Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem

Archive for the ‘Cocktails’ Category

September 11th, 2014 by Cameron

#drinkuptweetupSTL

Please Join Us!

Here’s an interesting (and perhaps horrifying) fact that merges history and drinking: In ancient Rome, a popular remedy for curing a hangover was to fry and eat… (wait for it…) birds.

Beauty Lives On

And I’m not talking about chickens and turkeys. After a night of authentic toga parties and too much wine, hungover Romans chewed on fried canaries. 

Fortunately, this practice fell out of favor long before the Campbell family began their run in St. Louis. If it hadn’t, it’s possible that Beauty, the handsome finch that fluttered around the Campbell aviary over one-hundred years ago, may have suffered a grizzly fate after one of Ginny’s late-night house parties.

Beauty is actually one of my favorite stops on the Campbell House scene. I don’t think I’ve ever given a tour when I didn’t point out Hazlett Campbell’s pet bird that was stuffed, bottled, and placed on a mantle long ago. There’s no doubt about it—visitors always get a kick out of Beauty.

Campbell House Museum

I also can’t think of a more appropriate Campbell family member than Beauty to represent the fun event going down at the Campbell House later this month. Beauty was a tweeter, and she’ll be on hand when Distilled History teams up with the Campbell House to host another #drinkuptweetupSTL.

What’s a “#drinkuptweetupSTL” you ask? Well, it’s the hashtag we are using to describe a special invitation we are extending to the many friends of the Campbell House Museum and Distilled History: Come over and have a drink with us.

Distilled History T-Shirts

No joke. On the evening of Friday September 26th, we’ll have the Campbell House open, we’ll have the garden set up with tables of food and booze, and we’ll even have a great band, Typhoon Jackson, jamming in the background.

Please stop by, bring a friend or two, get a glimpse of one of the most remarkable historic homes in the United States, learn a bit of drinking history (that’s where I come in), and most importantly, have a drink with us.

The best part is that it’s all free. Food will be provided courtesy of the Maya Cafe in Maplewood and beer will be provided by our Lucas Place neighbors, Schlafly. Along with other refreshments, we’ll also have a big bowl of Virginia Campbell’s Roman punch.  It’s Ginny’s own recipe from her cookbook written in the mid-1800’s (and it mentions nothing about canaries). The only catch is that since we’ll be drinking alcohol, our under-21 friends will have to sit this one out (sorry, kiddos).

Grant's Cup

And to sweeten the pot even further, we’ll be raffling off several prizes throughout the evening. We have plenty of Campbell House, Urban Chestnut, and Distilled History swag to give away, but the ultimate raffle prize is one I think is pretty special.

Other than Beauty, one of my favorite pieces in the Campbell House collection is a silver julep cup once owned by Ulysses S. Grant.  Grant is not only the logo of Distilled History, he was good pals with Rob and Ginny, and he visited the family often during his Presidency. His cup is normally locked away for safekeeping, but one lucky raffle winner will be able to hold it and drink their choice of booze from it.

For anyone who’s a fan of drinking and history (like me), it doesn’t get much better than that.

That’s the skinny on the 2014 #drinkuptweetupSTL. For more information, head over to the Campbell House blog.  They are the folks to contact if you have any questions. I’ll also leave it to them to tell you about another special raffle prize: A special batch of Campbell beer.

See you on Friday, September 26th!

Ginny's House Party Irish Ale

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.

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 5th, 2013 by Cameron

Climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome

Our Villa in Tuscany

Ciao miei buoni amici!  Saluti dall’Italia!

For this bit of Distilled History, I must ask my St. Louis readers to allow me another brief detour.  I’ve been pampering myself in Tuscany for the past two weeks, and I haven’t had an opportunity to blow the dust off another St. Louis history topic. I’ll return to the stories of Mound City in due time, but for now I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing Florence and Rome.  As a student of history, these two towns have more to offer than just about any place in the world.  To make up for my absence, I figured I could throw in some Distilled History while I’m here.  It shouldn’t be that difficult, right?  Since I’m reveling in the cradle of western civilization, I can’t help but stumble over great history, food, and drink.

It’s actually easier said than done.  I’m very distracted.  I’m trying to write this post while sitting in a luxurious 18th Century villa.  There’s a swimming pool, palm trees, and half-naked lady statues scattered around me.  The landscape before me is filled with rolling hills, vineyards, and round bales of hay. Our villa is located near the idyllic town of Montepulciano, an area known for producing some of the best wine in Italy.  Worst of all, I’m currently battling an astounding hangover caused by too much of that Italian wine (along with grappa, birra, gin, bourbon, and a certain cocktail you’ll read about in a bit).

Brunelleschi's Dome

Fortunately, I found a topic to write about years before I even arrived here.  While it would be easy to write about Italian monuments such as the Coliseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Pantheon, these sites are secondary to me on this trip.  Years ago, I watched a fascinating documentary about a Cathedral in Florence that fascinated me.  Although not as recognizable as the previously mentioned sites, it’s a very big deal.  Specifically, what sits on top of that church is what I had to see for myself.

I’m won’t go nuts doing research for this post.  I’m in Italy, and I don’t want to do anything but bake in the Tuscan sun, drink myself tipsy, and look at very old things.  All of the information for this post came from my vague recollections of the documentary, my climb up the dome, and the book Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. If you enjoy superb non-fiction writing, this guy has the goods. His book Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling about the Sistine Chapel is also outstanding.

Brunelleschi's Dome

“Brunelleschi’s Dome” is how many refer to the cupola atop the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. It is the “Duomo di Firenze”, or the Cathedral of Florence. Construction of this cathedral began 1296, and the initial plans called for the largest dome ever constructed to sit atop it.  Sounds like a great plan, but the architects faced a significant problem: Nobody knew how to build a build such a massive dome.

Despite the lack of dome building knowledge in the late thirteenth century, the so-called experts decided to go ahead and build the cathedral anyway.  They figured that since it would take decades to build the foundation and walls, they had plenty of time to figure out the dome problem before constructing it was necessary.

