Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
April 9th, 2014 by Cameron

The Suffragette

Virginia L. Minor

On a brisk autumn morning in October 1872, an elegant and determined woman opened the door to the Board of Election offices in downtown St. Louis and gracefully stepped inside. Beside her walked her husband of twenty-nine years, a respected attorney in St. Louis who supported his wife on all counts in what she had set out to do that morning.

The Presidential election of 1872 between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was just three weeks away, and the office the couple entered that morning was bustling with activity. And in the thick of that bustle sat the 6th Ward of St. Louis Registrar of Voters, a fifty-two year old man named Reese Happersett.

When Reese Happersett looked up and identified the two people who had just entered his office that morning, it’s very possible that he thought to himself:

“Oh shit. Here we go.”

In all likelihood, Happersett recognized Virginia Louisa Minor and her husband Francis right away. Well-known in St. Louis political circles, the two had been vocal leaders in the women’s suffrage movement locally and nationally for several years. He must have also realized immediately why Virginia Minor had entered his office that morning. She had plans to vote in the upcoming Presidential election.

What caused that brief moment of foreboding to float through Happersett’s mind is that it was his job to tell Virginia Minor that she wouldn’t be able to. Virginia Minor was a female, and Missouri law in 1872 explicitly stated that only males could vote.

After the dust settled that morning, newspaper accounts reported that Reese Happersett politely declined Virginia Minor’s request to have her name added to the list of registered voters. Minor did pushed back at Mr. Happersett’s rejection to a degree, but she had no plans to play the role of someone “creating a sensation” that day. In fact, not only did Virginia Minor know her request would be denied, she hoped it would be. If Reese Happersett denied her right to vote, the first step in her grand plan would be initiated.

The second step would be to take Reese Happersett to court.

The Old CourthousePerhaps more than any extant structure in St. Louis, the Old Courthouse embodies the deep and rich history of St. Louis.

The Old Courthouse is locally renowned as the building where Dred and Harriett Scott began their legal quest for freedom in 1846. Not nearly as well-known, but nearly as significant, Virginia Minor’s battle for women’s equality was initiated in the same building. Virginia Minor’s story played out on the same floors, within the same walls, and under the same dome as Dred Scott’s.

The Old Courthouse as it looks todayAs they’d be known in the annals of the United States Supreme Court, Dred Scott v. Sanford and Minor v. Happersett share striking similarities. Both cases were first argued at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. Both cases dealt with the issues of civil rights and equality. Both cases questioned the Constitutional definition of the “citizen”. Both cases were lost and appealed until they stood before the United States Supreme Court. And in both cases, that court would hand down decisions ruling against the plaintiff.

However, despite the judgements against Dred Scott and Virginia Minor, their respective movements both enjoyed booming support and increased activism in the wake of defeat. Both movements also eventually succeeded, but in one final and unfortunate similarity, both Dred Scott and Virginia Minor would not live to see it with their own eyes.

Virginia Minor was born on March 27, 1824 in Goochland County, Virginia. As a young woman, Virginia was educated at home and briefly attended an academy for young ladies in Charlottesville. She was beautiful, intelligent, known for having “ladylike manners” and possessing an “old-fashioned charm”. At the age of nineteen, she married her distant cousin Francis, which fortuitously enabled her to keep her maiden name. After a brief residence in Mississippi, the couple moved to St. Louis in 1845 and purchased a farm on land that is now the Central West End.

St. Louis Ladies' Union Aid Society Lithograph

Despite her southern upbringing, Virginia Minor was committed to the abolition of slavery and an unflinching supporter of the Union during the Civil War. In late 1861, she was one of the first women to join the newly formed St. Louis Ladies’ Union Aid Society. This group, along with the Western Sanitary Commission, worked tirelessly to support wounded Union soldiers and their families during the war. Virginia Minor volunteered her own time and resources caring for patients at local hospitals, donating produce grown at the Minor farm, and even delivering jars of cherry preserves to men stationed at Jefferson Barracks.

A significant side-effect of the Ladies’ Union Aid Society was that it enabled women such as Virginia Minor to showcase leadership qualities. As a result, the role of women in society suddenly expanded as women became more involved in causes outside of the home. Not surprisingly, many women involved in the Ladies’ Union Aid Society became leaders in the women’s suffrage movement. This was the path taken by Virginia Minor, and by the end of the war, she had committed her life’s work to the political enfranchisement of women.

Virginia Minor’s strong leadership skills would be rewarded in 1867 when she was named President of the newly formed Woman’s Suffrage Association of Missouri. This organization holds the distinction of being the first organization in history dedicated solely to the political enfranchisement of women. It wasn’t until two years later when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association.

The Mercantile Library BuildingIn the aftermath of the Civil War, the “Reconstruction Amendments” proposed to Congress generated a significant amount of protest from many leaders in the women’s suffrage movement. They demanded that these amendments, authored to grant former slaves rights under the United States Constitution, should be expanded to grant the same rights to women. Virginia Minor petitioned the Missouri State Legislature to do just that, but her proposal was barely considered. Her motion to add the word “women” to wording that gave blacks the right to vote in the 15th Amendment was soundly defeated by a vote of 89-5. Yet despite this another other setbacks, it was Virginia Minor’s husband who recognized a unique opportunity in the wording of the 14th Amendment. Without mentioning gender specifically, he theorized the amendment was written in such a manner than it legally granted women the right to vote.

In 1869, a national convention for women’s suffrage met in St. Louis at the Mercantile Library Building. It was at this convention where Francis Minor laid out this new legal theory. Backed by an impassioned speech from his wife, the convention formally adopted the principles of Francis Minor’s argument. Three years later, the theory would be put to the test when Virginia Minor attempted to register to vote in Reese Happersett’s office.

Laura Staley, in an article written for Gateway Heritage Magazine published in 1983, concisely illustrates the three key points Francis Minor used in his argument. The basis of it was that women already had the right to vote. All they had to do was exercise it.

Francis Minor's Legal TheoryThe Minor’s plan all along was to legally test the theory in court. To do so, Francis Minor filed a civil lawsuit against Reese Happersett in December 1872. Since women were not allowed to file suit on their own behalf, Virginia was named as co-plaintiff. The suit demanded that Reese Happersett be ordered to register Virginia Minor to vote and pay damages in the sum of $10,000.

The Minors contended that Happersett was depriving Virginia Minor of a privilege of United States citizenship, and that his action was condemning her to a “position of involuntary servitude”. In response, Reese Happersett and his attorney simply claimed that he had simply enacted a provision of the Missouri State Constitution that included one definitive word: male.

Missouri State Constitution Excerpt

Happersett’s attorney bolstered the defense by arguing the amendment was written for the purpose of granting blacks, and only blacks, the right to vote. The trial was not by jury, and both sides presented their arguments in written statements. Judge Horatio M. Jones took little time delivering a verdict in favor of Reese Happersett.

Chief Justice Morrison WaiteImmediately, Francis Minor appealed the ruling. Three months later in May 1873, the case was presented before the Missouri Supreme Court, again at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. The result would be the same, and Francis Minor then filed a final appeal to bring the case before highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court.

The case was argued in Washington D.C. two years later in February 1875. Unlike the previous cases that essentially ruled in favor of the Missouri Constitution and its use of the word “male”, the Supreme Court’s ruling was more definitive. With a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that neither the Constitution nor the 14th Amendment granted any citizen the right to vote as Francis Minor theorized.

In the court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Morrison Waite, the point is clearly made:

Chief Justice Morrison Waite Quote

Despite defeat, Virginia and Francis Minor continued the fight for the remainder of their lives. In 1879, Virginia Minor was elected President of the Missouri branch of the National Woman Suffrage Association. She refused to pay her taxes, argued for equality in newspapers, testified before the United States Senate, and on the one-hundred year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; she joined her fellow suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and several others in signing the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States.

Minor Gravesite

Virginia Minor died in St. Louis on August 14, 1894. Because she found the clergy hostile to her cause, her funeral was held at the Minor home without religious service or religious figures present. She willed $1,000 to her friend and colleague Susan B. Anthony in gratitude for the time and money she had expended towards their common cause. Peculiarly, she also willed two nieces $500 each on the provision that they never marry. Furthermore, if one of them did decide to wed, her share would transfer to the other.

Virginia Louisa Minor is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery next to her husband and their only child. Coincidentally, in a unmarked grave just across the cemetery road, less than two-hundred feet away, sits the grave of her adversary Reese Happersett.

On August 18, 1920, sixteen years and four days after Virginia Minor died, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. The amendment prohibited any United States citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex, and it effectively overruled the decision handed down in Minor v. Happersett.

The Drink

The Suffragette Cocktail

As a history nerd, the women’s suffrage movement is one that has always fascinated me. It’s a perfect vehicle to explain why I love history. Since I wasn’t alive during the time to see it with my own two eyes, I yearn to study and understand why something as completely unthinkable to me as denying a woman the right to vote was acceptable as recently as one-hundred years ago.

Another aspect of women’s suffrage that’s interesting is its close relation to alcohol and the temperance movement that occurred at the same time. That’s a subject for another post, but it’s an interesting conversation I’ve had more than once since I started researching and writing this one. Just a few weeks ago, I sipped a Manhattan cocktail and listen to a brilliant woman explain to me that “a major reason why the 19th Amendment passed is because of the same women who had already effectively organized and campaigned to help push through the 18th Amendment.”

In other words, women became very good at politics since the days of the St. Louis Ladies’ Union Aid Society. Before achieving the right to vote, they honed their craft by organizing into a political force and making Prohibition a reality in the United States.

I should hold a grudge about that, but I don’t. Prohibition was a complete failure, but something had to be done about the crazy drunkenness going on in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But again, that’s a story for another post.

Virginia Minor's Panel at the MHM

However, I found no record of Virginia Minor being involved with the temperance movement, so I’m going to assume that she wouldn’t mind sitting down with me to throw back a glass of wine, a cup of punch, or maybe even a sip of whiskey.

And remarkably, I stumbled upon a drink created by a St. Louis bartender that fits the theme of this post. A recipe for a concoction named the “The Suffragette” appears in the May 9, 1909 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was invented by a local bartender named “Pop” Harris. Simple to make and containing several ingredients I had on hand, I set out to make it myself and drink a couple on the front porch.

Although the name of the drink is perfect (this is the first time one term has adequately defined both the history and drink subject for one of my posts), I had two problems that I couldn’t shake from my mind as I sipped.

First if all, I kept thinking how pissed Virginia Minor would be at how it was advertised in the Post-Dispatch: “One suffragette cocktail will convert man and four will make him wash dishes”.  The second issue is that it just doesn’t have enough alcohol. When I take the time to mix a fancy cocktail, I want to be hit on that first sip. Rittenhouse Rye (my choice for the main ingredient in a Manhattan) is 100 proof. The cheap sloe gin I had on hand to make the occasional sloe gin fizz is only 30 proof. Sweet and dry vermouth (which are simply fortified wines) are great compliments to base spirits, but they certainly aren’t going to help knock you off your chair. I believe I’m going to try to improve this drink on my own, perhaps making my own sloe gin, or by adding a bit of Hayman’s Old Tom, which helped a bit with my second pour.

In its current state, I doubt even four suffragettes could get me drunk, and that’s just fine. I was already on board with Virginia Minor before I drank the first one. And I’ll leave the dishes for tomorrow.

The Suffragette Cocktail

March 9th, 2014 by Cameron

The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874

My Favorite Drinking BuddyOne of the joys in my life is that my dear mother can take a joke.

My mother is brilliant, effusive, hilarious, (and in a very lovely way), kinda nuts. She’s easy to make fun of, and badgering her about one of her many quirks (such as her inclination to chitchat with everyone who crosses her path) is always good fun. But Mom can also dish it back, and this sort of back-and-forth banter always makes for an amusing evening when we’re visiting. While we’re at it, the scene is usually accompanied by gin, colorful language, and laughter as we make fun of each other and (of course) others.

Frequent topics include how one should never willingly ride in a car my sister is driving, accounts of my misbehavior during high school/college/last week, or even the time Mom sprayed eyeglass cleaner in her mouth because she thought the little spray canister was a breath refresher.

