Something Got Me Thinking…. Thanksgiving 2015

Something got me thinking. I’ve been writing about historic preservation for a week or two. Raising questions: What can be done to save Plaza del Cerro in Chimayo, NM?  What are the options available for cities and towns to preserve neighborhoods?  What are the forces at work – for or against preservation of neighborhoods? Also, Thanksgiving was coming so some old family stories were coming to mind.  Anyway…my mind began wandering.

It wandered back to my old neighborhood – the earliest one I can remember.  This was in the City of St. Louis; on the western fringe of the city, a little south of Forest Park but still in the city. St. Louis neighborhoods all have names but the boundaries are a little murky sometimes. This area is sometimes referred to as “Dogtown” but it is too far south. It’s too far west to be “The Hill” (the Italian neighborhood), too far east to be the suburb of “Maplewood” and too far north to be “Lindenwood”.  It’s hard to describe because it doesn’t really conform to any category.  There were some hills and a park. There were some old homes, some two-family flats, and some newer homes. There were brick homes and frame homes; some were big and some were small. The railroad was close by as was a steel works and foundry.  My first experience in formal education was at Mason School. It was German, Irish, and mostly American.  This was a white neighborhood in a city that was largely segregated in 1950. There was nothing unusual about it and it was a pretty normal place in the post-war years.


How people settled here in the first place is sort of confused. Charles Gratiot, a Swiss Huguenot, acquired the land as a Spanish land grant around 1790. Gratiot helped bankroll George Rogers Clark’s expedition to attack the English in Vincennes during the American Revolution (from the then Spanish town of St. Louis) and he served as interpreter for Meriwether Lewis in 1804 when the United States took possession of St. Louis and the Louisiana territory from France. Gratiot’s land was divided among his heirs and stayed as farm land for decades. Clay and coal mines developed underground in some places and some of the early residents were probably local miners. The railroad went through before the Civil War and the iron foundry opened around 1899 but there was already a small community and small garden plots. Manchester road wasn’t too far away – a major road heading west out of St. Louis. Then came the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1903-04 and things started happening. New housing was needed. Streetcar lines were extended. Forest Park, the site of the fair, was within walking distance. Landowners became developers…but only up to a point. Some of those clay mines were collapsed or were likely to collapse. Some folks still kept dairy cows back then.

KEN3aMy grandfather, Charles Frear Miller, was a lifelong shoe worker from the time he first went to work up in Endicott, NY, until he died, at the shoe factory, on Christmas Eve, 1941.  He, of strong Protestant stock, married Sadie (Sara) McSweeney, my Irish Catholic grandmother in 1906 in St. Charles, Missouri – to the eternal dismay of his family back in upstate New York. That middle name, Frear, was the old Huguenot family name carried forward from the 1600s…the ones who fled France and persecution by the Catholics.  There were no happy parents picking up the wedding tab. (Grandpa is the one driving the fake car at the World’s Fair in 1904. I have no idea who the sour looking guy is.)

Back then, working class weddings were often handled as a day’s outing and Charles and Sadie, with a few friends and family, boarded a trolley and rode way out and across the Missouri River to St. Charles for the wedding. I can half-way imagine Judy Garland singing as they rode along: ”clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”   It was September 3rd, a Monday – Labor Day, and grandpa was a union man. What better way to get married and begin the rest of your life? Charles and Sadie were hitched.

For a while, my grandparents lived in a flat in a long-gone rooming house block in the city on Bernard Street. They were still there in the 1910 census, along with my eleven month old aunt. Grandma was expecting a baby soon, my mom.  They lived only a couple doors from grandma’s last surviving relatives. Most had succumbed to TB by that time, the family affliction, and her brother was dying and would not survive the year.  Only the strong lived, or those who escaped the tenement living conditions.  Charles and Sadie escaped – and moved into the house on McCune Avenue as soon as they could scrape some money together. This was like living in the country. The house was already there, maybe five or ten years old. The street was unpaved and there were cows roaming the neighborhood. There was an outhouse in the backyard. It was wonderful compared to Bernard Street.

I was born in Deaconess Hospital over by Forest Park in 1948 but came home to the right half of a two-family shotgun rental duplex on lower McCune Avenue. I don’t know the address but the house is still there. It wasn’t on a corner back then but it is now. Thanks to the construction of Interstate 44 it is the last house on McCune Ave; all of the houses to the north are gone. This was always referred to as “lower McCune” because it was down the hill from the rest of the neighborhood. We (or, I) only lived there a short time because we moved up the hill to my Grandmother’s house on upper McCune Avenue, just a few blocks away. This was the family place, more or less: where Charles and Sadie moved in the early 1900s.  The word “avenue” is a real stretch of the imagination.