Oops. Not so fast. When the cathedral was ready for the dome in 1380 (nearly 100 years later), they still didn’t have a solution. The cathedral would sit open to the elements for another forty years before one man introduced a plan worth trying.

dome_model

Perhaps it was a certain mindset in Florence at the time that gave the original architects such optimism.  After hundreds of years of ignorance and suppression of knowledge during the Middle Ages, a cultural movement was blossoming in Italy. Florence in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries introduced a resurgence of learning based on classical knowledge.  Instead of writing the ancient Greeks and Romans off as pagans, great thinkers looked to them for inspiration.  This re-birth or “Renaissance” brought humanism back into the mainstream.  The dome that was built atop the Florence Cathedral would become one of the most important accomplishments in the early years of that movement.

The inability to build a large dome is surprising since one had been standing tall in Rome for nearly 1,000 years. The Pantheon, a self-supported concrete dome 142 feet wide and weighing 5,000 tons, was built by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD.  Despite having a full-size model at their disposal, nobody could figure out how to build it again.

That is, until Filippo Brunelleschi came along.

Born in Florence in 1377, Brunelleschi grew up in the shadow of the Florence Cathedral as it was built.  Initially trained as a goldsmith and clockmaker, Brunelleschi soon displayed an unparalleled genius in art, architecture, engineering, and mathematics.  Along with the dome he’d make famous, Brunelleschi is also credited with discovering the mathematical laws of perspective.  Another concept lost since Greek and Roman times, perspective gave artists the ability to accurately represent three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional surface.  This discovery (or rediscovery) radically changed the direction of artistic impression during the Renaissance.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Eventually, a guild in Florence announced a contest for entrants to submit plans to complete the unfinished dome. Brunelleschi, who had studied the Pantheon closely with his good friend Donatello, jumped at the opportunity. It took some convincing, but Brunelleschi was eventually able to secure the commission for himself.

Brunelleschi was a character (to say the least). He was brilliant, competitive, combative, and paranoid.  He was so convinced that his ideas and designs would be stolen, that he refused to explain exactly how he would build the dome. Despite being called an “ass” and a “babbler”, he indefatigably insisted he could do it.

The original plan called for an octagonal dome 171 feet above the floor of the cathedral and spanning 144 feet (two feet wider than the Pantheon). Adding to the challenge, support and centering the dome from underneath wasn’t possible.  Materials for such an enormous scaffold weren’t available, and church leaders insisted that the interior of the cathedral remain open and accessible for services during construction. The dome would have to support itself as it climbed into the sky.

Brunelleschi rose to the challenge with a myriad of ingenious solutions.  In nearly every phase of construction, he overcame hurdles with methods that had never been used before. Even the mathematics used to determine such significant building stress wouldn’t be known for hundreds of years. His accomplishment is all the more impressive considering what little architectural knowledge was available at the time.

The Cupola

The most important aspect of his design is that the dome is actually two domes.  An inner shell is made of sandstone and marble, and it acts as the main load-bearing structure.  The inner shell is also obviously smaller, but that fact is not noticeable to the naked eye. It is protected by a larger outer shell constructed of brick and mortar. The space between the two shells contain ribs for additional support (and the staircase that I had longed to climb).

In constructing the inner shell, the biggest problem facing construction was overcoming “hoop stress”.  As a dome’s construction goes higher, more weight is forced upon the base. Unchecked, this can cause the base of the dome to “spread” and ultimately collapse under its own weight.

I’m no architect, but “spreading” sounds bad for domes built 200 feet off the ground.

To counter hoop stress, Brunelleschi devised a system of horizontal iron, stone, and wooden “chains” that act like metal hoops around a barrel.  Built into the inner shell at various levels, these chains squeeze the dome and distribute weight to the eight corners of the octagon.  Even today, full details of Brunelleshi’s chain designs are not fully understood.  Since the chains are built into the inner shell, they aren’t visible to study with the naked eye.

Brunelleschi's Lift Sketches

Another hurdle was how to get thousands of blocks, brick, and mortar up into the sky. Nobody had figured out how to do that either, so another contest was announced.  Brunelleschi won the blue ribbon again, designing a remarkable lift and crane system. The hoisting power was provided by oxen that moved in a circle around the base of a lift.  Sounds simple enough, but the problem was getting the lift back down to earth.  Oxen don’t travel in reverse, and unhitching and reversing the team after each lifting session was a giant hassle.  To solve this, Brunelleschi designed a reverse gear that could be shifted manually. This allowed the oxen to continue moving happily along (well, maybe not so happily), in one direction. Additionally, Brunelleschi even gave his lift variable speeds.  This allowed heavier blocks to be lifted slower while lighter materials could be raised quickly.

The eight brick sections of the outer shell also presented a unique problem.  As the dome progressed higher, the brick walls angled inward at an increasingly perilous angle.  Without support from beneath, a solution was needed to keep the angled bricks in place while the mortar dried.  No scaffold also meant that twitchy masons had to build the walls while perched more than two-hundred feet off the ground. Without missing a beat, Brunelleschi had a solution for this problem as well.  He used a herringbone (think zigzag) pattern that placed bricks vertically at regular intervals in each row.  These vertical bricks act like bookends to provide support for each row of horizontal bricks.

Sadly, I can barely understand that concept, let alone explain it.  Being a guy who simply likes to drink and find good history, physics makes my head hurt.  I’m going to have to defer to Ross King on this one.  If anyone needs further information how Brunelleschi worked this out,  pick up Mr. King’s book and turn to page ninety-eight.  I can’t add anything other than to say that I think herringbone brick is kinda pretty.

Herringbone Brick Pattern

After sixteen years of construction, the dome was completed in 1436. Except for the one mason that fell to his death, everyone agreed that Brunelleschi had pulled off a remarkable feat. Single-handedly, he pushed architecture and the science of building light years ahead of where it had been. His design would become the standard for all Baroque and Renaissance dome construction going forward. Years later, when when Michelangelo designed the dome atop St. Peter’s Basilica, he credited Brunelleschi’s dome as his inspiration.

dome_stairs

Filippo Brunelleschi died in 1446.  His legacy seure, he was even given the honor of being entombed in the cathedral he helped build.  Visit Florence today and you can also find a fine statue of Brunelleschi that sits outside.  It depicts a man gracefully looking up and admiring the dome he built.