I’ll also go to work on her with an annoying little game I call “That’s from St. Louis”. It’s a simple game, especially for a guy who knows thousands of useless facts about St. Louis. Here’s how it works:

During our fun chats, all I do is wait for my mother to say something that I can relate to the city of St. Louis. I’ll usually start with something trivial that everyone knows:

Mom & Cameron BanterIn the beginning of the game, Mom will usually respond with something simple like “That’s nice, dear”. But the key is to keep it going. The more random the fact, the better:

Mom & Cameron BanterAfter five or six of these, it’ll start to get to her. I’ll hear a “sigh” in return, or maybe I’ll get one of her “looks”. My mother adores the city of St. Louis, but the button pushing is getting to her. This is when I go in for the kill:

Mom & Cameron Banter(Snap)

Mom's Fed UpI actually have a good reason for telling the story about how I mildly torment my mother. It’s a good lead-in to this post, which is a first in the life of Distilled History. Instead of promoting something that did happen in St. Louis, I’m going to promote something that didn’t.

The Hot Dog: Not a World's Fair Creation

My dumb little game not only led me to learn that I had one of my facts wrong, but it also led me to the fun story behind a classic drink. It’s not exactly St. Louis history, but it’s drinking history. That’s one-half of this blog, so it’s good enough for me.

On the evening when I informed my (somewhat exasperated) mother that the gin-based Tom Collins cocktail was invented in St. Louis, I remember suddenly wondering if it was actually true. Although I’ve been told by a few reliable sources the Tom Collins was born here, I’ve fallen for more than a few myths of St. Louis before.

How to Mix Drinks

Others have as well, and that’s why we sometimes hear people incorrectly boast that the hamburger, the hot dog, and peanut butter were all invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They weren’t, and minimal research will provide evidence that the three foods were around well before 1904. But all is not lost, dear St. Louis. Our magnificent fair 110 years ago can still claim the waffle ice cream cone and cotton candy.

With a bit of research, I also learned the Tom Collins cocktail also belongs in the same “Not-from-St. Louis” category as peanut butter. It turns out the classic libation of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda was almost certainly first poured in New York City.

Many claim the drink is a St. Louis creation because of a famous bartender named Jerry Thomas, the “presiding deity” of the bar at the famous Planter’s House Hotel that once stood downtown. One of the most famous hotels west of the Mississippi in the 19th Century, it’s possible that during his tenure, Jerry Thomas served drinks to notable guests including Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jefferson Davis.

The claim does have merit on the surface, because “Professor” Jerry Thomas (as he would come to be known), was in fact there. He did work as the head bartender at the Planter’s House at some point in the mid-19th Century. But it’s a flimsy claim to say he invented the Tom Collins cocktail during his tenure. Not a single shred of evidence exists to support it. In fact, there is no record of how long he was at the Planter’s House, what he did (other than tend bar), or why he eventually left.

What can’t be argued is that in the years after he left St. Louis, Jerry Thomas would become the most famous bartender in American history. This happened in part because of a benchmark book he published, The Bar-Tender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. Published in 1862, it is considered the first book of cocktail recipes ever published in the United States.

"The Professor" Jerry Thomas

A significant clue that the Tom Collins cocktail is not a St. Louis creation is that the recipe doesn’t appear in the that book. The Collins doesn’t appear (for the first time in print) until the second edition, published fourteen years later in 1876. By that time, Jerry Thomas had been for years firmly rooted in his own bar on Broadway in New York City.

A second (and most convincing) clue is remarkably, a simple practical joke.

In 1874, some random fellow in the saloon-filled streets of New York City came up with an idea to provoke one of his drinking companions. It worked, and the success of the joke caused it to become a popular form of entertainment in the city. It didn’t stop there. As fast as news could travel, folks in Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and any town that could claim a bar and a guy looking to rile up his pal became a place where the prank was rehashed. It was known as The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874, and it’s one of the more amusing (and well-documented) stories in the history of drinking and mixology.

An article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 13, 1874, details how the prank worked:

How the Hoax WorkedWith his friend sufficiently riled up, the two men would set forth to locate Tom Collins. Entering the crowded saloon he was directed to, the joke’s pawn would angrily demand of the bartender “Where is Tom Collins?” Already in on the prank, the bartender would direct the man towards some unsuspecting patron about to deny being familiar with anyone named Tom Collins. In the resulting confusion, tempers would flair, the joke would eventually be realized, and the crowded bar (most certainly in on the act) would erupt with laughter.

Tom Collins Ad

Of course, this sort of scene would require a round of drinks to get everyone to simmer down and heal egos.

The prank became so popular that even newspapers became participants. False sightings of the notorious “Tom Collins” were reported, advertisements promoted his preferences in hats and cigars, and articles with titles such as “That Infernal Tom Collins!” appeared frequently when the joke succeeded. People even wrote songs to memorialize the good times had with the prank.

In one humorous account, the joke caused conflict even when the victim knew what was happening. In June 1874, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed an account of a hotel patron who became quite angry when he was handed a card that said “Tom Collins wants to see you after dinner”. Already victimized by the joke two or three times previously, the man became “wrathful”. This led to “hard words” with the identified prankster, and a “first class scrimmage hung in the balance”. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

As 1874 wound down, so did the joke. The more it was staged, the more difficult it became to find someone who’d be an unknowing patsy. But the hoax has a lasting legacy that lives on today. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich (and several other sources), it’s this joke that gave us the name of the famous Tom Collins cocktail we know today. In his book Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, Wondrich asserts that the ancestor of the Tom Collins is a gin-based punch with the similar name of “John Collins”. Popular in England, the recipe was likely transported across the Atlantic by British sailors visiting New York City. However, Americans have a tendency to put their own spin on things, and before long the “John Collins” became known as the “Tom Collins”.

And it’s delicious gin that gives us the answer why.

Tom Collins Quote

In 1874, the London dry version of gin (think Bombay Sapphire, for example) that many prefer today was practically unheard of. Order a gin drink in 1874 and you’d either get Dutch Jenever or British Old Tom gin. Both are sweeter and maltier versions of the London dry everyone is familiar with today. These (delicious) versions are still around today, but London dry is now the standard (due in large part to the popularity of the martini cocktail).

Anyway, when angry guys started storming into saloons in and demanding to see a “Mr. Collins”, bartenders started putting their own spin on the joke. A “Collins” was also a drink, so holding one up and bellowing back “Here’s your Mr. Collins!” became an amusing way to enhance the prank.

Title Page of Jerry Thomas's Book

The final piece of the puzzle occurred when an unknown bartender or patron decided to refer to the drink as a “Tom Collins” instead of a “John Collins”. This likely made more sense at the time, because it was very probably that Old Tom gin (or just “Old Tom”) was used to make it.

Like the hoax that had spread from bar to saloon, and town to city, so did the freshly named drink. Then, two years after the joke took the country by storm,  Jerry Thomas sat down to write the second edition of his popular cocktail recipe book. Surely recalling his own experiences from the hoax the Tom Collins recipe was included. It would be the first time the recipe appears in print. The rest, as they say, is drinking history.

Tom Collins Recipe

The Drink

The Planter's House

The location of the drink for this post is one I have been saving for few months. The Planter’s House, named after the famous St. Louis hotel, recently opened on the on the corner of Mississippi and Chouteau just north of Lafayette Square. Frequent readers of this blog will likely become very familiar with Planter’s House, because it’s going to be featured in this blog for years to come. The first time I walked in the door, I instantly recognized that St. Louis had been blessed with another place at which I could satisfy my cocktail fix.

I knew it would be good even before that because a guy named Ted Kilgore is one of the proprietors. I don’t know Mr. Kilgore personally, but his name carries weight among cocktail connoisseurs in this town. I’ve been telling people for years that the best Manhattan in St. Louis is the one he served when he ran the show at Taste. Now it’s at Planter’s House, and I’m giddy that it’s actually possible to order a pitcher of them from the cocktail menu.

The Planter's House Tom Collins

Another aspect of the (new) Planter’s House that I appreciate is the attention to St. Louis drinking history. Not only is the name of the establishment a nod to Jerry Thomas and the original Planter’s House, but the accompanying “Bullock Room” is named after a notable African-American bartender who worked in St. Louis in the early 20th Century. That’s a guy who will be getting attention in this blog sooner or later.

I’ll be back often for the Manhattans, but the purpose of my visit was to get a Tom Collins. It’s listed as one of the “House Favorites” on the Planter’s House cocktail menu, and I’ve never had a better version. My only complaint is that this brutal 2014 winter continues. Accompanied by fresh lemon juice and orange peel, I believe a Tom Collins is most enjoyable during warmer weather.

To add to my excitement, I was elated to learn that Bol’s Genever, not London dry gin, is used in the Planter’s House Tom Collins. That’s how Jerry Thomas would have prepared it.

Served in a tall Collins glass over perfectly clear ice, the drink is ideally made at Planter’s House.

Now all I have to do is get Mom, my favorite drinking buddy, back to St. Louis so I can take her to the Planter’s House for another.

February 11th, 2014 by Cameron

The Big Two-Five-O

Chouteau's Journal

St. Louis has a big day coming up! Our fair city is about to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the day it became a dot on the map. I’m excited about it, and I think celebrations are in order. I am making plans to spend February 15, 2014 reading about St. Louis history, listening to other people talk about St. Louis history, and of course… drinking.

Well, that’s how I spend most of my days, but I’m at least gonna bust out the good gin for this one.

I know the story of how St. Louis came to be, but I decided to take an even closer look before popping the cork. And I better write about it now, because writing won’t be happening on the fifteenth. Since starting this blog, I’ve found I can’t write a single sentence after the first sip of a sip a tasty cocktail. How sad is that? I write a blog about history and drinking and I can’t do both at the same time. Sigh.

To help tell the tale, St. Louis is fortunate to have an amazing resource that many American cities don’t. A primary source detailing how and when the city came to be exists. Auguste Chouteau, the co-founder and “First Citizen” of St. Louis, wrote it all down for us to read whenever we want to (well, only if you can read French). And by the way, I’d like to use this post to promote the proper pronunciation of his name. It should be pronounced “SHOOtoe”, not the “SHOWtoe” we are all used to hearing.

Sadly, most of Chouteau’s “journal”, which he wrote later in life, was lost in a 19th century fire. However, the sixteen pages that tell us how St. Louis was founded survived and are tucked away for safekeeping at the Mercantile Library in St. Louis.

It all started in November 1763, two-hundred and fifty-one years ago. That’s when our soon-to-be co-founders were paddling north on the Mississippi River looking for something. Their journey originated in New Orleans, and after dropping off men and supplies at a French garrison (Fort de Chartes) along the way, the two men continued on their own. Upon reaching the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, they turned around and headed back downstream. About eighteen miles later, they pulled their boat up to a gently sloping shore on the western bank of the Mississippi. In front of them stood a two-mile stretch of limestone bluffs that reached forty feet into the air. Nearby, a break in the bluffs created a natural pathway that allowed the two men to walk up and investigate the wooded land stretching to the west.

Today, those limestone bluffs are long gone. But the path still remains. It’s now called Market Street.

The Founding of St. Louis

 The older gentleman who stepped from the boat was our other co-founder, the Frenchman Pierre Laclède (“LaCLED” not “LaCLEED”). He was likely in a good mood because their boat was now parked in front of exactly what he was looking for. To make sure they didn’t lose it, Laclède pulled out an axe and notched a few trees to mark the location. With that out of the way, he turned to his young companion and gave him clear instruction. The young man taking notes was the previously mentioned Auguste Chouteau, Laclède’s stepson. Chouteau was only thirteen (maybe fourteen) at the time, but the responsibility Laclède then heaped on him is astounding. When weather improved, Chouteau was to lead several boats filled with men, supplies, and building materials back to the piece of land they were standing on. Barely a teenager, he was about to take the lead in founding a new city.

Auguste Chouteau Arrives

Three months later, on February 15, 1764, Auguste Chouteau pulled to shore at the head of his charge. As he instructed some of his men to begin clearing land the next morning, he instructed others to build necessary storehouses and living structures. Auguste Chouteau then began to plot out Laclede’s proposed street grid on the same land that now sits beneath the Gateway Arch. That day, February 15, 1764, is the moment the city of St. Louis came to be.

When Pierre Laclède showed up several weeks later, he named the new settlement after King Louis IX and joined in the fun of building a city from scratch. During the time Chouteau was sent north to get things started, Laclède had remained at Fort de Chartes to acquire additional supplies, recruit settlers, and boast that he had found the ideal location from which a great city might rise. Chouteau corroborates this fact in his own narrative of the event:

Auguste Chouteau's QuoteDespite what could come to be (and did), a bustling city of the future is not what Pierre Laclède had in mind. Commerce is the reason St. Louis was founded. Several years earlier, Laclède and his business partner in New Orleans, Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxtent, were given exclusive rights to trade with Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. Laclède’s primary mission was to build outposts on the west side of the river in order to do just that. This was necessary, because the Treaty of Paris signed the previous year (ending the Seven Years’ War), meant that every French settlement on the east side of the river (like Cahokia and Kaskaskia) were now the property of Great Britain.