6460 McCune
A recent picture from Google — still recognizable but much different from when I knew it.

The house was a two-story frame house with a flat roof, clapboard siding, and a decorative parapet in front. It was a pretty much straightforward shotgun design with three rooms on the first floor and two bedrooms upstairs. Rooms were connected – there was no hallway. It was situated on a slope and had a walkout basement. Since there was no indoor plumbing in the neighborhood when it was built, someone (Grandpa?) installed a bathroom in the basement. My mom remembered trips to the outhouse as a kid. Heading down two flights of twisting stairs to the bathroom in the basement was not enjoyable any time but especially at night but it was better than outhouse. I fell down the stairs more than once.

We had to sneak past the furnace to get to the bathroom. The furnace was like a giant octopus with fire in its belly that divided the basement into two halves. My dad would go down and aggravate it most nights in the winter and it would belch out heat up into the house. Come to think of it, there were no radiators and no fireplaces in the house, just this old gravity-based coal furnace. The front half of the basement – where all the really cool stuff was – was off limits to me. I remember that part of the basement floor was dirt and there was a large coalbin.  I could play in the rear…back where there were windows and the door going out into the yard.  But I wanted to get back into the inner sanctum and ventured there a few times. It was hard to conceal the fact that you had explored the coalbin….mom, and grandma, always knew.

For most of its life the house had been sided with white wooden clapboard shingles. Sometime after my Grandpa died, my Grandma decided that covering the house with a fake brick asphalt siding would make maintenance easier. At least she didn’t have to paint the clapboard siding anymore and it added some extra insulation. The tremendous weight of the asphalt siding draped on the exterior walls was not good and the place seemed to labor under the burden.

There were two bedrooms upstairs. My Grandma got her own bedroom at the top of the stairs. My mom, dad, brother and I were in the other front bedroom…the one you had to tip-toe through Grandmas’ room to get to. Years later, when I went back to that house as an adult, I simple couldn’t imagine how the four of us managed to all fit in that room. We also had a large collie dog (named Lassie, of course) that also ranged through the house and slept in that room sometimes. We, my brother and I, didn’t think much of it…that was just the way things worked.

The yard was maybe about 75 to 80 feet wide but it was deep, going back maybe twice that. There was an alley that ran alongside the house on one side but it was never used and was a mix of cinders and grass so we just occupied that space. The front yard was flat but then sloped downhill from the street toward the back alley. We had a large old silver maple in the front yard and one by the porch. We had an apple tree and a plum tree in the back yard. I don’t recall ever seeing any plums but we had a few small hard apples…great for throwing at other kids. My brother could climb high up into the apple tree, which he claimed as his own. I had the plum tree but apart from a forked crotch about three feet off the ground there was no place to climb. That was probably a good thing. My brother would sometimes fall out of the apple tree but he figured out how to climb up the tree and then somehow creep out on one branch and get on the flat roof of the kitchen. Once there, he could just walk across the tarred roof and climb through grandma’s bedroom window. Grandma didn’t go for that much. He was told a few times not to do it and then one day she saw him climbing the tree and heading for the roof. She was ready for him and raced upstairs and nailed the window shut as he came across the roof. Fifty years later that window was still nailed shut.

Circa 1920 — Grandma and the four kids

I remember a few neighbors. Mrs. R lived next door with her son, Vincent, and an older unmarried daughter named Marilyn, I think.  There was no Mr. R for some unknown reason. Vincent was a couple years older than my brother which made him seven or eight years older than me. I remember he had a pet chameleon that changed colors…pretty cool pet…our collie couldn’t do that. He also had a set of lead soldiers and a little foundry of some sort where he melted lead and made more soldiers in a series of molds.  He and my brother painted them and played with the soldiers out in the yard. Somehow my brother acquired a taste for lead soldiers and would chew on them. This went on for a while until he made a trip to the dentist. The dentist wanted to know what dentist he had been seeing previously because he had lead fillings in his teeth and lead slivers between his teeth…which he promptly removed. Nowadays people would go nuts and there would be hotline calls but back then it didn’t seem to have any consequences other than the lead soldiers were put away. The lead fillings didn’t seem to have any impact on my brother one way or another.