Nearly six-hundred years later, Brunelleschi’s dome is as impressive as ever. My good friend Liz and I also found out it’s one hell of a climb. As we huffed up the 400-plus steps, we found twisting stairwells becoming increasingly darker and narrower.  The stairs wind between the two shells, so one can even say they have climbed through history when they get to the top.  The effort is more than worth it.  As you climb higher, you’ll get to view the interior frescoes close-up, you can peer through small exterior portals allowing beams of light in, and can run your fingers along the herringbone-patterned brickwork.  When you finally emerge at the top, you are greeted with stunning panoramas of the city of Florence.  The view isn’t likely to be much different from what Brunelleschi saw himself.

Panorama from Brunelleschi's Dome

The Drink

Campari

After an American climbs an Italian cathedral, it’s only appropriate that an American orders an Italian cocktail. I almost went with grappa for this post (so very delicious), but I needed something refreshing after that climb.

With its distinctive dark red hue, Campari even looks sweet and delicious.  It’s actually quite bitter, made from a secret recipe of aromatic herbs, fruit, barks, and other unknown botanicals.  It even once contained crushed cochineal insects to give it the scarlet color its known for (this process has recently been replaced with artificial coloring).  When I was a kid, I remember insisting that father let me try a sip of his Campari and soda.  My face contorted into a sneer of disgust, and I couldn’t fathom why he even pretended to enjoy it.  My father knew his alcohol though, and thirty years later, Campari became a steady partner in my rambles through Florence and Rome.

A man named Gaspare Campari invented Campari in northern Italy around 1860.  It is a mild bitters-type aperitif, a drink Italians sip to help stimulate their appetite before one of their epic meals.  Italians usually drink it in a cold glass with a splash of soda.  I prefer Campari as an ingredient in cocktails, notably the Negroni and the Americano.  Adding Campari to a Manhattan also creates a delicious variation.

The Americano, my cocktail of choice after the climb, is a simple and refreshing cocktail, especially for a hot summer day.  When I return to St. Louis and the weather is sure to be unbearable (sigh), an Americano is another good cocktail to help beat the heat. It should be stirred and served on the rocks, but I’ve occasionally seen it served straight up in a cocktail glass.  It’s usually served with a slice of lemon or orange as a garnish.

Other than a few “grazies” and “ciaos”, I don’t speak Italian. I gave it a shot while wandering the streets of Florence, but I wasn’t completely surprised to find my Americano order result in a cup of coffee placed in front of me. Thinking I screwed something up, I soon learned I was on the money. An “Americano” or “Café Americano” is also a term used to describe espresso mixed with hot water.

dome_recipe

My espresso was delicious, but I needed a kick after climbing 400 steps.  I sheepishly drank my café Americano and moved on to another bar where I made sure to point at the bottle of Campari when ordering.

The Americano

No problems with this order, and I soon found myself sitting back and enjoying my cocktail. From my seat, I was able to look up and admire Brunelleschi’s dome that towered into the sky before me.

June 5th, 2013 by Cameron

The Battle of Fort San Carlos

Fort San Carlos

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded me an Internet article titled “Best Cities for History Buffs”. St. Louis is included on the list, and at first, I was happy to see this town get some recognition as a place with a rich historical legacy.

However, in the days since reading it, I have to admit that a certain theme of the article keeps creeping into the back of my mind. That theme has also kept me mildly annoyed.

In the article, the author includes St. Louis as a “smaller” city with “lesser-known, but no less important” historical landmarks. New Orleans, another city with a staggering amount of history, joins us along with Newport, Rhode Island, New Castle, Delaware, and Charlottesville, Virginia.

I know Charlottesville has Monticello since I’ve been there. That’s a great historical asset, but it’s going to need some slaughter-filled Civil War battles or something to join the big dogs. It doesn’t, and it must be one of the few cities in Virginia that can’t say it does. New Castle, on other hand, is a thriving metropolis of (wait for it) 5,285 people. It has some significant colonial architecture and it’s where William Penn first stepped on American soil. For those keeping score (like me), I just summed up the history of New Castle in one sentence. Try doing that with St. Louis or New Orleans.

Fort San Carlos Diorama

I grudgingly accept many people consider St. Louis to be a “smaller” city. It actually isn’t, but that’s difficult to realize because so much of the population has moved beyond the immovable city border set in 1877. Likewise, much of St. Louis history goes unnoticed, and that is exactly why I write this blog. I’m not even from here, and I can’t get enough of the stories this town has to tell. It’s my belief that St. Louis is easily in the top-ten when it comes to ranking historic American cities.

This got me thinking, and I started to realize how easy it is for me to make that case. Sit back and think for a moment how few American cities can boast a historic resume like this one:

The two most historically significant rivers in North America converge here. In 1250, a Native American city stood nearby that contained more people than London or Paris did at the time. St. Louis was founded by the French, ceded to the Spanish, fought over by the British, and purchased by the Americans. It was once the frontier, and Manifest Destiny unfurled from our front porch. Wedged in the middle of our greatest conflict, it was the largest city in the largest border state during the Civil War. During America’s Gilded Age, only three American cities could claim a larger population. It has been a center of commerce, transportation, industry, education, entertainment, and alcohol (of course, we can’t forget alcohol). The world came here in 1904. Even the race to the suburbs that has depleted the city in the last seventy years is of significant historical record.

If St. Louis isn’t among the big cities of American history with that list, here’s one more nugget: Downtown St. Louis was a battlefield during the American Revolution.

Mural of the attack by Oscar Berninghaus

To me, that battle is a perfect example of how comprehensive and diverse the history of St. Louis is. In 1780, on what is now the corner of Walnut and 4th Streets, St. Louis staged the only battle in the American Revolution fought west of the Mississippi River. Even more interesting is that it wasn’t very “American” at all. The kingdoms of Spain and Great Britain were the belligerents. To mix it up further, the Spanish force consisted mainly of French creoles and slaves. The British force was overwhelmingly Indian, with a sprinkling of Canadian hunters and British regulars thrown in. Remarkably, these two patchwork armies went about trying to kill each other over a small fur-trading village that wouldn’t become part of the United States for another twenty-four years.

Now that is what I call good history.

“The Battle of Fort San Carlos”, as it would be known, was named after a stone tower that played a key role in the engagement. The tower stood just beyond the current-day location of Busch Stadium’s center field wall. In fact, if Busch Stadium existed in 1780, attending spectators couldn’t ask for better seats from which to watch a war.