Auguste Chouteau

Interestingly, Laclède had no idea his new settlement on the western bank of the river wasn’t French either. Two years earlier, in 1762, France secretly ceded all territory west of the Mississippi River to Spain. Word hadn’t reached Upper Louisiana yet, so this created a very interesting situation. In early 1764, about thirty French-speaking men went about building a new city on Spanish soil, across the river from the British Empire, and surrounded by several Indian tribes.

Actually, the Indian situation was probably the least of their worries. Unlike the British, who strutted around the continent like conquerors, the French took a chummier approach to Native American relations. Being a friendly neighbor meant having a profitable trade partner right next door. As a result, Laclède was happy to set up shop near plenty of Osage, Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Peoria, and Tamaroa that lived and hunted in the area. It’s also worth noting that St. Louis is one of the few major American cities that did not displace Native American people when it was founded.

In fact, shortly after St. Louis came to be, about 150 Missouri Indians showed up at the front door asking if they could move in. Laclède realized St. Louis wasn’t ready for such a population explosion, so he smoothly convinced the tribe it wasn’t the best idea at that time. An interesting fact about this event is that Missouri Indian labor was used to help build St. Louis while Laclède and the Missouri Chiefs were busy negotiating living arrangements.

Map of western New France in 1688

St. Louis was founded in a part of North American known as Upper Louisiana. It was wilderness, but it wasn’t off the map. Shortly after Marquette and Joliet became the first Europeans to set eyes on the future site of St. Louis in 1673, French explorers like LaSalle started cruising up and down the Mississippi looking for trade routes to China and ways to expand an empire. Settlers soon followed, taking advantage of a vast and fertile land that could grow tobacco, corn (maize), and wheat. The extensive availability of such land can also explain why Pierre Laclède found his ideal location completely unoccupied. The high bluffs overlooking the river prevented easy access to water. It wasn’t perfect land for farming. But Laclede wasn’t looking to grow plants. He needed a spot from which to barter.

Map of St. Louis in 1780Pierre LaclèdeGarrisons like Fortes de Chartes followed, villages like Cahokia and Ste. Genevieve were founded, and boats cruised up and down the river to bring trade goods to all of them. Jesuit missionaries roamed the woods looking for native souls to save. In one noteworthy example, a priest named Father Gabriel Marest helped establish a short-lived Indian-European settlement in 1700 on a piece of land that is now in south St. Louis city. It contained a church, fort, and several Indian cabins, but was abandoned just three years later. A few even claim Laclède and Chouteau shouldn’t be considered the first. Professor Carl Ekberg believes he found three maps that prove an established settlement already existed very near where Laclède and Chouteau notched their trees.

Regardless, the scene at this important place, at this specific time, is a remarkable moment in American history. Imagine Laclède and Chouteau standing on top of that bluff and taking it all in for the first time. When St. Louis was founded three months later, the population was about only about 35 people. In just 100 years, more than 350,000 called St. Louis home. As Laclede hoped, his fur-trading outpost would become (and remain) one of the greatest cities in America.

The Drink

February 14th or 15th?

On which day should I raise my glass and toast Pierre Laclède and August Chouteau? A minor (and quite interesting) debate exists regarding this question. Generally, the date many believe Pierre and Auguste pulled to shore is February 14th, 1764. Even the countdown clock over at STL250, an organization lining up all sorts of fun events to celebrate the day, will hit zero on Valentine’s Day.

Not so fast.

In his book Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West, Frederick Fausz asserts (rather emphatically) that St. Louis was founded on the fifteenth of February, not the fourteenth. He makes the point that Chouteau wrote “15″ in his journal, and that fact settles the argument. It is the only record from someone who was there. I completely agree with Mr. Fausz, and this is why my celebrations will be a bit well, livelier on the fifteenth.

Auguste Chouteau's Grave

Interestingly (and somewhat amusingly), people clinging to the fourteenth aren’t necessarily out of their minds. As some have pointed out, Chouteau wrote his narrative decades after the event happened. Maybe his memory was a bit hazy? His son Pierre claimed his father told him was the fourteenth. Inspect the writing, and one could say the “5″ does kinda looks like a “4″ (it’s definitely a “5″). Adding to the fun, “Fevrier” (the narrative is written in French) is crossed out and “Mars” is written over it. We know for a fact that they didn’t land in March, so what happened there? This is the sort of trivial quandary that can keep a history buff up like me at night. Maybe someone intentionally changed it, like the folks who put the new tombstone up for him in Calvary Cemetery with the (very) wrong birth year.

That’s another good story, and one I need to look into.

In the meantime, I need to find a drink to celebrate these two fantastic guys. Fortunately, figuring this one out was pretty easy. Drinking alcohol was a fact of life in colonial (and frontier) America. The average person drank far more on a daily basis than people do today. It was a fact of life for just about everyone. Since it was often safer (and of course, tastier), colonists and frontiersmen regularly chose whiskey, rum, or ale over water.

Founding of St. Louis, 1764 by Edgar S. Cameron

The sixteen pages of Chouteau’s journal tell us nothing about our co-founder’s preference in booze. Actually, not much is known about Laclède’s preference in anything (little was written about him). But if you ask me, I say they had some whiskey with them on that boat. I also say that after walking around their new find, they had a few nips to celebrate their good fortune.

Today, the general area where this may have likely to have happened is where the southern leg of the Gateway Arch now meets the earth. It’s also the location where Pierre Laclede chose to have his own house built (the same house Missouri Indians helped build). This is where it started, so this where is the place I went to have my drink. On a cold winter day, I trudged towards the southern leg and snuck a few sips of whiskey out of a flask and toasted to our co-founders.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Laclede and Chouteau had to deal with National Park Rangers who don’t want people openly drinking near a national monument. Let’s just say my stay was very brief and taking photographs was out of the question.

It was bitter cold, so I had no problem saving it for another day. Actually, I’ll save it for the real birthday, coming up on February 15th.

quote_line

 Finally, I want to take a moment to point out a few of the many ways to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of St. Louis. Check out the schedule of events at STL250. The Missouri History Museum has a new exhibit opening to go along with a yearlong celebration they have planned. Even my beloved Campbell House Museum will be open the weekend of February 15 (a time that is usually off-season). To commemorate the 250th, tours are free.

Further reading (and the sources that helped me put this post together):

 

January 28th, 2014 by Cameron

Adding a Bit of Color to St. Louis History

Union General Ambrose Burnside

In recent months, I’ve noticed a trend in the world of digital photography that I think is pretty neat. In various blogs, social media feeds, and Internet articles, folks have been posting colorized versions of historic black and white photographs. Try googling something like “Civil War in color”, and you’ll find scores of Rebs in butternut, Yanks in blue, and battlefields scattered with dead versions of each. All of them are decked out in a full spectrum of color.

I know some people are opposed to the practice, but I’m a fan. Detractors suggest colorizing black and white photography destroys the artist’s original vision, and there is merit to that argument. Tell me a colorized version of Identical Twins by Diane Arbus is better than the original, and we’ll go a few rounds. But on the other hand, I think Civil War photographers like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner would have used color photography if it was available during their time. Either way, the original will always be there to look at (and prefer) if one chooses to do so.

Actually, I think the entire argument is a waste of time. Most of the colorized historic photographs I’ve seen online don’t look sufficiently realistic to begin with (the image of Burnside by Mads Madsen being a notable exception). Few get the flesh tones right, vegetation is often overwhelmingly monotone, and finer details get largely ignored. It still doesn’t bother me in the least, because I think it’s all just good fun. For me, it’s simply entertaining to look at a color version of a moment in time that I’ve never seen in color before.

Imagination is fun, and that’s as far as it goes in my book.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 by Diane Arbus

When I was a photography student in college, one of my favorite classes was a techniques class in which colorizing our own black and white photography was at the heart of several assignments. This was back in 1992 (yikes), and Photoshop was a long way off. Instead, we colorized by hand using Marshall Photo Oils, tinting agents, and a variety of chemicals. Of the several photographs I colored, maybe one or two at were good enough to put on a wall. Maybe the others weren’t, but I still had fun seeing what I could do.

Anyway, in continuing my streak of unfortunate months of January, I recently emerged from a three-week trip to the gates of Hell. Others may know this experience as having a bad case of the flu. Unfortunately, this was no minor case of sniffles and mild coughing. I thought I was a tough guy and didn’t need a flu shot this year. Instead, I missed two weeks of work, lost ten pounds, and nearly landed in the hospital. I even vomited on my cat.

Kitty survived the ordeal, but I spent weeks without an ounce of the energy needed to come near this blog. Even the thought of drinking one of my beloved Manhattans made my stomach turn (which is also the reason a drink doesn’t accompany this post). In order to preserve my sanity while I waited for various drugs to kick in, I surprisingly found working with Photoshop to be a good way to pass the time. Turns out pushing pixels around a computer screen is the perfect low-impact flu activity. It also didn’t require any deep thought, providing a welcome respite for my perpetually aching head.

With that in hand, I went about trying to figure out how to add a bit of color to St. Louis’ past.

Before I display my initial attempts at this new hobby, I can’t resist taking the opportunity to show off one of the more… amusing reasons I first chose to dabble in Photoshop many years ago. My good pal Hopkins knows this all too well. The experience certainly helped me in this new endeavor.

Musical Hopkins!

When I got down to it, I found that colorizing photographs is not difficult, but it’s extremely time-consuming. This post probably required more hours of work than any other in the life of this blog, and looking at the result, I’m not sure it was worth it. I also think that if I didn’t have a 102 temperature, coloring leaves for eight hours straight would have sent me off completely off the edge. But in the end, I think I produced a few examples worthy enough to display here. Most importantly, I had fun. And now that I’m nearly healed up, I promise to put this new hobby aside and get back to a the historic, long-winded, and drunken Distilled History posts that many of you are used to.

While I took a stab at this with a few images from previous Distilled History posts, I also found a few new images that helped me figure this out the necessary techniques (in other words, portraits with sharp focus are ideal). Notably, I was delighted to find numerous photographs by the legendary Lewis Wickes Hine in the photo archives of the Library of Congress. Hines became famous for using photography as a tool to promote social reform, most notably as a means to get child labor regulations implemented. In the early 20th century, he photographed many truant children on the streets of St. Louis working long hours at various street jobs.

This photograph shows three young “newsies” on Jefferson Avenue. It was taken on May 9th, 1910.

Newsies at Skeeter's Branch by Lewis Hine

Colorization of Newsies at Skeeter's Branch

I tried colorizing an image from the 1904 World’s Fair, but I was quickly overwhelmed. However, many images from the 1904 Olympics are perfect for colorizing. This photograph shows American Fred Winters competing in the weightlifting competition. He went on to win the silver medal.

Read more about the 1904 Olympics in this post and this post, both published in the summer of 2012.

Weightlifter Fred Winters at the 1904 Olympics

Historic photographs of daily life are by far my favorite. I often wish I could just leap into an image such as the one below and ask the subjects what their lives are like. In this case, I want to ask these two kids why they didn’t choose a spot away from the public toilet to play a game of marbles.

Boys Playing Marbles in an Alley

Colorized version of Boys Playing Marbles in an Alley

In May 1896, one of the deadliest and costliest tornados in American history ripped through the heart of south St. Louis. The aftermath was photographed extensively, and several remarkable images are available online. While the tornado made short work of a bandstand in Lafayette Square Park, the statue of Thomas Hart Benton (that still stands today) survived unharmed.

Read more about the 1896 Cyclone in this Distilled History post published in November 2012.

Aftermath of the 1896 Cyclone in Lafayette Square Park

Colorization of 1896 Cycle Aftermath

James “Cool Papa” Bell led the Negro League St. Louis Stars to two World Championships in 1928 and 1930. One of the greatest ballplayers to ever call St. Louis home, many believe the speedy center fielder was one of the fastest men to ever play the game.

Read more about St. Louis baseball history in this Distilled History post published in April 2013.

James

On May 5, 1910, Lewis Hine photographed a boy named “Gurley” selling newspapers at the corner of Washington and 18th in downtown St. Louis.