There had been a feud between my mom’s family and Mrs. R for several decades. Seems like it had been going on since the 1930s and started with the positioning of a telephone pole in the backyard along the alley. My grandpa was paid $10 or something for the pole to be erected at the back of our yard. Mrs. R felt that the pole should have been in her backyard and she should have reaped the benefits of that $10. Instead, the two houses on each side got poles and she didn’t. Apparently a war broke out and the two families didn’t speak for over twenty years. That’s the way it was until my brother and I moved in — we were not properly informed of the ongoing warfare. We didn’t observe boundaries and crossed over no-man’s land whenever we wanted. My brother played with Vincent (in our yard, mostly) and horror of horrors…I was often spending time in Mrs. R’s kitchen because she liked to bake and I liked to lick the spoons. There was a cease fire in the war for several years.  There will be more on this later.

On the other side of Mrs. R was Mrs. G, an elderly but kindly lady who seemed to get along with everyone. I was often in her kitchen – my mom didn’t bake much. Mrs. G was a direct descendant of Daniel Boone. I don’t have a clue how I know that but I do. I’m not sure I even knew who Daniel Boone was at that age.  Mrs. G was sort of a matchmaker and thought maybe I needed to meet her grand-daughter. We went to a dance and I went to her birthday party but nothing developed. I was four years old at the time. I learned after a while that Mrs. G was a tattletale and would telephone my mom and give occasional reports of my sightings in the neighborhood. I had a vivid imagination and still recall seeing the movie “Ivanhoe” way back in 1952 and took it to heart.  I would pretend to be some biblical character or a knight or cowboy.  Mrs. G would see me go by and would call my mom to let her know that “Moses just walked up the street” or “Sir Kenny is on his way home”.  She was still pretty nice and was like a second grandma at times.

Mason School, designed by William B. Ittner, is still going as the Mason School of Academic and Cultural Literacy. It is one of St. Louis’ beautiful early 20th century schools. I went there only one month but knew it well.

So, generally the kids in the neighborhood got along pretty well. My brother had a gang of friends that ranged far and wide. I had a couple friends my age and we had less freedom but still were going from house to house. Nobody was concerned for the kids’ safety except for the creepy man and woman who lived in the old rock house next to the vacant lot that was probably an old collapsed clay mine. The vacant lot served as the local ball field and hide-and-seek spot and sledding hill. Kids would be there almost every day. Nobody dared to speak to the people in the rock house or venture too close. Somebody took care of the lot and cut the grass…probably the creepy old man in the old rock house. Anyway, we were all supposed to be afraid of the old man and woman and stay away from the house.

One fine day we were playing in the lot and me and my buddy decided to explore. The rock house had a cellar door that was always open…I don’t actually remember there being a door, just a doorway that led under the house. We, of course, went inside and were messing around in the dark cellar when the creepy old man appeared in the doorway. He must have been 200 years old….well, maybe 70. I remember he had white hair, like my dad, and was wearing a vest. Cowboys on TV wore vests…we had just gotten our first TV so this was well known to kids at that time….all cowboys wore vests. This creepy old man was maybe just an old cowboy. He led us out of the cellar and up to the front door where we were introduced to his sister…the creepy old lady.  She was equally old but very nice and seemed happy to have the company.  So our adventure ended with a pleasant visit. My brother and other kids were observing this from a safe distance and by the time I got home later that afternoon my mom had already heard about my adventure. I got a short lecture about going into other peoples’ houses but nothing about how I could have been cooked and eaten for dinner….what most of the other kids thought would be our fate. Apparently my mom went over and talked to the old people and everything was hunky-dory.  The old folks were somehow accepted into our society after that…however that works. The kids were not so fearful any longer.