The key figure in St. Louis leading up to this event was the Spanish governor of Upper Louisiana, a military man named Don Fernando de Leyba. Arriving in St. Louis in 1778, he quickly initiated plans to fortify the village. With France entering the American Revolution on the side of the colonial government in 1788, Leyba knew that Spain would eventually be drawn into the fight. As the center of the profitable Missouri River fur trade, Leyba also knew the British coveted the village located at the confluence of North America’s two greatest rivers.

Diagram of the Battle of Fort San Carlos

Leyba was right. When Spain finally declared war in 1779, the British plan to control the Mississippi Valley quickly went into action. In a nutshell, the British plan consisted of rolling back American military successes on the east bank of the Mississippi, while taking control of Spanish possessions on the west bank. If successful, the British would establish solid footing in lands west of the Appalachians.

A former fur trader and British officer named Emanuel Hesse was placed in charge of the campaign. With few British regulars available outside the eastern theater of war, Hesse enlisted Indian forces from tribes around the Great Lakes that were hostile towards colonial French interests. With promises of weapons, riches, and spoils of war, an army of Sioux, Chippewa, Winnebagoes, Menominees, and other tribes were recruited. In 1780, the British-led force began moving south towards St. Louis. Along the way, 250 additional Sauk and Fox Indians joined the ranks, bringing the total to just over 1,000 fighting men.

Informed that St. Louis would get no financial assistance from the colonial Spanish government in New Orleans, Leyba appealed to villagers to help pay for its own defense. To help the cause, Leyba donated more than a third of the necessary funds out of his own pocket. His plan consisted of building four stone towers around the village, starting with one on the vulnerable western side. He also ordered a large trench dug around the perimeter of the entire village. The trench would connect the four towers and provide a strong defensive position from attackers.

King Charles III of Spain

On April 17, 1780, the first stone in the foundation of the western tower was placed. When completed, the cylindrical fort stood about forty feet tall and thirty feet in diameter. It was named Fort San Carlos after the Spanish King Charles III.

But Leyba had underestimated the costs of fortification. Money ran out before the other towers could be built. Instead, felled trees, logs spiked into the ground, and parapets constructed at each end of the trench would have to suffice. Finally, Leyba ordered five cannon placed on top of Fort San Carlos.

With rudimentary defenses in place, word soon arrived from that the British force had gathered in the north and were preparing for attack. Despite defenses that fell short of expectations, this was significant. Unbeknownst to the British-led force, Leyba and the villagers fully expected a battle in the coming days.

The British and Indian force expected to surprise and overwhelm the small fur-trading village. Hesse was so confident that he even decided to divide his force. A larger force of about 750 was sent across the Mississippi towards St. Louis, while a smaller force of 300 was directed south to attack the American-held outpost at Cahokia.

On May 26, 1780, the attacking force approached the village from the north and west. As Indian warriors crept from tree cover, they came upon villagers tending to crops and livestock in the common fields west of the village. One of the first to discover the day of attack had come was Jean Marie Cardinal, a French creole who had recently moved to St. Louis with his family. As Cardinal attempted to flee, an Indian warrior caught and killed him.

News of the attack spread, and farmers, field hands, and slaves suddenly rushed towards the village for safety. The Indians gave chase, catching villagers and slaughtering them before the eyes of loved ones who looked on. A few villagers managed to fight back. Pursued by an Indian warrior, a slave suddenly turned and confronted his attacker. The slave wrested a musket from the Indian and killed him with it before crossing to safety. Marie Josepha Rigauche, a school teacher, made several trips beyond the village gates armed with a pistol and knife in order to help people get to safety.

The Indians and British must have initially believed the rout was on, but the cannon atop the stone tower exploded with a booming reality check. Suddenly, it was apparent that the village was not only expecting the attack, but prepared for it. In his book, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980, James Primm makes the case that the noise of the cannon was the key factor in the battle. Although far out of range, many Indians stopped in their tracks upon hearing cannon fire. Even the eastern attack on Cahokia lost momentum when the Indians realized the stone tower on the other side of the river had big guns on top of it.

When the Indians realized they had a fight on their hands, only two tribes, the Sioux and Winnebagoes, continued to press the attack. Watching from atop the fort, Leyba described their attack to be:

Captain de Leyba Quote

Despite their bravery, Indian war tactics did not favor attacking stone forts and entrenched riflemen. The Fox and Sauks, already hesitant about attacking a bordering colonial power, halted after one cannon volley. The few British and Canadians remained far in the rear and did not enter the foray at all.

Unsuccessful in drawing the defenders into the open, the Indians shifted their attention. They vented their frustration by killing livestock, burning crops, and destroying outlying buildings. By late afternoon, with Leyba’s defenders staying put behind their defenses, the Indians recognized the futility of the engagement. Disbanding by late afternoon, the attacking forces broke up and headed home.

When the dust settled, the village had suffered over 100 casualties, with twenty-one killed. The defeated British reported four Indians killed and four wounded. The number is likely much higher.

While the number of casualties may not seem significant, it was a staggering blow to a village with a population of just 700. Strategically, the battle had an enormous impact. The Spanish victory ended any British hope for control of the Mississippi Valley. It also prevented the looting and razing of St. Louis by a foreign army. The villagers, however, did not revel in the result. Along with seeing many of their own slain and captured, the residents of St. Louis had to deal with the significant loss of livestock and crops destroyed by the frustrated retreating army.

St. Louis in 1796

Despite his efforts to protect St. Louis, the finger of blame for any form of suffering was pointed directly at Fernando de Leyba. Viewed as the lone representative of an indifferent Spanish government based hundreds of miles away, Leyba became a hated man in the village. He died just a month after the battle, and St. Louis did not mourn his passing. In fact, he was referred to as a coward and a traitor. Some even took to calling him the “Spanish Benedict Arnold”.

The disinterested Fox and Sauk Indians fared even worse. Just a month after the battle, a Spanish militia from St. Louis joined up with an American force led by George Rogers Clark. In retribution for their role in the attack on St. Louis, the army marched on the Indian village of Saukenuk to the north and burned it to the ground.

In the years following the battle, the Spanish improved fortifications around St. Louis and reinforced Fort San Carlos. However, a growing city soon expanded beyond the border it once protected. The stone fort was torn down in 1818.