Gurley on 18th & Washington

Gurley on 18th & Washington Colorized

Water sports at the 1904 Olympics were contested in a man-made lake located at the present-day corner of Skinker and Wydown. Unfortunately, livestock from nearby World’s Fair agricultural exhibits used the same lake to bathe and defecate in. As a result, many competitors became severely ill. Four water polo players died of typhus within a year.

Read more about the 1904 Olympics in this post and this post, both published in the summer of 2012.

1904 Olympic Swimmers

When I first thought of this project, I knew colorizing one or more of the St. Louis Motordrome images taken by J.R.Eike in the early 20th Century was a must. Men like the two guys below risked death by racing motorcycles at speeds over 100mph on steep track embankments. The St. Louis Motordrome that once stood at Grand and Meramec in south city had a 62 degree embankment, which was one of the steepest tracks ever built.

Use of J.R. Eike’s photographs are courtesy of Thomas Kempland. Read more about the St. Louis Motordrome in this Distilled History post published in September 2012.

St. Louis Motodrome

St. Louis Motordrome Colorized

This photograph shows the main entrance to Schnaider’s Beer Garden, which thrived at the intersection of Mississippi and Chouteau in the late 19th century. Located across the street from his brewery, up to 10,000 people at a time could pack Schnaider’s and fill their bellies with beer. Another fun fact about Schnaider’s is the band that played nightly at Schnaider’s would eventually evolve into the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Read more about Schnaider’s Beer Garden in this Distilled History post published in October 2012.

Schnaider's Beer Garden

Colorization of Schnaider's Beer Garden Photograph

 

December 16th, 2013 by Cameron

87,000 Stories to Tell

Bellefontaine Cemetery in 1900Since I started this blog, I have purposely avoided writing about certain St. Louis history topics. In the past eighteen months, people have suggested I write about various things like the InBev buyout of Anhueser-Busch, the Pope’s visit in 1999, and even the Edward Jones Dome (seriously?). Honestly, these are topics that just don’t interest me. They make me yawn. Other suggestions, like the 1904 World’s Fair and the Gateway Arch, are so familiar in St. Louis that I’m not sure I could make them interesting. I worry writing about them would make others yawn.

The category “I’d Rather Be Burned Alive” includes a topic someone suggested just a few weeks ago. On that day, I was asked to research why everyone in St. Louis always asks everyone else in St. Louis “Where did you go to high school?”

After informing my well-meaning and idea-challenged friend that I attended Elmira Free Academy (located about 900 miles to the east), and then asking where she went to high school, I rolled my eyes and politely declined.

(Damn! I succumbed to that tedious St. Louis high school inquiry after all.)

Anyway, there’s another category of St. Louis history topics that I’m saving for a rainy day. These are the big kahunas; the topics that I believe are very special in this city. I want to space these gems out over the next several years (or as long as I continue to beat myself up trying to write this blog). Examples include the Cahokia Mounds, the Lemp Caves (if I can ever get down there), Forest Park, Pruitt-Igoe, and the Camp Jackson Affair. Dozens more exist, which means I plan to force this blog down people’s throats for years to come.

Well, I think it’s about time to dust off one of the good ones. A few weeks ago, I was the lucky recipient of a special tour of Bellefontaine Cemetery, the wonderful 314 acres in north St. Louis that holds as much history (literally) as any patch of ground in the Midwest. Over 87,000 people are buried there, and each one has a tale to tell. If you like Distilled History, get used to Bellefontaine. I plan to pluck stories out of this place for years to come.

Entrance to Bellefontaine Cemetery

Let’s kick this off by admitting that I adore cemeteries. I love to drive through them, bike through them, and tour them. I enjoy locating graves of notable people, as I’ve done for the Homer Phillips, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and Irma Rombauer posts in this blog. I sometimes go to cemeteries just to sit and read a book, admire the foliage, or even take a nap. I think they are big, wonderful parks of history.

A park-like type of cemetery such as Bellefontaine (and Woodlawn, the Elmira, New York cemetery that my fellow high school graduates should know), is considered a “rural cemetery”. These are cemeteries that primarily honor the dead, but are also designed to provide a welcoming and comfortable place for people to visit. That’s certainly the case at Bellefontaine. It is a peaceful and beautiful place to see. Containing more than 4,000 trees and over 180 species of trees and shrubs, Bellefontaine is not just a cemetery. It is also an accredited Level II arboretum.

The Rural Cemetery

The “rural cemetery” movement started in the mid-19th Century. Following a model set forth in Paris, the first rural cemetery in the United States was established in 1831 (Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Eighteen years later, Bellefontaine in St. Louis was established as the first rural cemetery west of the Mississippi River. Prior to Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis buried their dead in plots around churches and in smaller, overcrowded cemeteries in and around town (many were located along current-day Jefferson Avenue).

St. Louis in the mid-19th century was growing rapidly. Along with overcrowding, many believed that air, water, and soil could become infected with disease if people were buried near population centers. Both concerns were further intensified in the summer of 1849 when a deadly cholera epidemic killed nearly 10% of the city’s population (note: future blog post). Suddenly, burying people farther away became a priority.

Bellefontaine Cemetery in Autumn

As a result, city leaders formed an association for the purpose of founding a large rural cemetery outside city limits. It was named after Fort Bellefontaine, a military garrison located about five miles northwest of St. Louis. Along the road to that fort sat the Hempstead farm. This 138 acre farm was purchased by the foundation, and the land became the first of three parcels that together now make up Bellefontaine Cemetery as we know it today.

Bellefontaine Cemetery Map

The next significant step in the shaping of Bellefontaine Cemetery was the hiring of a renowned landscape architect named Almerin Hotchkiss. It was this man who created the master plan for the cemetery and gave it the look we still see today. He oversaw the building of the roads, landscaping, and overall maintenance of the grounds. Upon completing the overall plan, he remained in St. Louis as superintendent of the cemetery for the next forty-six years.

Perhaps the most significant monument in the entire cemetery (along with one of the better stories), is the Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb. Universally regarded as an architectural masterpiece, the tomb was constructed in 1892 for the wife of millionaire and philanthropist Ellis Wainwright. Referred to in local press as “the most beautiful woman in St. Louis”, Charlotte Wainwright died suddenly of peritonitis at the young age of thirty-four. Her husband Ellis was emotionally devastated by her passing. In order to preserve her memory, Ellis Wainwright reached out to a particularly famous architect for a unique and exceptional design.

The Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb

The result is one of the most significant designs from of one of history’s most important architects, Louis Henry Sullivan. Known as the “father of the skyscraper”, Sullivan was at the height of his fame when he was commissioned to design Charlotte Wainwright’s tomb.

Key to Wainwright Tomb

When Charlotte Wainwright died, Louis Sullivan was already in St. Louis finishing another project for Ellis Wainwright. That building, which also bears Wainwright’s name and stands today at the corner of Chestnut and 7th in downtown St. Louis, is another topic I better be careful with if I choose to write about it. Considered by many to be the first skyscraper ever built, the 10 story Wainwright Building is a masterpiece. It was even featured in recent a PBS documentary as one of 10 Buildings That Changed America.

When Wainwright asked Sullivan for a preliminary design, he provided a sketch of a tomb that combines two classic forms, a half-sphere resting upon a cube. Inspired by the tomb of a Muslim Saint in Algeria, the form appears solidly Byzantine. Assisting Louis Sullivan with the design (particularly the interior) was his head draftsman, a promising young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright.

The simple cube and dome design is accented by a border of richly carved motifs and bronze grill doors. Windows adorn each side of the tomb, each surrounded by additional stone carvings. Interestingly, the name “Wainwright” appears nowhere on the exterior of the tomb. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, it is often referred to as the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis”. The New York Times referred to it as a “major American architectural triumph”, and “a model for ecclesiastical architecture”.

Hugh Morrison, in his book Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture, writes:

…it is the most sensitive and the most graceful of Sullivan’s tombs, distinguished alike in its architectural form and its decorative enrichment. In the writers opinion, at least, it is unmatched in quality by any other known tomb.”

Wainwright Tomb Interior

While the exterior is unassuming, the interior (that I was delighted to be able to see on my special tour) surges with subtle color, swirled marble, and flecks of gold. The walls and ceiling are covered with a beautiful patterned mosaic. Look above, and small angels dispersed among small mosaics seem to come and go depending on the point of view. Below, two burial slabs are inlayed in the floor to mark the final resting place for Ellis Wainwright and his wife Charlotte. Each is chiseled with a poem, Lord Tennyson for the husband and Anna Laetitia Barbauld for his wife:

A Poem for Charlotte

Despite having two architectural masterpieces named after him, things didn’t go very smoothly for Ellis Wainwright during his later years. While in New York in 1902, Wainwright learned he was being indicted for attempting to bribe several politicians as part of a business deal. Instead of heading home to face the charges, he fled to Europe. Although he lived lavishly in Paris for several years, his self-imposed exile took a toll on his health. He didn’t return to St. Louis until 1911 when the prosecuting attorney in his case had retired. He paid a bond upon arrival and proclaimed to the press that he was happy to be back. Ultimately, the charges didn’t stick and Wainwright was able to resume life as he wished.

Soon after, Wainwright moved to New York to be close to other business investments. In 1922, he shocked friends and associates by “adopting” a twenty-two year old woman named Rosalind Kendall (he was seventy-two). She took his name, called him “Daddy”, and became his constant companion. She lived in the apartment adjoining his on Park Avenue.

Not surprisingly, The arrangement didn’t last. When Wainwright’s efforts to make Rosalind a movie star proved unsuccessful, Rosalind moved on. She supposedly accepted a sum of money in return for relinquishing any claims to Wainwright’s estate. Upon Wainwright’s death, this arrangement was legally overturned, making Rosalind Kendall very wealthy.

In declining health, Ellis Wainwright returned to St. Louis in 1924. He turned his attention back toward his departed wife Charlotte, setting up an endowment at Bellefontaine to repair her tomb in the event of vandalism or earthquake. His behavior also became increasingly peculiar. During his final days at the Buckingham Hotel, servants were required to physically move him from room to room in order to avoid being seen by hotel maids.

Ellis Wainwright

Ellis Wainwright died on November 6, 1924 at the age of seventy-four. He was laid to rest next to his wife in the remarkable monument to them both in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

The Drink

Homebrew

The reason why Ellis Wainwright had the means to build one of the first skyscrapers and the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis” is a good one. Like the familiar names in 19th Century St. Louis such as Busch and Lemp, Wainwright became rich as a result of beer.

When Wainwright was just twenty-four years old, he inherited his father’s Wainwright Brewery. Displaying a keen business sense, he secured his path to wealth by doubling profits within two years. He became even wealthier when he sold his brewery to a syndicate named The St. Louis Brewing Association (SLBA). Wainwright was named president and became responsible for managing day-to-day operations. The famous building that bears his name in downtown St. Louis today was initially built as a headquarters for the syndicate he managed.

With that in mind, it’s only appropriate to drink beer in honor of Ellis Wainwright, his lovely wife, and his epic tomb. Even better, I thought this post would provide a perfect opportunity to brew up a batch of my own.

 Homebrew Labels

First of all, I must admit that I am not an accomplished homebrewer. People who are familiar with the hobby know that it’s really nothing more than simple cooking. Well, I’m not a very good cook. But I can follow a recipe, and homebrew kits always come with recipes. I still brew from extract kits, and despite people insisting I move up to the world of “all grain” brewing, I haven’t done it yet. That day will likely come, because with each homebrew batch, I seem to add some additional piece of homebrew equipment that makes the process more fun. For those in the know, I introduced a stir plate and an outdoor burner for this batch. The result was an active primary fermentation that two days later had me scrambling for a blow-off hose.

Until I get to the next level, I’ll keep going with the real reason I started home brewing in the first place: Beer labels. Drinking the beer you make is fun, but naming the beer and designing the beer label is really fun. It’s probably why I’ll never keg it. As much as I hate washing and sanitizing forty-eight individual beer bottles, it makes my day to drink out of a bottle labeled as my own.

My beer may not taste as good as others, but I think my labels are top-notch.. This includes a new one featuring the exquisite tomb found in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Charlotte's Tomb IPA

Sources:

  1. Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery by Carol Ferring Shepley
  2. St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009 by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin, and Kevin Kious
  3. St. Louis: Landmarks and Historic Districts by Carolyn Hewes Toft and Lynn Josse
  4. Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison
  5. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – National Park Service
  6. Woo, William F., “Story Behind the Wainwright Building,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 1966 p. 3J
November 7th, 2013 by Cameron

The Joy of Irma (and a Sidecar)

Mom's Cookbook

Several years ago, my mother presented me with a cookbook titled Mom’s Cookbook: A Culinary Memoir of Family, Food, and Friends. I cherish it, perhaps more than any gift she has ever given me.