My grandmother was Irish…born in this country but pure Irish. She had an Irish temper and would get angry from time to time. I already mentioned the nailing of the window and the neighbor feud. Grandma was always nice to me and my brother. One of my most vivid memories of her was the flabby skin hanging from her upper arms wobbling back and forth. It was fascinating. She must have been a bigger woman at one time. She was orphaned early and was farmed out to convents and orphanages for several years but was often “rescued” by her older brothers. As a young woman she worked as a house maid in some fancy St. Louis homes until she married my grandpa. After that she was a mother and housewife who occasionally took in laundry. Once the kids got older she worked as a cook in some fine hotels and restaurants in St. Louis.  I sometimes wonder how that worked. At home she would boil whatever we had. It didn’t matter what it was, it got boiled in a pot of salty water. I was fine with that as long as there were mashed potatoes on the table. I think 120 years earlier I could have caused my own potato famine because that was my primary food and she made pretty good mashed potatoes.  Her temper would sometimes get the best of her and she would quit a job and storm out never to return. She would go up the street and be hired immediately at another place. Maybe she would be there for a while or maybe she would storm out of the new place and go to a third restaurant in the same day. The idea of “never to return” was a temporary concept and she would go back again as if nothing happened.

Grandma had the same behavior around the house. She would get her nose out of joint and be gone for several days – we would not know where. We would learn that she turned up at one of my aunt’s houses after a day or so and then she would come back. These disappearances were frightening because she had a really bad heart and could “drop dead” at any time, according to my brother. That scared me because I was concerned about a possible shortage of mashed potatoes. I could manage for a couple days but I wasn’t sure mom could pick up the slack. Grandma’s favorite TV shows were wrestling matches and she would get so worked up she would shout at the TV – “hit ‘em again”, “Git him!!”  I remember she was in the hospital two or three times a year because of her heart but she never let that interfere with her usual lifestyle. She was only 67 when she died…my age now.

Grandma died around the end of May and we moved into our new house way out in the suburbs in October.  It was being built for most of the year so I don’t think it was connected to grandma’s demise. When we moved out of the old house, my aunt moved in. She had been living in an apartment in a not-so-nice part of town so this was a good move for her. My aunt reinstated the feud with Mrs. R pretty quickly since I guess she never really knew there had been a cease fire. This was what became known as the “War of the Roses”. My mom had a green thumb and planted roses along the property line between us and Mrs. R.  Actually, my aunt couldn’t have cared less about roses except that Mrs. R would pick roses that strayed across the imaginary line between the two warring factions.  There was a few unfortunate scenes and the feud was back in full flower.

At one point, Mrs. R’s grown daughter had “a thing” going on with a guy across the street. My aunt observed Marilyn’s occasional evening migrations across the street for a while and then snuck out late one night and painted foot prints on the pavement between the two houses…like a crosswalk. That was a major escalation and it took a while for things to calm down. My aunt inherited a little of grandma’s temperament. She and my mom would still engage in sibling squabbles well into their seventies and neither one would back down or apologize…they just pretended it didn’t happen.

After we moved I lost track of the goings on in the old neighborhood pretty quickly. A couple years later I looked up my old friend but we had nothing to talk about. I had new adventures out in the wilds of the suburbs.

My aunt, now in possession of the old house, was an artist and a dressmaker….she was pretty talented. In her younger days she was acquainted with Tennessee Williams but wasn’t much impressed. She was part of a theater group that first put on his plays.  She attended Washington University School of Art and had something of an artsy, semi-bohemian lifestyle in the early days and was somewhat less inhibited than my mom…sometimes a source of friction. Later my aunt worked as the wardrobe mistress for the Goldenrod showboat and came into contact with actors and performers. Once moved in, she reorganized the house the way she wanted. She painted a mural on the four bathroom walls of flamingos and water plants. My mom was not amused but I thought it was great.

Over time, the house filled up with paintings and sewing machines and dress forms. Pretty soon there was a path that you had to follow through the rooms. She had every National Geographic magazine since 1930 or maybe before. She finally had the old asphalt siding removed and replaced with aluminum siding. The house seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. She took an interest in the yard and planted flowers and spring bulbs. The old trees were taken down and replaced with new ones planted at seemingly random intervals. As time went by a few things went wrong. The flat roof was a problem and there were frequent leaks. As she aged, my aunt stopped going upstairs to the bedrooms and her living space became the three rooms on the first floor.

My aunt died in the house some years later when her heart went bad. She was the last of her generation living on their own and there was no one left in the family who wanted to move into the old place. She was married briefly but there were no kids.  The nieces and nephews came to the house to clean out some of the stuff and to divide up some of the many paintings. The general agreement was that the place was probably not worth salvaging. We would sell it for whatever we could get but it would probably be torn down. Someone eventually bought the old place and instead of tearing it down they rehabbed it and it is still going strong. It is probably close to 120 years old and in its fourth reincarnation as a family home. I hope they found a way to move the bathroom upstairs and out of the basement.

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