The Drink

Plaque in front of the St. Louis Hilton

Today, the only physical indication of where the battle was fought is a plaque that was placed near the site where Fort San Carlos once stood. I say “near” because when I went to look for it, I circled around Walnut and 4th for thirty minutes finding no sign of it. Exasperated, I checked the Internet and found out the plaque actually sits one block west at the corner of Walnut and Broadway. The marker stands right outside the entrance of the St. Louis Hilton at the Ballpark.

They didn’t know it at the time, but the Sons of the American Revolution actually helped me out a bit when they decided to place it slightly to the west. They gave me a good drink option for this post. At the top of the Hilton is “Three-Sixty”, an open-air rooftop bar on the 27th floor of the hotel. It provides a full view of downtown St. Louis, including a great vantage point of Busch Stadium. It also provides a top-down view of where Fort San Carlos stood 233 years ago.

It’s a fun place to get a drink, and I’ve actually had good cocktail experiences there on previous visits. However, this time I had a bad feeling as I approached the bar. My bartender had that “I’m gonna shake your Manhattan and put it on the rocks” look to him. Instead of taking a step back and thinking things through, I panicked.

Noticing a printed cocktail menu to my left, I blurted out the first drink on the list. To my own horror, I heard myself muttering the name of a foofy drink named “At the End of the Day”.

sancarlos_thedrink

Sigh.

I can only blame myself, and it was as awful as I expected. I’m not a fan of sweets in general, and this drink tasted like Kool-Aid. With absolutely no kick, it didn’t even taste like spiked Kool-Aid. When I drink alcohol, I want to know it. That first sip of a Manhattan or martini can hit like a train, and it’s fantastic. The abomination I forced on myself this night tasted like it should be served in a sippy-cup.

Next time, I’ll roll the dice with a Manhattan. Three-Sixty is a fun place to go, especially on cool nights when the Cardinals are playing. Most people will focus their attention on the little men running around a baseball diamond to the south, but not me.

I prefer to turn my gaze west and imagine little men running around and making history.

A map of St. Louis drawn in 1796. Fort San Carlos circled in red

May 8th, 2013 by Cameron

Which Louis is Saint Louis?

Statue of St. Louis

I played an interesting game with several St. Louis friends over the past couple of weeks. I asked about thirty of them a basic history question about our city. Most of the people I quizzed are native to the area, but I also asked a few people (like myself) who came to this city later in life. Either way, I was surprised to discover that very few people could correctly answer this basic question:

After whom is the city of St. Louis, Missouri named?

The simple (and smart-ass) answer to that question is obviously “Saint Louis”. But I wasn’t letting anyone off that easy. “The guy on the horse in front of the Art Museum” didn’t cut it, either. The Louis I wanted to know about was canonized as “Saint Louis” twenty-seven years after his death. I wanted to find out if people knew who, what, and where the namesake of our city was before that.

The idea for this post came from a book I recently read titled Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West by Frederick Fausz. In his book, Fausz vents his frustration over the fact that much of St. Louis history prior to Lewis and Clark is significantly overlooked. It started me thinking about St. Louis history prior to the Louisiana Purchase, and I think I agree with him. We don’t hear much about the periods St. Louis spent as a French and Spanish colony.

The Founding of St. Louis

Don’t get me wrong, Lewis and Clark and their remarkable journey are a big deal. But St. Louis was founded forty years before they set foot on this side of the Mississippi River. The two men who actually founded the city, Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, are well-known, but it could be argued they deserve even more recognition. They have some streets, buildings, and businesses named for them, but St. Louisans today don’t even pronounce their names correctly (Pierre and Auguste wouldn’t answer to “Lacleed” and “Showtoe”).

I’ll revisit Pierre and Auguste in a future post since it is a vast and fascinating story. For now, its back to quizzing people Saint Louis. Some of my responders were able to tell me Saint Louis was a king. A few were able to correctly tell me he was a king of France. Others suggested Louis was a “religious figure of some sort” (which isn’t a bad guess). Three people tried to get specific and guessed the French king Louis XIV. Another guessed Louis XVI. About ten people didn’t didn’t even hesitate to admit they had no idea who Saint Louis was.

This, my dear friends, is how Distilled History blog posts come about.

Louis Louis, We Gotta Go Now

Only two people were able to tell me the correct answer. In April, 1764, Pierre Laclède travelled to the site he and his stepson August Chouteau had recently selected for a new trading outpost. He announced the new village under construction was to be named “Saint Louis”. He named it after the legendary French king Louis IX. According to Chouteau’s own journal of the event, it’s even a bit more detailed than that. Laclède named it after Louis IX and in honor of Louis XV, the current French king (for those keeping count, that makes four different French kings named Louis mentioned in this blog post).

Louis IX

Louis IX was as well-known to 18th century French colonials as George Washington is to 21st century Americans. To this day, he is the only French king to have been canonized (thus the name “St. Louis” instead of something like “Louisville”, which was used to honor Louis XVI in the neighboring state of Kentucky). Laclède’s choice wouldn’t have surprised anyone in 1764. At the time, Louis IX was widely regarded as a model ruler and was considered one of the greatest monarchs in French history. Most significantly, Louis IX was revered as the most religiously devout king in French history.

I did quite a bit of research for this post, and I couldn’t find much to disparage the character of Louis IX. He was a good husband. He was generous to the poor and needy. He was a patron of the arts. He founded a theology college that would eventually become the Sorbonne. He railed against government corruption. He promoted peace in Europe. According to his closest advisor and confidant, Jean de Joinville, the man didn’t even swear. And throughout his reign, France was the most prosperous country in all of Europe. Add it all up and you get a Middle Ages rarity: An absolute monarch universally adored by his subjects.

He did have one fatal flaw, though. Although it’d be considered a magnificent character trait in the 13th century, Louis IX was obsessed with crusading. He believed that his purpose on Earth was to rid the Holy Land from the evil scourge of heathens and infidels that infested it. Despite the few crazies around today who still think this may be a good idea, it isn’t. Louis IX was not tolerant of anyone who didn’t subscribe to his faith. That fact would ultimately bring him down.