On the pages inside, my Mother dumped out her entire culinary mind. It filled up over eighty-five pages lined with hundreds of recipes. It was organized and formatted into book form for her children, family, and friends to enjoy.  Sounds like a simple and common idea, but she added an additional component that made her cookbook priceless to me. My mother presented each recipe, from the simple plate of hors d’oeuvres to the intimidating cheese soufflé, with its own unique story. In her own voice, often in a humorous and chatty tone, she explains where each recipe originated, when and where she served them, and how people reacted to them.

Her goal was to guide her children towards more success in the kitchen, and she does it in a loving and motherly way. As I read it, I can hear her voice in my head giving me direction such as “avoid any vegetable that comes in a can”, “you must own a good chef’s knife”, and “grow your own herbs, if possible”. She urges us to eat meals together as a family, say grace (prayer provided), and even to drink our milk.

Irma Rombauer in 1943

It includes her mother’s fried chicken recipe (my favorite) and the simple bean salad she made for my father when they young and broke. She includes the cheese puffs served by her mother-in-law at my Christening, the Beef Stroganoff she served to my hungover housemates at the University of Dayton, and even a pumpkin bisque recipe she found last year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The family history tales are my personal favorite. I learned my parents clashed over gravy, that her two children refused to eat certain foods like mushrooms (my sister) and squash (me). She explains her difficulty getting recipes out of my late father, a brilliant cook, but one who refused to write anything down. Even the recipe names are amusing, such as the unappetizing sound of “Aunt Ethel’s Yams” (that I will never attempt to cook).

My favorite line could even be when she uses the “Cold Salads” chapter to scold my sister:

Alex Can't Make Tuna Salad

I don’t know if my mother realized it (maybe she did), but her cookbook isn’t much different from the famous one written by a notable St. Louisan over eighty years ago. The Joy of Cooking, a compilation of recipes published by Irma Louise von Starkloff in 1931, revolutionized cookbook writing. Widely regarded for its conversational tone, simplicity, and sentiment that cooking should be fun, The Joy of Cooking is now a staple in nearly every American kitchen. In that book, as in my mother’s cookbook, it’s implied that a cook should not take oneself too seriously. I believe the simple goal of both books is to feed the people around you with love and good food.

Mom & Irma

What’s enjoyable about researching Irma Rombauer is that she left quite a trail in St. Louis. Except for a few years during her youth, she lived in this city her entire life. Several of the homes she lived in still stand. To add to the fun, I made plans to find all of them during a lengthy visit from my Mother. If Mom wasn’t reorganizing my kitchen, making meatloaf, or drinking gin and tonics with me, I was able to throw her in the car so we could find Irma Rombauer together.

Irma Rombauer's Life in St. Louis

Irma Louise von Starkloff was born on October 30, 1877 in Carondelet.  Her parents raised her in the St. Louis Deutschtum, or “Germanness” that permeated south St. Louis at the time. Her father, Maximilian von Starkloff, was a “Forty-Eighter”, a man who believed in German unification and came to America when it didn’t happen. A successful physician, his medical practice on Main Street (now Broadway) provided his family a comfortable existence.

Starkloff Home 1883-1877

In 1889, Max Starkloff accepted a post as Consul of Bremen in the Harrison administration. The family moved abroad for five years, and this would be the only time Irma Starkloff did not live in St. Louis. When the family returned to America in 1894, a stately new mansion awaited them at the corner of Compton and Longfellow in the affluent Compton Heights neighborhood.

According to her biographer Anne Mendelson, in her book Stand Facing the Stove, Irma Starkloff was strong-willed, intelligent, forthright, and artistic. She was also volatile, and especially later in life, family members often had to endure her fits of irritability. She fully enjoyed the admiration others heaped upon her, especially men. She played piano, enjoyed theater, and acted in amateur stage productions. It was during one of these productions when a young cast mate named Edgar Rombauer began courting her.

Starkloff Home at Compton & Longfellow

Later in life, Irma Rombauer described Edgar, the man she married in 1899, as “exuberant”. The couple had three children together and spent many years of their marriage in loving companionship. However, Edgar suffered from episodes of nervous breakdown that arose during challenging times, such as the death of their first child in 1901.  Over the years, Irma Rombauer worked diligently to care for her husband during his bouts with stability. Lengthy vacations were often required to bring her husband back to a place of tranquility. Sadly, despite efforts from his family, Edgar succumbed to his disease and committed suicide in 1930.

The death of her husband left Irma Rombauer shell-shocked. At the age of fifty-two, and faced with supporting a family with no means of income, she searched for a direction. Inspired by a successful cookbook published to support a St. Louis children’s home, Rombauer picked up the pieces and went to work. With no reservations about her lack of experience, and equipped with an unrivaled determination, she began compiling, testing, and tinkering with nearly 400 pages of recipes gathered from her family, friends, and neighbors. The result became one of the best-selling cookbooks in history.

What’s remarkable about this feat is that Irma Rombauer had no formal culinary education. Even her family seemed puzzled by the endeavor, since cooking had never been her primary talent. A member of her late husband’s family (a group Irma shared a prickly relationship with), even exclaimed:

Irma's a TERRIBLE cook

Her unwitting approach to publishing a cookbook could explain why Irma Rombauer’s project achieved such widespread success. The art of cooking and recipe writing in the early 20th century was more scientific than imaginative. Recipes read like formulas, and not at all like the casual tone found in future editions of The Joy of Cooking. During a time when cookbooks angled towards experienced gourmets of means, her cookbook represented a practical approach for all levels of income and ability.

The 1931 Edition of The Joy of Cooking

The first edition of The Joy of Cooking was self-published in 1931. Irma Rombauer used half of her life savings (about $3,000) to pay a local shoebox label printer to print 3,000 copies. Among other specifics, She insisted it have a cover that could wash easily with a moist cloth. Her daughter Marion, an art teacher, provided the cover and chapter heading designs. When the printed books arrived at her apartment on Cabanne Avenue, she quickly set to work selling them door to door for $3.00 each.

The first edition of The Joy of Cooking frequently echoes her German heritage. Included are recipes for Hassenpfeffer (rabbit stew), Spatzen (German egg dumplings), as well as several pages devoted to brain, liver, and kidney recipes. In introducing Leberkloesse (liver dumplings), Rombauer writes:

“Being the child of a south German, I cannot well compile a cook book without including a dish that is typical of that neck of the woods”

Despite positive reviews and brisk sales, efforts to obtain interest from major publishing houses were unsuccessful. It was during this time that Irma Rombauer started re-thinking how she presented recipes in her cookbook. She developed a format now known as the “Action Method”, in which ingredients are not listed in a separate table. Instead, each ingredient is introduced (in bold text) at the point when it is used in the cooking process.

This casual, flowing method of cooking is what appealed to an Indianapolis publisher looking to take cookbook publication in a new direction. In 1936, the Bobbs-Merrill Company signed Rombauer and published the second edition of The Joy of Cooking. This edition introduced the new recipe format and added “A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat” to the title. The book retained Rombauer’s unpretentious dialog, which appealed to readers and helped build a solid fan base. It sold over fifty-thousand copies, making The Joy of Cooking a modest success.

1931 vs 1964 Recipes

The third edition, published in 1943, added a section featuring “Quick Cooking”.  Another innovation, it included recipes that used canned goods, frozen foods, and new cooking implements designed to speed preparation. Ingredients such as condensed soups and Jell-O became mainstays due to their convenience. While many cooks haughtily rejected these short cuts, Irma Rombauer fully embraced them. This further endeared her to a larger audience, and helped make the third edition of The Joy of Cooking a national bestseller. The 1943 edition sold well over 600,000 copies, and Irma Rombauer hit her stride.

Irma Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker in 1950

The Joy of Cooking, 4th Edition

The success of The Joy of Cooking would pay off eventually, but the first contract signed with Bobbs-Merrill was decidedly one-sided. Inexperienced and acting against the advice of lawyers, Rombauer signed the copyright of the first two editions of The Joy of Cooking over to the publisher.  Without full control of her creation going forward, the relationship between author and publisher quickly became acrimonious. It wouldn’t improve in the years ahead, and the inequity often set Irma Rombauer into fits of rage.  By the end of the 1940’s, and her health in decline, she made a move to protect her creation. Starting with the fourth edition published in 1951, her daughter Marion officially became co-author of The Joy of Cooking.

Marion Rombauer Becker had previously contributed artwork and recipe tasting, but her contribution going forward would now become much more significant. Marion was a proponent of healthy eating. With her contribution, The Joy of Cooking began to emphasize the use of fresh produce and organic gardening.  She insisted on removing several canned food recipes, brown rice was favored over white rice, and for the first time, the cookbook instructed readers to avoid things like “the modern processing of grain”.

As co-author, Marion also assumed the unenviable position of becoming the key negotiator with the publisher. Irma Rombauer could now turn her attention to basking in the glow of being America’s cook, a position she embraced with open arms. Irma Rombauer wanted her cookbook to become America’s kitchen bible, and the continued success of the Joy of Cooking in the years following her death would undoubtedly please her.

Irma Purrs Like a Cat

Irma Rombauer died at a nursing home in St. Louis on October 14, 1962 at the age of eighty-four. Marion Rombauer Becker died in Cincinnati in 1976. Marion’s son, Ethan Becker, now carries on the legacy of The Joy of Cooking. Currently in its eighth edition, the Joy of Cooking has sold more than 26 million copies worldwide since 1931.

The Starkloff Grave

The Drink

The Sidecar Recipe

In the first edition of The Joy of Cooking, the very first recipe listed in the book is a “Gin Cocktail”. Even better, Irma Rombauer writes the very first sentence as such:

“Most cocktails containing liquor are made today with gin and ingenuity. In brief, take an ample supply of the former and use your imagination.”

Call me crazy, but that’s an opening on par with “Call me Ishmael”.

Since the first edition contains only a few cocktail recipes, I decided to venture into the 1963 edition to get a drink idea from my latest subject of interest.  As I did, I was happy to discover that she directs her readers to stir (and not shake) a Manhattan or a Martini. This only confirms my opinion that Irma Rombauer certainly knew what she was doing.

Irma Rombauer’s Manhattan recipe isn’t extraordinary, so I decided to go with a cocktail that I haven’t featured before in Distilled History. I settled on the Sidecar, a cocktail that traces its origin back to the years around World War I. It’s considered a classic, but one I rarely order in a bar (the only one I can currently recall was at Sanctuaria in the Grove).  Bars in London and Paris dispute who first created it, but it became an instant hit during a time when sour drinks were popular.

The Sidecar

Irma Rombauer wasn’t a heavy drinker. She didn’t enjoy throwing a few back until she was in her later years. Either way, I like to imagine her sampling cocktails with her daughter in their apartment on Cabanne Avenue and figuring out what each of them preferred. Her Sidecar uses more lemon juice than I prefer, but she’s earned the right to make a solid opinion. The only change I made to her recipe was to rim the glass with sugar (which is how the drink is commonly served), and I did that only to impress my mother.

Since Mom had to put up with me writing this post during one of her rare visits, she certainly earned something a little extra.

NOTES: As mentioned earlier, this post would not have been possible without the book Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking, by Anne Mendelson. Rarely have I read a biography written as beautifully written and readable as that one. A hearty thanks to Harold Karabell for giving me the idea to write about Mrs. Rombauer when he showed me the Starkloff house on Michigan Avenue. Finally, an enormous thank you to the wonderful people at Bellefontaine Cemetery who personally showed me Irma Rombauer’s final resting place.

October 22nd, 2013 by Cameron

Haunted Alton & The Corpse Reviver (No. 2)

Haunted Alton at Night

Writing a slightly popular blog has its benefits. Maybe I shouldn’t boast that Distilled History is popular, but my Rolodex has certainly bulked up in the past several months. I’ve met new friends involved in the St. Louis history scene, and others who are into drinking. Many are into history and drinking, and that means life is good.

One of them is a clever and entertaining woman named Ginger Justus. She’s the author of a terrific blog named Missouri History & Hauntings.  Like me, she’s deeply interested in the history of the St. Louis area. The difference is while I add drunkenness to my history, Ginger adds ghosts. Fans of what each of us are doing, we started emailing each other and talking about working together in some context. We’ll do that eventually, but in the meantime, Ginger asked me if I’d like to be a special guest on a haunted tour of Alton, Illinois.

