built a bridge before.  The bridge soon carried locomotives . . . and soon the locomotives began to carry most of the commerce.  Sadly, and not so slowly, but surely, the romantic steamboat era was coming to an end.

 

The End of the Frontier . . .

 

The census declared in 1890 that the frontier had closed and America held no more unexplored or undiscovered lands.

 

Imagine that.  Nothing left to discover in America.

 

Things began to settle down in St. Louis and, in recognition of all they had contributed to the pioneer movement, they decided to throw themselves a party, which they called The World’s Fair.  It was held in 1904.  Two hundred years after the Louisiana Purchase was made.  In fact, that was the reason for the big party.

 

They held the Worlds Fair in Forest Park.  The Fair drew some 20 million visitors from 43 different countries (remember that sleepy little village that started all this?  With 1000 Indians, Frenchmen and Spaniards?  St. Louis had grown just a tad.  And it would keep on growing.)

 

The 1904 World’s Fair was more than just a Judy Garland song (Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis . . .Meet Me at the Fair).  After all, ice cream cones were invented at the fair.  And iced tea.  And heavier than air aircraft.  It also established St. Louis as a world class city.

 

Fast Forward to Today . . .

 

St. Louis still retains its ethnic cultural values, neighborhoods, and traditions.  You want French tradition?  It has plenty of ooh-la-la sites to explore. Beignets and strong coffee will kick off your day in the Soulard neighborhood where the Gateway City’s French heritage is on display in the architecture and annual events which include the Midwest’s largest Mardi Gras celebration and lively Bastille Day festivities. Dine at St. Louis’ delectable French restaurants and savor the delicacies of handcrafted chocolates made with the same 400-year-old Parisian recipes adored by the Empress Josephine.

 

You can even see the authentic Louisiana Purchase Transfer document, signed by Meriwether Lewis, that changed St. Louis from French to American and marvel at historic homes built by wealthy descendents of the French founders of the city.

 

Wander through antique shops brimming with collectibles, fabrics and furnishings fresh from the flea markets of Paris.

 

St. Louis offers a lot of activities:  a mix of professional sporting events and antique and collectible shopping; dining in pretty bistros and hearty microbreweries; touring gorgeous gardens and historic forts blend into a happy holiday experience to please both the lady and the gentleman of the house.

 

The Arch

 

Okay, let’s talk about The Arch.  It is beautiful, true.  It is an engineering marvel, true.

 

But, caution!  If you are the least bit claustrophobic, do NOT buy a ticket on the tram.

First, you’ll often wait in line for 45 minutes to an hour just to get into ‘the terminal.’  Then you’ll often stand in line 30 to 45 minutes to get your tram ticket(s), then you’ll enter the tram waiting area and often wait another 30 minutes till you get to board your tram.

 

When the tram doors open, be prepared to gasp, drop your jaw, and perhaps mutter a few choice expletives.

 

This tram is like a plastic cocoon, with cheap plastic seats, five of them, clustered together rather tightly.  I had the feeling I was being placed into a funeral casket with four additional bodies (only one of whom was known to me).  I’m not claustrophobic, but felt uncomfortable.  There is very little to see on your journey to the top of the arch, nor on your way down.  Mostly, you see steel structural beams, stairways, and lightbulbs.  When you do get to the top, you exit from your casket, sorry, cocoon, sorry, ‘tram car,’ look out a window or two that is 6 inches high, perhaps two to three feet wide, and you see . . . a skyline.  Of downtown St. Louis on one side, of the Mississippi, its river traffic, and the other side of the river, through another side.  I’ve seen more thrilling views from my airplane as we let down to land at any metropolitan airport.

 

I would not spend the money on the tram to the top of the Arch.  It’s not worth it, even to say . . . “I’ve been there.”

 

But, do see the Arch, admire it.  It is a magnificent work of engineering art and science. It’s just not worth a tram ride.  

 

But . . . back to the World’s Fair and other things to do and places to go:

 

Besides the introduction to the world of the ice cream cone and iced tea, the 1904 World’s Fair helped spread the sound of Ragtime music, staged the first Olympic Games held in the U.S. and added attractions to St. Louis that are still enjoyed by visitors today. You can still visit sites from the fair, dining on World’s Fair fare, and viewing impressive memorabilia collections and special “Meet Me in St. Louis” centennial exhibits.

 

Don’t leave St. Louis without taking an authentic paddlewheel boat tour of the historic Port of St. Louis.  Wander the cobblestone streets of the old riverboat warehouse district, now one of St. Louis’ premiere entertainment areas. Hear the soulful sounds of the music that flowed up and down the Mississippi – live St. Louis blues.

 

Every day is ladies day in St. Louis where girlfriends can gather to browse outstanding antique shops, be pampered at a luxurious hotel spa, nosh at sidewalk cafes, tour historic homes, take a lesson from a gourmet chef, enjoy live theatrical and musical performances and ponder the works of women artists through the ages at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

 

History Lives in St. Louis . .