Saint Louis by Jacques LeGoff

As part of my research for this post, I sat down and read an eight-hundred page biography titled Saint Louis by Jacques LeGoff. Although I adore biographies about historical figures, this one was tough to get through. Biographies are better with a bit of drama and scandal. Saint Louis and his pious ways certainly didn’t provide much of that. In fact, It’s a safe bet that Louis and I wouldn’t get along very well if we hung out. I drink too much, I swear too much, and I’m certainly no Catholic. I haven’t stepped into a church for a reason other than a wedding or funeral in twenty years. Louis would probably consider me one of the heathen infidels he was obsessed with booting from Jerusalem. I also take the Lord’s name in vain several times a day, so I’m sure I’d find myself uniquely punished. In the late 13th century, Louis IX demanded that blasphemers get branded on the lips.

Differences aside, Louis IX lived a fascinating life. He was born on April 25, 1214 in Poissy, just north of Paris. His father, King Louis VIII, died when he was only twelve. Crowned at a young age, his mother Blanche of Castille would act as regent until he was of age to rule on his own. It was Blanche that instilled in the young king that he live his life as a devout “Lieutenant of God on Earth”. Her efforts took root. Louis IX developed into a pious and devout ruler. He surrounded himself with Catholic doctrine. He routinely heard sermons and attended mass twice a day. He wore hair shirts and surrounded himself with chanting priests. Most importantly, he pined for the opportunity to crusade and free the Holy Land.

Louis IX on Crusade

Louis IX announced his long-cherished intention of taking the cross in 1244. After four years of preparation, he left Paris with an army on 1248. The immediate objective was Egypt, led by Sultan Melek Selah. When Louis and his forces arrived there, success was immediate. Louis IX’s forces easily took the city of Damietta, located at the mouth of a Nile tributary.

The good fortune didn’t last long. The summer heat and rising Nile waters prevented Louis from following up on his victory. His army became bogged down and were routed by the Saracens at the battle of Mansourah. As a result, Louis and much of his army were captured. Louis was thrown in prison, and a staggering sum of gold was required to procure his release. Sources say it took two full days to count the gold paid in order to free him.

Young Louis

Louis eventually made it back to Paris, But he was severely humiliated by his failure. In the wake of his defeat, he even considered stepping down as king and becoming a monk. Instead, he focused on eliminating sin in his realm. He started eating and dressing simpler. He also began to work for peace on the international stage, settling long-standing territory disputes with England and other realms. These actions enhanced his image at home and abroad.

But it didn’t help Louis deal with his internal struggle. He continued to believe his purpose for living was to free the Holy Land from the grasp of the Saracens. Despite pleas from his advisors and subjects (his confidant Jean de Joinville flat out refused to go on a second crusade), Louis again announced in 1267 that he would take up the cross. With far less support this time around, Louis left for the Holy Land in 1270.

The result was a disaster. Along the way, he made a rash decision to alter his plans and sail for Tunisia. He had learned the Emir was ready to convert to Christianity and join the Crusade. Upon arrival, Louis learned the rumor about the Emir was false. While camped in Tunisia waiting for reinforcements to arrive, disease broke out in camp. Louis was stricken with dysentery and died on August 25, 1270.

Louis IX on a Bed of Ashes

In the years following his death, the legacy of Louis IX grew to a cult-like status. He was widely praised throughout all of Europe and especially in his kingdom of France. Considered “the most Christian King”, the process to have him sainted began almost immediately. He was canonized as “Saint Louis” by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297, just twenty-seven years after his death.

His legacy would last for centuries and spread around the world. It isn’t just St. Louis, Missouri that is named after Louis IX. He’s the main reason nine more French kings named Louis followed him. Other cities named after him are scattered around the globe in places like Mexico, Brazil, Senegal, Canada, Michigan, and obviously, Europe. Along with cities, it would be a daunting task to count the number of cathedrals, churches, missions, lakes, hospitals, bridges, and streets that use his name today.

In St. Louis, Missouri, it’s likely that people look upon tributes to him even when they don’t know it. In Forest Park, the Apotheosis of St. Louis in front of the Art Museum is perhaps the most well-known statue in the city. This image of Saint Louis on horseback was actually the de facto symbol of the city until they built the big shiny thing on the riverfront. It may also surprise some that the “Old Cathedral” near the Gateway Arch is in fact named after Louis IX (the official name is the “Basilica of St. Louis, King of France”). The image of St. Louis also used to be on the St. Louis flag, but Theodore Sizer took it off when he redesigned the flag in 1964 (and he was right to do so, as I detailed in this blog post).

Even history buffs who write blog posts about the man stumble upon hidden tributes. Just yesterday, I was driving down Olive Boulevard and noticed a small statue of him in a median near St. Louis University. I was stunned. I had driven or bicycled by that location hundreds of times and never noticed it.

The Apotheosis of St. Louis

The Drink

Brasserie in the Central West End

Since Louis IX died long before the discovery of the new world, he wasn’t even aware of the hemisphere where I was attempting to find a drink in which to honor him. At first, this seems like an easy post to tie a drink to. I could simply go anywhere in the city of St. Louis and claim it was sufficient.

Since I wouldn’t let the people I quizzed about St. Louis off easy, I couldn’t let myself off easy, either. I decided to find a French restaurant at which I could order a true French cocktail in honor of King Louis IX. Located in the Central West End, Brasserie by Niche is an excellent place to fulfill that requirement. I know the place well, and I can also report the fine people behind the bar at Brasserie know how to make a great Manhattan.

Interestingly, the French seem to have an affinity for this location. Prior to housing Brasserie, it was the home of Chez Leon, a wonderful restaurant that has since moved on to well, I don’t know where. I know Chez Leon well because it’s the place where I once watched my father mercilessly berate a server for no sufficient reason. St. Louis severs may owe a small debt of gratitude to my late father for that horrific display. Since that evening over five years ago, I don’t think I’ve tipped less than twenty percent since… even if they shake my Manhattan.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about that at Brasserie. The server (I didn’t get his name) who made my drinks was knowledgeable and helpful. I didn’t know much about purely French cocktails, but the bartender gave me some good suggestions. I started with an offshoot of the French 75 (which I was familiar with) called the Orchard 75. It’s Calvados Brandy, lemon, simple syrup, and champagne served in a champagne flute. It’s a delicious cocktail, and one to come back for when the weather warms up. It is exceptionally refreshing.

The Parisian at Brasserie

The next drink is the one I ordered for Louis, though. While weighing my options, I was told the Parisian is the one cocktail on Brasserie’s menu that is there to stay. It’s been there since the day the place opened, and it’s been on every iteration of the menu since. St. Louis isn’t going anywhere either, so this one is a good fit. The Parisian contains champagne and two aperitifs, Lillet Blanc and Aperol. It was also delicious and I’m happy to have selected Brasserie for my homage to Louis IX.