Haunted Alton

I’m not a believer in the paranormal, but I do know that ghost stories always come with good history. With Halloween right around the corner, it seemed like a fun event in which to take part. At the very least, maybe someone else would see a ghost, freak out, and make a run for it.

Hearing someone yell “We got a runner!” would make for great reading.

The walking tour Ginger invited me to join is the Alton Hauntings Ghost Tour, created by a ghost guru named Troy Taylor. Founder of the American Ghost Society, Mr. Taylor has authored more than fifty books about ghosts and haunted things, including Haunted Alton, a book I read just last year.

Mr. Taylor wasn’t around that evening, so my tour was in the hands of an equally knowledgeable man named Len Adams. Mr. Adams is the Vice President of the American Ghost Society, a good friend of Troy Taylor’s, and someone who really knows how to tell a good story.

Before leading us into the eerie Alton night, Mr. Adams made it a point to explain that “psychics, Ouija boards, and crystal balls” are not a part of this tour. I was interested to hear him explain that he (and many others who share his interest in the field) believes many hauntings are simply lingering energy imprints left after a traumatic event. A term even exists for this type of occurrence. A “residual haunt” describes things like the inexplicable sound of footsteps in the hall, a door slamming, or a sudden drop in temperature. It could even be the reason why kitty suddenly bolts into another room.

"One of the most haunted small towns in America"

On the other hand, an “intelligent haunt” is the major league of haunts. This is the kind of haunt when you have a tangible and conscious spirit living in your bedroom closet. Intelligent haunts can move things around your house and even join you for a cocktail. According to Len and Ginger, if you encounter one, you could hear, record, and even photograph it.  When I started telling people what I was writing about for this post, I was surprised to find out that many of my close friends are steadfast believers. A few even insisted they had experienced encounters of their own.

I may be a non-believer, but maybe this explains why I found my car keys in the freezer last week.

My tour had many who truly hoped they’d see a ghost. Despite my hope someone would snap, Mr. Adams did his best to allay any fears. He insisted that no harm would come to anyone, and he delivered one of his best lines when informing us the tour even had a safe word:

Haunted Alton Safe Word

The tour lasted a full three hours that night. As it progressed, Mr. Adams wound us around the dark corners of Alton, offering unnerving tales and enlightening history at every turn. Even if ghosts aren’t your thing, you’ll get a fascinating history of the town and the people who lived there.  Len Adams is a ghost expert, but the man knows his Alton history from top to bottom. He accurately recalled topics I have previously written about in this blog, including the stories of Elijah P. Lovejoy and Sunflower Island.

Other topics I was less familiar with, such as the disturbing tale of Hop Hollow Road. This path, a former road between a Civil War prison and the Alton Cemetery, is where Union prison guards unceremoniously dumped the bodies of Confederate soldiers in the woods. Displeased with their improper mode of burial, many claim the ghosts of these men now wander the woods around Hop Hollow Road.

The Enos Sanatorium

A special aspect of this tour is that it will take you inside a few of the stops. Even if you are the most stoic of non-believers, try sitting inside a darkened church and hearing the story of a priest found hanging from the ceiling above you. Other creepy locations include tales of a ghost that smells of lavender and a night watchman who disappeared without a trace. You’ll also hear the story of Tom Boothby, a one-eyed Indian fighter whose demise became the first ghost story of record in Alton.

I enjoyed the entire tour, but it was the first stop that really hooked me. Sitting at the corner of East 3rd and George Streets in Alton is the Enos Sanatorium. Originally known as the Nathaniel Hanson Mansion, the original structure dates to 1857.

Nathaniel Hanson was an ardent abolitionist. With Alton situated across the river from slaveholding Missouri, the town was an active stop on the Underground Railroad in the years prior to the Civil War. Hanson built his home precisely to accommodate that cause. Built on a high bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River, the cupola atop it was visible from afar. Nighttime lanterns inside the cupola reportedly alerted slave runners across the river if the coast was clear or if threats prevented crossing. Additionally, Hanson had tunnels carved into the limestone beneath the house, allowing fleeing slaves a safe place to hide when arriving in Illinois.

There are no records of how many slaves hid in the tunnels beneath the mansion, but it is a documented and verified stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1911, Dr. W.H. Enos purchased the mansion and converted the building into a tuberculosis sanatorium. Soon after, a fourth floor was added and an adjoining nurses home constructed, making the building look as it does today. Tuberculosis was an incurable disease at the time, and scores of suffering patients died in the mansion during the next several years.  Today, many believe a few of these unfortunate souls continue to roam the halls and make themselves at home.

Today, the house is an attractively restored apartment building. According to Troy Taylor and Len Adams, many apartment residents have reported strange odors, sounds of footsteps, flushing toilets, and even sounds of people screaming. Many others residents have decided to find a new apartment elsewhere for the same reasons.

The Tunnel Beneath Enos Sanatorium

On a dark and windy night, the home definitely has a mysterious feel to it. The highlight of this stop (at least for me), is when Mr. Adams informed us we’d be heading into the tunnels. This is when my heart skipped a beat and “Haunted Alton” became a priceless experience for me. The Underground Railroad happened, but very few physical examples of it still exist today. Getting to step inside a physical Underground Railroad location is a big deal for me. It is something I’ve never been able to do. When I did, I stood quietly and thought about people long ago who hid from evil in the exact same space. That’s a profound moment for a history nerd like me.

Of course, the real reason to get us down there was for Mr. Adams to scare the hell out of us. He did an admirable job, and the stories he tells are another reason to take this tour. He also informed us that if someone freaks and starts running, a dark tunnel fifteen feet underground is the worst place for it to happen. As much as I hoped I’d see someone lose it, I agreed this wasn’t the best place to see it.

First Unitarian Church

If there’s a “most haunted” stop, many claim it’s the First Unitarian Church, the final stop on the tour. It’s where the story of the hanging priest I mentioned earlier comes into play. It’s the highlight of the tour, so I won’t give anything else away. Instead, I’ll just say that I’m grateful for Ginger and Len allowing me to tag along that night. I had fun while hearing a few peculiar stories and good history. Anytime that happens, I’m good to go.

For more information about Alton Hauntings Tours, or to make reservations, click here. Tours fill up quickly during the Halloween season, so plan ahead.

Finally, before I move on to the delicious drink I selected for this post, I want to be clear that my intention here is in no way an attempt to demean any believers in ghosts and spirits. While I don’t personally believe in the paranormal, I completely respect the beliefs of anyone who does, like my new friends Len and Ginger. They have an interest in a subject they hold dear, and that’s good enough for me.

However, if you tell me that you should shake a Manhattan and serve it on the rocks, then you need to get your head examined.

The Drink

The Savoy Cocktail BookIf ghosts and spirits are being revived within the walls of Enos Sanatorium, then why not a corpse?  This is one of those Distilled History posts where I knew the drink well before putting a single word to paper. The Corpse Reviver (No. 2), a prohibition-era cocktail created by a man named Harry Craddock, is also one of my favorites.

Craddock was an American who (wisely) fled to England when Prohibition kicked in. As a barman at the Savoy Hotel in London, he became famous for inventing notable cocktails (like this one), popularizing the dry martini, and publishing The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930.

The Corpse Reviver #2 was named for exactly what it’s meant to do. After a night of heavy drinking, drinking one (or maybe two) is an effective way to “revive one’s corpse”.  However, Craddock is also quick to point out in his book that “Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”

The Corpse Reviver (No. 2)

I’m familiar with such experiences, so along with containing my beloved gin, this is a perfect drink for me. While Craddock recommends drinking the cocktail before 11:00am, I’ve had hangovers last much longer into the day. I mixed mine at 7:00 pm, and I can say it with certainty it worked very well at what it had to do.

The name suggests a “Corpse Reviver (No. 1)” also  exists, and that is correct. Craddock also created that recipe to cure hangovers, but it’s a completely different drink. I also don’t find it nearly as satisfying as the Corpse Reviver (No. 2).

I’ve always thought this cocktail can taste radically different based on the quality of the ingredients used. I won’t make it at home unless quality gin is at hand (Broker’s is my personal preference), and low-end triple sec can’t substitute the extra kick provided by Cointreau.

Don’t wait for a brunch with a pounding hangover to try a Corpse Reviver #2. While it is a great alternative to the ubiquitous Bloody Mary, it’s suitable for any time of the day (or evening). A well-made version is that good.

Corpse Reviver No. 2 Recipe

Finally, if you don’t want to make one on your own (the ingredients are not cheap), Demun Oyster Bar in Clayton makes an excellent version.

September 18th, 2013 by Cameron

Homer G. Phillips and His Hospital

Homer G. Phillips

One of my favorite moments that I’ve experienced during the time I’ve spent writing this blog happened just last week. With a new topic in mind, I visited the Central Library in downtown St. Louis. Heading up to the (magnificent) “St. Louis Room”, I asked a librarian to help me locate a file that contained an article about Homer G. Phillips Hospital. She seemed amused by the question, and asked me in response “Okay, well… there’s more than just one. Would you like to see all of them?” Naively, I responded “Sure, why not?”

A few minutes later, I found myself sitting at a table overflowing with dozens of large manila envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings, articles, photographs, and book excerpts. It became almost comical as she kept piling more stuff in front of me. To add the chaos of the moment, I opened the first envelope and promptly dumped the entire contents on the floor. Sigh.

It was overwhelming at first, but I quickly realized that I had an opportunity to study history in a unique way. Instead of focusing on books, research papers, and journals, I could learn about a topic through hundreds of small, faded, and brittle newspaper reports in their original form. That was a first for me.

Additionally, I knew very little about Homer G. Phillips before that day in the library. A friend suggested the topic, but I confessed that I didn’t know anything other than where the building stood. After I stuffed everything back into place, I let it all sink in for a few minutes. I felt as if I had just read about the rise and fall of a national figure. It was somewhat of a profound feeling. I found myself frustrated by how little I knew about it before that day.

Newspaper Clippings

In 1920, St. Louis had a black population of about 70,000 people. A segregated city, access to medical and hospital care for the city’s black population was severely limited. Only one medical center, with 177 beds and located far from black population centers, was available to provide medical services. An attorney named Homer G. Phillips made it his dream to correct that problem. Already well-known for his community leadership and opposition to segregation, Phillips led the effort to get a new hospital built to serve St. Louis’s black population.

His efforts centered on an eighty-three million dollar bond issue introduced in 1923. Along with providing funds for a municipal opera house and soldier’s memorial, the bond designated one million dollars for the purpose of building a state-of-the art hospital for blacks.

The Dedication of Homer G. Phillips Hospital

The bond faced intense opposition, but it passed due to the efforts of Homer Phillips and several other community leaders. However, the debate would continue for years. Attempts to begin construction halted when opponents argued the bond didn’t actually specify a separate structure. In response, a “colored annex” connected to the existing City Hospital #1 located in south city was considered. Opponents also continued to argue the additional $60,000 a year needed to operate a separate medical facility was too much of a burden for St. Louis taxpayers.

Accosted by 2 Men and Shot

Finally, nearly ten years after the bond originally passed, the city’s Board of Aldermen green lit construction of a state-of-the-art hospital for blacks. The decision also dictated the hospital be built on a six-acre site in The Ville, a predominately black neighborhood in North St. Louis. On September 15, 1932, ground was finally broken. The facility came to be as the “Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored”, named in honor of the man who tirelessly fought for its creation.

Tragically, Homer Phillips wouldn’t live to see his dream come true. On June 18, 1931, two men approached him at the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Aubert Avenue as Phillips was waiting for a trolley. One of the men suddenly struck Phillips, pulled out a gun, and fired several times. Homer Phillips died instantly from gunshot wounds to the head and back. He was fifty-one years old. Newspaper reports immediately speculated the killers were hired assassins. Despite eyewitness testimony, the two men accused of the murder were acquitted. To this day, the murder of Homer Phillips is unsolved and considered an open case.

Homer Phillips undoubtedly had no shortage of enemies during a time when many believed segregation to be just and necessary. He first made a name for himself in 1916, when he led opposition to a proposed law that made the segregation of St. Louis neighborhoods mandatory. He also co-founded the Citizen’s Liberty League, a group that worked to oppose Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and mob violence in the form of lynching. The League worked to remove job restrictions for blacks, improve the quality of life, and improve access to medical care.

Aerial View of Phillips Hospital Construction

Ultimately, those efforts led to the special day of February 22, 1937 when Homer G. Phillips Hospital was dedicated. Parades, speeches, and a crowd of over 4,000 people gathered to celebrate the grand opening. The mayor of St. Louis at the time, Bernard Dickmann (a strong supporter of Phillips) called the event “one of the happiest moments in my administration”.