 

Lewis and Clark didn’t just pass through St. Louis -- they lived and worked here before and after their famous expedition. The St. Louis area is home to more significant, accessible Lewis & Clark historic sites than anywhere in the nation. Experience the trail by day with the luxuries of a major city – great hotels, fabulous restaurants, vibrant live music, theatre and professional sports – at night. No camping required. At the Missouri History Museum, you’ll see Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition, a once-in-a-lifetime display of artifacts from the journey that haven’t been seen in one place since 1806. Long-running Lewis & Clark exhibits at the Museum of Westward Expansion, the St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Botanical Garden and Black World History Museum. Pay your respects at explorer William Clark’s gravesite and gaze at the confluence of America’s two great rivers – the Missouri and the Mississippi at the historic site where the Corps of Discovery camped and trained prior to their departure.

 

St. Louis . . .the home of The Blues

 

W.C. Handy, the composer of that magical song, “St. Louis Blues,” with those classic lyrics,  “I Hate to See . . . the Evening Sun go down . .” seemed to capture the feeling of the blues when he wrote that song (which, incidentally, he had a tough time selling.  But when it took off, it took off big.  As late as 40 years after he wrote the song, he was still earning $25,000 a year in royalties).

 

Music seemed to flow from St. Louis.  Besides Handy, a young fella named Scott Joplin moved into St. Louis.  Other musicians followed and made their mark.

 

Jazz influences steamed into town aboard northbound riverboats from New Orleans where they blended with Joplin's established ragtime and encountered a great migration of blues musicians from the Mississippi delta region. The integration of these musical styles created a sound that took its name from Handy's famous composition and became known as the St. Louis blues.

 

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the St. Louis blues were joined by a new sound - rhythm and blues.  Developed in the nightclubs of St. Louis and Memphis, the sound was described as a "driving dance beat combined with a bluesy delivery."

 

St. Louisians Ike & Tina Turner were at the forefront of this St. Louis sound and R&B quickly grew to fill a popular music void created after the end of the Big Band jazz era.

 

Bands from St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans took to the road, playing nightclubs and dancehalls across America, spreading St. Louis' distinctive and innovative approach to music across the country and around the world. Today bands carry on the tradition of live St. Louis music in clubs throughout the region.

A free concert series called Blues on the Mississippi takes place throughout June, July and August in Jefferson Barracks Park. The Big Muddy Blues Festival rocks Labor Day weekend in the Laclede’s Landing entertainment district, bringing the biggest names in blues to the cobblestone streets for three days of free music.

 

St. Louis is the gateway to America’s Music Corridor, the blues, jazz, ragtime and rock-n-roll tour that links the musical heritage of the lower Mississippi River region from St. Louis to New Orleans.

 

There was, and is, a great deal of talent in the St. Louis area.  The St. Louis Walk of Fame was created to salute those stars.  Among them:

 

Sports: James "Cool Papa" Bell, Lou Brock, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst.

 

Literature: Maya Angelou, William Burroughs, Kate Chopin and A.E. Hotchner.

 

Music: Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Johnnie Johnson, Leonard Slatkin, Willie Mae Ford Smith, Clark Terry, Grace Bumbry and Tina Turner.

 

Playwriting: Tennessee Williams and William Inge.

 

Science: Masters & Johnson.

 

Civil Rights: Dred and Harriet Scott.

 

Poetry: Sara Teasdale, T. S. Eliot and Eugene Field.

 

Acting: Phyllis Diller, Buddy Ebsen, Redd Foxx, John Goodman, Betty Grable, Kevin Kline, Virginia Mayo, Agnes Moorehead, Vincent Price and Shelley Winters.

 

Journalism: Elijah Lovejoy and Joseph Pulitzer.

 

Broadcasting: Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Bob Costas, Joe Garagiola and Dave Garroway.

 

Following the success of Blueberry Hill, his unique restaurant/bar/club crammed with displays of pop culture memorabilia, owner Joe Edwards was looking for a way to attract more people to The Loop neighborhood and to showcase the cultural heritage of St. Louis. He settled on the idea of a walk of fame with stars and plaques set in the sidewalks along Delmar Boulevard, and in 1988 The St. Louis Walk of Fame, a non-profit organization, was formed. The following year the first group of stars honoring musician Chuck Berry, dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham, bridge builder James B. Eads, poet T. S. Eliot, ragtime composer Scott Joplin, aviator Charles Lindbergh, baseball player Stan Musial, actor Vincent Price, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and playwright Tennessee Williams was installed.

 

It’s located at along Delmar Boulevard in the dynamic Loop neighborhood honoring St. Louisans-past and present-who have made significant contributions to life in America.

 

Perhaps the best way to sum up a feeling for St. Louis is expressed by a couple of recent visitors who said:

“We are looking forward to a return trip to St. Louis because the city offers so much that it is impossible to appreciate it all in one visit. Whether you're looking for a family vacation or a romantic excursion for two, St. Louis definitely delivers." -- Midwest Traveler magazine