This is a good thing, because I have some drinking to do for Pierre and Auguste in the very near future.

January 30th, 2013 by Cameron

Our Flag is Better Than Yours

The St. Louis Flag

When I was bicycling around south St. Louis a few weeks ago, I noticed the St. Louis city flag flying prominently in front of several private homes. St. Louis pride runs deep in this town, so it makes sense that many fly the flag. I share that pride, but I believe there’s another reason the flag is so popular: It looks really, really good.

Aesthetically, I think it’s one of the best flag designs in use anywhere. I actually sit around and think about ridiculous things like “who has the best flag”, so I’ll take on any challengers to this argument. Unless you live in the United Kingdom or maybe Bhutan, I think the St. Louis flag is better than yours.

Seeing it around town, I started to wonder how it came to be. When was it adopted? Who designed it? How did St. Louis get this minor aspect of their city so right? Turns out, it’s a pretty good story.

The St. Louis Flag

St. Louis’s flag is exceptional for many reasons. It’s simple, it’s unique, it uses just a few basic colors, and it contains several components that symbolize the history of the city. It doesn’t have lettering (it’s difficult to read a waving flag), it doesn’t have a seal (a seal is meant to be seen up close, such as on a document), and maybe best of all, it doesn’t use the image of the Gateway Arch. The St. Louis flag does exactly what it’s supposed to do: It’s a symbol for the city and it’s easy to identify from a distance.

I’m not alone in my opinion. In my initial research for this post, I stumbled upon an organization named the North American Vexillological Association. According to Wikipedia, vexillology is the “scientific study of the history, symbolism[,] and usage of flags or, by extension, any interest in flags in general”.  It also seems there are quite a few prominent vexillologists around that take flag design very seriously. In 2004, NAVA held a survey to rank the top 150 American city flags. St. Louis came in fifth, behind Washington D.C., Chicago, Denver, and Phoenix. Personally, I think St. Louis has them all beat. Maybe I need to join NAVA and set things straight.

topfour

In contrast, take a look at Milwaukee’s flag below. I’d wager not many porches in our fellow beer town are waving this travesty. I thought I’d offer up my own design that I think is a far better representation of that fair city.

milwaukee

How about Mankato, Minnesota? The folks there must know a thing or two about good flag design. They know the St. Louis flag design is so good, they should just rip it off. Too bad they screwed it up by adding the riverboat, lettering, and a putrid color scheme.

mankato

It’s actually only a recent development that American states and cities starting flying official flags. Prior to the 20th century, many believed the United States flag was the only banner needed. Despite this sentiment, Baltimore kicked things off in 1914 by adopting an official city flag, followed by New York City in 1915.

Baltimore & New York Flags

It didn’t take long for St. Louis to join the fun. In 1915, a man named Percival Chubb suggested that St. Louis should design and adopt an official municipal flag. Soon after, a group named the Pageant-Drama Association held a contest, offering $100 to the winning design. The winning design would then be offered to city authorities as an “appropriate city flag”.

Krondl's Winning Design

A winning design was announced in January, 1916. The winner was a young St. Louis artist named Edward A. Krondl. It featured a white figure of St. Louis on his horse in front of blue background. Surrounding St. Louis are four fleur-de-lis, representing the Louisiana Purchase and signifying the city of St. Louis as being the fourth-most populated city in the United States. The flag also contained three stripes on the right, signifying Krondl’s idea that St. Louis would soon advance to third place.  The color blue behind St. Louis represented celestiatlity, the white stripe represented purity and cleanliness, and the two orange stripes represented gold, wealth, and prosperity.

His winning design kicked off quite a debate. Some argued that a flag was no place for a portrait. Percival Chubb complained that the blue was too blue and the orange wasn’t orange enough. He made Krondl change it. Almost everyone agreed that the four fleur-de-lis representing St. Louis as the fourth city was impractical. If St. Louis dropped in the rankings, the flag would need to be redesigned (today, it would need fifty-eight).

The city aldermen were the least impressed, with some even hinting favoritism. Alderman Gus Bauer was accused of promoting Krondl’s design since he represented the area where Krondl lived.  In one humorous exchange during the debate, Bauer barked at one of his accusers “What do you know about art? You’re a florist!”.

Aldermanic Contest Winner

Ultimately, the city aldermen rejected the design and decided to hold a contest of their own. After reviewing over 150 designs, a new winner was announced on May 20, 1916. This time, a young man named A.P. Woehrle was awarded $100 for his winning design. The new design replaced orange with red and centered the image of St. Louis in front of a blue shield. Stars replaced the fleur-de-lis, but surprisingly, they held the same symbolism. St. Louis was to be represented as the fourth city.

It’s not difficult to notice that the two designs are very similar. And that’s where things get interesting. It was soon discovered that the same artist designed both flags. Claiming that he wanted to win on merit and not on the prestige from winning the first contest, Edward Krondl entered his new design under the name of his friend, A.P. Woehrle.

By this point, the aldermen didn’t really care. Except for one alderman who refused to vote for any flag that wasn’t the stars and stripes, they had their flag. To celebrate the new design, the aldermen all hopped on a riverboat and took a ride on the Mississippi with the new flag proudly snapping in the wind.

St. Louis Flag 1916-1946

Thirty years later, it was discovered the flag argument wasn’t finished. In 1946, a local man stumbled upon a collection of varying St. Louis flag designs. Unaware of the competitions held in 1916, he walked over to City Hall to see what he could learn. He was startled to discover that St. Louis didn’t have an official flag. After their friendly boat ride promoting the new banner, the aldermen went back to work on other matters. They never bothered to make the new flag official.

An ordinance was quickly passed in 1946 to correct the oversight, but many St. Louisans were now reminded that the design wasn’t very good to begin with. Prominent St. Louisan Charles Nagel, an architect who would come to play a role in the selection of the Gateway Arch design, declared the 1916 flag to be “wretchedly bad in heraldic design”.