Designed by architect Albert A. Osburg, Homer G. Phillips hospital was built at a final cost of 3.16 million dollars. It consisted of a main central administration building with four radiant wings. It contained 685 patient beds and required 800 employees to keep it running. Along with an additional service building, a separate nurse’s home was constructed to provide dormitories for 147 nurses and 24 interns. Homer G. Phillips would instantly become the largest, best equipped, and most technically advanced hospital in the world committed solely to the medical care of a city’s black population.

Medical Training at Homer G. Phillips Hospital

By 1941, it became the philosophy of the hospital to become a premier training ground for black medical professionals. Just seven years after it opened, the hospital was training one-third of the graduates from the two black medical schools in the country. Within twenty years, the hospital could claim the distinction of having trained the largest number of black doctors and nurses in the world. In addition to providing a fully accredited training program for black interns, residents, and nurses, Phillips had established schools for x-ray technicians, laboratory technicians, and medical record librarians. Douglas Connor, in his book A Black Physician’s Story, describes a remarkable scene during his time spent as an intern at Homer Phillips.

Doctor's Account

By 1945, Phillips ranked in the top five largest general hospitals in the country, but it faced problems known to every medical institution. Especially in the early years, the hospital suffered from a reputation of being consistently underfunded and understaffed. Employees often complained of low pay and long hours. However, the hospital always remained an enormous source of pride for the community.

The year 1955 brought a major change to St. Louis and the hospital. By order of the mayor, the practice of segregation came to end at city hospitals. Homer Phillips Hospital suddenly became a place that treated patients based on where they lived and not by the color of their skin. Sadly, this step forward for humanity may have likely initiated the hospital’s eventual closing. With a falling city population and eroding tax base, the debate started all over again. Many began to question the need to publicly fund two separate medical facilities. Soon after, reports surfaced of plans to consolidate medical services in St. Louis. In the late 1960’s, the first steps towards consolidation happened when the psychiatric and neurological departments at Phillips moved south to City Hospital #1.

Medical Training at Homer G. Phillips

For the next fifteen years, supporters of the two city hospitals debated which one should remain open. Despite two independent audits recommending City Hospital #1 should close, few outside of the black community supported that plan. Support eroded further when Washington University and St. Louis University ceased making staff available to Phillips. The two major medical schools in St. Louis claimed City Hospital #1 was more convenient and offered salaries that were more competitive.

Despite vocal objections and dozens of large-scale public protests, the end for Homer Phillips Hospital sadly became a reality. On August 17, 1979, the city ordered all patients and departments transferred to City Hospital #1. Until the facility closed entirely in 1985, Phillips operated only as an outpatient and emergency care facility.

Homer G. Phillips HospitalDespite its closing, the memory of Homer G. Phillips and its significance remains an important chapter in St. Louis history. I’m glad to learn I’m not the only one that thinks so. In 1980, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen designated the building a city landmark. In 1982, the Department of the Interior added it to the National Register of Historic Places. While the building’s purpose has since changed, it still stands impressively in The Ville. Following a multi-million dollar renovation completed in 2003, Homer G. Phillips Hospital now thrives as a senior living facility.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital Today

The Drink

The Corner of Aubert Avenue & Delmar Boulevard

In the past, I've claimed to be able to associate a drink to any history topic. But I have to admit, this one was tough. I had no idea how to tie a drink to a hospital. First of all, there aren’t many cocktails named after a hospital setting. I briefly considered a Bloody Mary, but that seemed tacky and well, somewhat disgusting. Through Google, I found a drink named the “See You at the Hospital”, which must be named for where it would put me if I had more than one. I then tried physical locations. I found the empty lot where Homer Phillips lived on Aubert Avenue. A few blocks away, I found the corner where he was shot and killed. Both locations offered nothing. I drove around the hospital a few times for a bar, but I nothing looked promising. Lastly, I found no record of what Homer Phillips himself drank. I had no idea if he drank beer, wine, or maybe he didn’t drink at all. I simply couldn’t determine where to get a drink.

A Toast to Homer G. Phillips

Then it hit me. If I can’t find a drink associated to Homer, I’ll bring my own drink to Homer. After his murder, Homer G. Phillips was laid to rest in St. Peters Cemetery in Normandy. So, I decided to mix up a thermos of martini and hop in the car. Most of my Distilled History topics don't focus on a single individual. With this idea, not only would I be able to pay my respects to a great man, I could even toast him while I did so.

St. Peters is a beautiful cemetery located just west of the city. While I visited, I stopped to visit the grave of the legendary James “Cool Papa” Bell, who is also buried there. I drove around and took it all in until I found Mr. Phillips' grave. As I studied his marker, I learned his wife Ida was an artist and followed him to the grave just three years after his death. It was nice to see them both with honored with an impressive tombstone.

Then I sat down, poured myself a drink, and thought again about that day in the library when I learned all about the man.

Finally, I lifted my glass and toasted Homer Phillips and the important place he helped build.

 

August 26th, 2013 by Cameron

A Day in the Life of Distilled History

A Day in the Life

Here’s a useless fact to kick off this edition of Distilled History. If I had to play one of those “deserted island” games and choose only one song that I could listen to for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be difficult. “A Day in the Life”, that magnificent opus that closes out side two of Sergeant Pepper is the greatest rock ‘n roll song ever made. I have no doubt about it.

That song has absolutely nothing to do with St. Louis history or drinking, but it sure put a smile on my face a couple of weeks ago. I played it (loudly) on purpose, and I made sure to share my Beatle appreciation with Tower Grove South on the morning of August 10, 2013. I did that because I knew that I was at the start of a very good “Day in the Life” of St. Louis. It’s a day when everything I love to do in this city came together in one very neat package.

It all started at a church south of downtown. I met a few friends, unloaded a bicycle, and spent the morning peddling through a historic tour of two unique St. Louis neighborhoods. After that, I spent the afternoon with another group of friends talking about things that happened 150 years ago. At the same time, I marched people through my favorite 10,000 square feet of St. Louis history. When that was over, I met up with a yet another group of friends and proceeded to get myself quite drunk on well-made cocktails.

That is how a great day in my life goes down.

I thought it would be interesting to recount that excellent day in this blog. It wasn’t a day focused on just one history topic or drink. It was a day filled with random facts, bits of St. Louis history, and plenty of sips.

Follow along as I describe a “Day in the Life” of Distilled History.

The Morning

Our Ride Through Old Frenchtown

Each year, the local bicycle advocacy organization Trailnet offers an extensive calendar of fantastic bicycle rides, tours, and events around the St. Louis area. My favorites are their Community Rides, which are centered on simply having fun and developing an appreciation for St. Louis. I’ve written about a couple of them in my posts about the Jacob Stein House and T.S. Eliot.

Many of these rides are history tours, led by a St. Louis authority/genius/superhuman named Harold Karabell. An avid bicyclist himself, Harold also shares my opinion that seeing St. Louis from a bicycle offers a unique perspective from which to see our city.

On this day, Harold debuted a new tour that I was really excited about. It was a rambling ride through a section of St. Louis formerly known as “Old Frenchtown”. Once a seamless group of neighborhoods in south St. Louis that blended together, “Old Frenchtown” was carved apart in the years following World War II.

Trailnet's Old Frenchtown Bicycle Tour

That’s when I-44 and I-55 were built through south St. Louis. Suddenly, the borders dividing the neighborhoods of Soulard, LaSalle Park, and Lafayette Square became defined by asphalt and semi-trucks. Use of the term “Old Frenchtown”, already in decline due to shifting neighborhood dynamics, faded further into memory.

Harold kept the audience captivated

The field of architecture is Harold’s wheelhouse, but St. Louis history gets equal attention on his tours. While touring historical and unique neighborhoods like LaSalle Park and Soulard, the amount of information presented in both topics can even be overwhelming. I’ve tried taking notes in order to keep up with him on previous tours, but I always end up with nothing but pages of hurried scribbling.

Old Frenchtown is a remarkably historic section of St. Louis. Originally settled by Germans, French Creoles, and Irish, it later became home to concentrations of Syrians, Lebanese, Czechs, and other groups. It was where in 1896, the third-deadliest tornado in American history uprooted homes and buildings. Fifty years later, Old Frenchtown nearly suffered the same fate at the hands of man. A city plan developed in 1947 proclaimed the vast majority of Old Frenchtown to be “blighted”. Furthermore, the plan proposed razing the majority of structures in the area and rebuilding it with modern homes and cul-de-sacs.

As we rolled along, St. Louis history was on display in all forms.

Harold's Wisdom

At the end of the tour, Harold couldn’t resist throwing out one final fact that I particularly enjoyed. When a fellow rider asked for his surname, he responded that it’s “Karabell”, short for the Yiddish term “Karabellnik”.

“Karabellnik” means “country peddler”. And with that final fact, Harold closed out an excellent morning.

The Afternoon

Happy Cameron

After throwing my bike in the back of the car, I sped off to the next stop. After changing into proper attire and drying the sweat off underneath an air conditioning vent in the gift shop, I was set to throw down some epic tours at my beloved Campbell House Museum. At this place, I actually get to spout history off to folks who are willing to pay for it. Even better, I get a group of people like the one I had on August 10th. The tour on that day was rowdy, long (over two hours), and fun.

Rowdy tours are the best tours. When I say “rowdy” I don’t mean people get unruly and start tossing around furniture. Instead, folks get laughing, hundreds of questions are asked, and visitors offer up their own glimpses of history. It’s tours like this where an amusing back and forth dialog exists. It’s also obvious to me that a mutual appreciation for the home exists.

Knock on this door!

The big rowdy tour that I led that afternoon turned out to be only one I gave that day. The most colorful visitor was an English World War II veteran who now lives in Canada. While his wife constantly tried to quiet him, this guy kept us laughing by cracking bad jokes along the way. In the same group, another visitor boasted that this tour was his fourth trip through the Campbell House.

He reinforced a point that I make to every guest: Every tour is different.

It’s not simply because of the overwhelming number of facts, stories, and tales there are to tell, but the difference really comes in the delivery. While I tend to focus on the history of the family (my main area of interest), another docent may focus on the architecture of the house. Yet another may focus on the lives of servants, or the furniture, or even restoration efforts.

There’s even one guy named Tom who could talk to you for three or four days about Lucas Place, the neighborhood the house used to be a part of.

I’ll even admit that I have a mild man-crush on Tom. I aspire to be the best docent ever, and that won’t happen as long as Tom lurks the halls of Campbell House. The guy is a research machine. If a Campbell House docent battle was ever held, Tom would make quick work of me.

Well, if I can’t beat him, I might as well learn from him.

Campbell Facts

I love giving tours, but simply being inside the Campbell House makes for a good day. If we don’t have visitors, I can head upstairs to do research, sift through the archives, or read through the thousands of Campbell family letters.  More than likely, I’ll just kick back in the break room and hash out Campbell history with other museum folks.

The Campbell Kids

Before I head off to the final phase of my day, I’d like to point out some of the excellent press Campbell House Museum has been getting lately. People work hard at that place, and I’m proud to be apart of it.

The Campbell House in the 1930's

The Evening

Blood & Sand Interior

Another benefit of being a Campbell House docent is what sits directly across the street. Blood & Sand, located on the ground floor of the Terra Cotta Loft Building on Locust Street, is one of my favorite places in St. Louis to get a cocktail.

Blood & Sand is a unique establishment. It’s a membership bar and restaurant, which means patrons pay a small monthly fee in order to visit. In return, members receive a level of personal attention not found elsewhere.

I won’t go into detail about how Blood & Sand works. Instead, I’ll simply say that the level of service I’ve received there makes it worth the price of membership for me. On just my second visit, I had a new cocktail set in front of me that was tailored to my own personal tastes. The owners and bartenders enjoy talking about cocktails, and they all know their craft. Each time I go to Blood & Sand, I seem to learn a bit more about the necessary ingredients and practices I should be incorporating into my own drinks at home.

To add to the allure, Blood & Sand also sits on a St. Louis corner that has some very interesting history.

Terra Cotta Lofts Facts

Then & Now: The Corner of 15th and Locust

Blood & Sand makes a variation of the Manhattan that is one of my favorite cocktails in St. Louis. Blood & Sand’s classic “Grounds for Divorce” adds Campari and Amaro to the standard mixture of bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters. I’m not certain, but my guess is the vermouth used is Carpano’s Punt e Mes. The result is spicy, bitter, and exceptionally delicious.

The drink is stirred in ice, strained into a coupe glass, and adorned with a “real” maraschino cherry.

The Grounds for Divorce at Blood & Sand

We spent a couple of hours at Blood & Sand sampling cocktails and closing out the day. My friends had to listen to me throw out more useless trivia while we did it, but they are used to that.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my “Day in the Life” of St. Louis, I was exhausted at the end of it. Bicycling, cocktails, and those rowdy Campbell House tours (especially those rowdy tours), combined to put me in bed early that night. I think I’ll have to wait a few weeks before I cram biking, history, and drinking all into one day again.

On second thought, maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.

July 15th, 2013 by Cameron

Hop Alley & White Lightning

Fire Hydrant in the Hill

One of the things I like most about living in St. Louis is the diversity. For good reasons or bad, St. Louis looks and feels very different depending on where you stand. If you are in Soulard, you know you aren’t in the Loop. If you are on Cherokee Street, you know you aren’t in Old North. To me, that’s a great thing about living here.

While I believe the existence of diverse neighborhoods like South Grand and The Grove make St. Louis a better place, I lament the neighborhoods that are gone. Today, there is little evidence of neighborhoods like Frenchtown, Kerry Patch, and Vandeventer Place. And while The Hill remains famously Italian, other neighborhoods like Bevo and Dutchtown have struggled to retain their ethnic identity. Even Soulard, an area many St. Louisans think was originally French, actually started as a German neighborhood.

Another neighborhood that was recently wiped off the map is one many younger St. Louisans aren’t aware of. In the middle of the downtown business district, St. Louis had its own “Chinatown” that was home to hundreds of Chinese St. Louisans. It wasn’t on the scale of coastal cities like San Francisco or New York City, but it was here. It existed for nearly 100 years, enduring from the 1870’s until 1966.

Hop Alley in 1910

The history of the Chinese presence in St. Louis is actually quite fascinating. We even know the name of the first Chinese person to settle here. His name was Alla Lee, and he came to St. Louis from San Francisco in 1857. He owned a tea shop on North Tenth Street that provided a modest income. He even married a “buxom Irish lass” named Sarah Graham. Together, the couple produced several children.

We also know what Alla Lee said on the first day he walked into the city that would become his home:

Alla Lee's Quote

Well, maybe that’s not true, but he had to at least been thinking it. Even after eighteen years here, St. Louis summers make me curse like a sailor.

Information about the St. Louis Chinatown is scarce, but I found two books by a professor at Truman State University that were very helpful. Huping Ling’s Chinese St. Louis and Images of America: Chinese in St. Louis both provided a fascinating perspective of the Chinese experience in this city. I also planned to attend a lecture about the topic by Professor Ling a couple of months ago, but a freak snowstorm forced it to be cancelled.

Have I mentioned that I struggle with the weather in this town?

Anyway, after settling in St. Louis, Alla Lee could claim to be the only Chinese person living in St. Louis for nearly a dozen years. Then in 1869, about three hundred Chinese people arrived from San Francisco looking for work in local factories and mines. Shortly after, a second group arrived from New York City for the same reason. As Professor Ling details in her book Chinese St. Louis, this represents a perfect example of “re-migration”. In the years following 1869, Chinese people came to St. Louis when the opportunities in cities they first settled in (like San Francisco or New York) fizzled out.

Alla Lee's Census Records

As the Chinese population in St. Louis started to grow, a distinct neighborhood was established where they lived and worked. Located between Market, Walnut, Eighth and Seventh Streets, this small section of downtown became known as “Chinatown”. However, by the mid 1890′s, the neighborhood was being commonly referred to as “Hop Alley”. This was likely a derogatory term, meant to represent the stereotype of Chinese immigrants frequently being “hopped up” on opium.

By the turn of the 20th Century, Hop Alley was home to more than 200 Chinese people. Most of them lived in small rooms above or behind the numerous Chinese businesses that lined the streets. These businesses included hand laundries, tea shops, groceries, dry goods stores, and restaurants.It looked much like the Chinatowns we know today, with lanterns, banners, and signs with Chinese characters hanging from building exteriors. Mandarin and Cantonese were the common languages spoken and heard in Hop Alley. It was a bustling part of town, with Chinese residents and workers going about their daily lives. With shops, vendors, and businesses selling unfamiliar foods and goods, Hop Alley was an exotic part of St. Louis.

Hop Alley Map

Unfortunately, much of the city surrounding Hop Alley did not embrace the neighborhood nor its residents. Many St. Louisans viewed the Chinese as unusual, lazy, and deviant. Newspaper accounts branded the neighborhood as brimming with opium addicts, criminals, and gamblers.

In researching this post, I scoured several newspaper articles from that time pertaining to Hop Alley. Very few focused on the lives or merits of the Chinese residents, instead focusing on awful stereotypes and prejudices.

Hop Alley in Plate 24 of Compton & Dry's Pictorial St. Louis

In many of these articles, Chinese people are referred to as Chinks”, “Mongolians”, and even “Heathen Chinee”. Reporters repeatedly mocked their spoken English, aping them with quotes like“You likee chop stick?”,tankee tankee, and “Ho Ho! Wat you want?”.

I did stumble upon one article that attempted to understand the daily life of a Chinese person living in Hop Alley. Unfortunately, reading it made me cringe (and honestly, it got me rather pissed off). “The Chinese in St. Louis”, published in the St. Louis Republic on January 14, 1894, spewed ignorance and racism on an epic scale.

The article gives an account of two men visiting a Chinese restaurant in Hop Alley. Although the men were “much surprised to find it palatable”, the contempt for Chinese people eating nearby is appalling.

St. Louis Republic 1894 Quote

A derisive cartoonwas included in the article to reinforce the author’s point. In the drawing, a man is portrayed squatting on his chair, using chopsticks with two hands, and eating a meal of stewed rat.

Hop Alley Cartoon

The article then proceeds to detail how the men attempted to “shove a quarter” to the restaurateur, unaware tipping is not a custom in Chinese culture. This provokes the writer to report:

St. Louis Republic 1894 Quote

While it’s certain that newspapers exaggerated the negative aspects of Hop Alley, the neighborhood was far from perfect. Opium dens and gambling rings did produce repeated problems for St. Louis law enforcement. One crime in particular made national headlines in 1893. In that year, a man named Lou Johnson came into conflict with a Chinese gambling ring. Things didn’t get sorted out, because Lou’s headless body was found dumped in an alley. His head was later found buried in a basket of rice. Although several men were accused, a lack of evidence prevented any kind of conviction.

Young girl in Chinatown

Despite Hop Alley’s poor reputation around St.Louis, it was home to a community of people. Professor Ling makes the point that it’s important to remember that Hop Alley was where Chinese people in St. Louis felt at home. It’s where they lived, worked, and relaxed. In a city where Chinese people frequently felt unwelcome, Hop Alley was where they could find peace and comfort around a common people. It was also a destination for Chinese people living outside of the neighborhood. They visited the neighborhood to see family, shop, and dine with friends. During Chinese New Year, Hop Alley was also a central gathering place for a very important holiday in that culture.

Although Hop Alley existed well into the 20th Century, the neighborhood followed a familiar pattern in St. Louis after 1920. The Great Depression brought about economic strife, causing many Chinese businesses to close or relocate. The flight to the suburbs following World War II prompted many Chinese families to move beyond city limits. By the 1960’s, Hop Alley was a shadow of its former self. It then disappeared completely in 1966, the year Busch Stadium was constructed. Baseball fans needed a place to park, and the buildings in Hop Alley became expendable.

Hop Alley: Then and Now

Following the demise of Hop Alley, many Chinese people congregated in a comparable community around a stretch of Olive Boulevard just went of city limits. I’m glad it’s there, and I’m glad St. Louis still has a visible Chinese community (for reasons you will soon read about). However, I can’t help but wish that Hop Alley had lived on in downtown St. Louis. I think the city would have been even better if it had.

The Drink

Brian and I outside of Taiyuan in 2001

Researching Hop Alley has been one of my most enjoyable posts, and that’s because of the drink that I knew would follow it. Baijiu, an extremely popular liquor in China, is a drink that is also very dear to me. I’ve been fortunate to drink quite a bit of it during two separate trips to China.

These trips were made possible by the fact that my good friend Brian Flaherty was living there. Fluent in Mandarin, Brian knows where to go and how things work in China. As a result, my fellow travelers and I interacted with people who had never seen a western face, we rode hard sleeper trains through the countryside, and we even camped overnight in a Great Wall guard tower. We were able to experience China in a way that very few foreigners have been able to.

Brian is also a big fan of drinking, and this fact made both trips even more special. Drinking is an important part of Chinese culture, and we made sure that we took full advantage of it.

On our first visit to China in 1998, Brian introduced us to baijiu. We were in a tiny Beijing restaurant with a very large bottle prominently displayed on the front counter. It was filled with a clear liquid, but floating inside were reptile skins, unrecognizable round things (eggs, maybe?), and various leaves. I think I also saw a seahorse, but I’m not sure. Brian informed us it was baijiu, and it was custom in China to celebrate important events (like our visit) by drinking it.

Well, it’s not like I really needed a reason.

The baijiu that first night was a special “homemade” brand. The first sip sent us reeling. I can’t really describe the taste, but we soon settled down and toasted a few cups. Then, we toasted a few more. With chasers of warm beer between drinks, we started to acclimate to the flammable potion swirling in our bellies. I ended up sleeping very well that night.

1998 China Trip

In other words, we were roaring drunk. I’ve been a baijiu fan ever since.

Baijiu is distilled liquor made from fermented sorghum. It’s been a staple in Chinese drinking circles for thousands of years. Translated, it means “white liquor” or “white wine”. Brian provided an even better translation:white lightning. I’m not kidding when I say you had better be careful with baijiu. It packs a wallop. Because of “white lightning”, I have a few adventures from those China trips that certainly wouldn’t make Mom proud. Maybe I shouldn’t blame baijiu, but I can also claim to be one of the few Americans that has streaked the Great Wall of China.

An easy (and incorrect) comparison is to say baijiu is like Japanese sake. Although baijiu is sometimes served warm like sake, baijiu is generally much higher in alcohol content (usually 40%-60% APV). It is usually packaged in ceramic bottles, often decorated with colorful labels, ribbons, and small Chinese ornaments. Several types of unflavored and flavored baijiu varieties exist, but because of its distinct (and pungent) aroma, most connoisseurs actually categorize baijiu by fragrance.

As I previously mentioned, the first sip (or even whiff) of baijiu is startling. I force it upon my friends as a novelty often, and it rarely elicits a pleasant response. If baijiu is categorized by fragrance, I even have one friend who insists it belongs in the “feet” category. He’ll come around someday, because I’m going to continue making him drink it. Personally, the taste has grown on me. I like to drink baijiu, and the taste brings back great memories of my trips.

Baijiu: The world's most consumed form of liquor

Chinese drinking customs can definitely add to the impact one may experience with baijiu. Toasting is the rule, and it is custom to invite someone nearby to drink with you. Put yourself at a table in Beijing with several Chinese baijiu drinkers, and you’ll quickly realize that you are in deep shit. They love to toast (especially with foreigners visiting their country), so plan on raising your glass often. The kicker to this is the term “ganbei”, which is often called out during these frequent toasts. “Ganbei” literally means “empty glass” or “drink it all”. It’s not just with baijiu, either. The Chinese also love beer, so get ready to ganbei Chinese lagers like Yanjing or Tsingtao if its nearby.

chinapic_06

Finding and buying baijiu is almost as fun as drinking it. When I eat at local Chinese restaurants, I often ask if baijiu is available to order. I’ve never seen it on a menu, but I know that some places keep a stash in the back. If I strike gold, I’ll usually get a little smirk from the server, and a delicious cup of white lightning. A few days ago, I also bought a bottle for my liquor cabinet at one of the markets on Olive Boulevard. I selected a high-end variety described to me as “unflavored and dry”. When I checked out, the cashier chuckled when she asked for my ID.

And then she whispered to me under her breath “this is a good one”.

Buying baijiu

For the first time, I’m not going to drink the drink I write about in a Distilled History post. Baijiu is meant to be a celebratory liquor to drink with friends. Because of that, I’m going to wait for my pal Brian to come to St. Louis for a visit. When he does, we’ll take that bottle of baijiu to the corner of Walnut and Eighth Streets and toast a couple to Alla Lee, Hop Alley, and the hundreds of Chinese St. Louisans that once called it home.

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