Proponents for a new design became more vocal in the 1950′s. Even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch promoted the idea of a new flag with an editorial in 1957. Eventually, Charles Nagel called upon an acquaintance who had experience designing flags. Theodore Sizer, an art professor at Yale, came to St. Louis and designed the flag that flies in St. Louis today.

stlflag_diagram

Sizer also used specific colors to represent the four empires that have ruled St. Louis:

  • Spain – Red and Gold
  • Bourbon France – Blue and White
  • Napoleonic France – Blue, White, and Red
  • The United States – Red, White, and Blue

In an article for St. Louis Magazine in October 1964, Sizer explains that designing the flag presented quite a challenge. He was asked to incorporate the history of the city into the design, with references to the Louisiana Purchase, Charles Lindbergh, and even Stan Musial. Most importantly, he was told his design must include the image of St. Louis on his horse.

Theodore Sizer

Fortunately, Sizer had better ideas in mind. In response to using the image of St. Louis, he stated:

“I have nothing against St. Louis, or his white horse, but on a flag it looks like anybody on any horse. Dammit, you look at it and you can’t tell if it’s Saint Louis, King Arthur, or Robert E. Lee.”

To the benefit of St. Louis, he took his design in a completely different direction.

“The one distinctive feature about the city of St. Louis are the rivers, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. The confluence was the reason for St. Louis being founded by the settlers in the first place.”

Sizer stressed the importance of how the flag would look at a distance. When it was suggested an eagle be included in the design, he responded that it would have “looked like a chicken or some other bird”. Fortunately, he also rejected incorporating the newest of St. Louis symbols.

“And we decided to stay clear of the new Saarinen arch. Would have looked like a chicken wishbone at thirty paces.”

Fortunately, Sizer was able to bring others around to his way of thinking. When the process was complete, Sizer’s design was officially adopted as the St. Louis municipal flag on February 3, 1964.

Theodore Sizer died in 1967. Today, his design can be found flying around the city without a whisper of derision. Eat your heart out, Milwaukee.

The Drink
STL-Style

Before getting a drink, I thought it’d only be appropriate to get out and buy my own St. Louis flag. For that task, I knew exactly where to go.

STL-Style is one of the neatest stores in town. Located at 3159 Cherokee Street in Benton Park West, it’s owned and operated by two brothers, Jeff and Randy Vines. Like myself, these guys have a deep pride for St. Louis city. Back in 2001, they decided to make it their mission to create a line of apparel that promotes the city as they saw it.

Twelve years later, that mission has evolved into a unique store filled with fun pro-St. Louis merchandise. They’ve since built a team of artists who create witty and eye-catching designs that promote the city and the neighborhoods in it. It started with t-shirts, but they’ve since expanded to sell prints, bags, mugs, stickers, hats, onesies, and even underwear. The St. Louis flag is available in two sizes, but Sizer’s great design is also available on shirts, bags, and other store items.

It’s a great store for tourists, but the designs are really meant for St. Louisans to promote their city from within. Get down there and check out their inventory. They’ll have something to represent whatever neighborhood you call home.

STL-Style Designs

Their passion goes beyond selling t-shirts. Dig around their website, or simply talk to them, and you’ll discover two guys working to make St. Louis better in many different ways. They are even on the Board of Directors for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a great organization I mention often in this blog.

Stl-Style InteriorFor the record, I’m plugging this place without any kickback from Jeff and Randy.  I simply think they have a great store and I appreciate what they are doing. And since it’s tough to tie a flag to a drink, I asked them where to get my drink for this post. They didn’t disappoint. They directed me to the The Fortune Teller Bar, located nearby in the eclectic Cherokee Street neighborhood.

fortuneteller

I’d never been to the Fortune Teller, so I was happy to they recommended a place that takes cocktails seriously. As soon as I walked in, I noticed a well-stocked bar with a great selection of spirits. The Fortune Teller also offers a good craft beer selection. As I sat down at the bar, I noticed a bottle of Old Tom’s Gin on the shelf. If a bar has Old Tom’s, it’s going in my belly. With that in mind, I ordered the “Alpine Daisy” off their specialty cocktail menu.

The drink was delicious. Served on the rocks in a highball, it was tart and refreshing. And since it was a dark and stormy night, I followed it up with their version of my beloved Manhattan. Since I know I’ll be returning to the Fortune Teller, I’ll save that review for a future post.

NOTE: In my research for this post, I came across several references to the St. Louis flag being dubbed the “Three Rivers Flag”.  These sources claim the Meramec River is also represented as one of three rivers in the design (instead of two). I found no evidence to support this. As Sizer quoted to St. Louis magazine in 1964, the key feature of the design is the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri. The Meramec is never mentioned. There is also no mention of the Meramec in the official city ordinance passed in 1964.

Furthermore, putting the Meramec on par with the Mississippi and Missouri is absurd. It also makes no sense in the design. Are the three rivers supposed to be flowing together behind the bezant? So, until someone proves otherwise, don’t call it the “Three Rivers Flag”.

January 5th, 2013 by Cameron

The Langdon Mansion

Greetings from ElmiraI had a one hell of a day last week. While driving from my native upstate New York to my current home in St. Louis, my car hit an ice patch on I-86. I lost control, spun, and was flung off the highway. I was flipped perfectly onto the roof of the car, which is where I stayed as I bobsleighed one-hundred feet down a hill.

It was quite a ride. Lots of snow, glass, and colorful language was bouncing around inside the car as I went. Remarkably, I hit something that caused the car to slowly roll me back upright. I came to a stop, turned off the engine, and realized I was completely uninjured. I was able to walk away like nothing happened. Other than a slight headache from a book (I think it was a book) that hit me in the head during the roll, I was as good as new.

What does this mishap have to do with history and booze? Well, after being collected and driven back to my hometown of Elmira, I had some time on my hands. Instead of sitting around and feeling sorry for myself, I decided to dig up some history in the town where I spent the first eighteen years of my life.

Sweet Wounded Jesus!

For a small city, Elmira has some good stories to tell. With that in mind, please pardon this brief sojourn away from St. Louis. I’ll return to the hidden tales of The Gateway City soon enough.

elmiramap

Elmira, New York is a small city of about 29,000 people in the Southern Tier of New York State. Just south of the Finger Lakes, it sits in a truly beautiful part of the state. Unlike St. Louis, it has rolling hills, voluminous lakes, and cooler summers.  Although I now prefer to live in St. Louis, I’ll never waver from the opinion that it was a great place to grow up.

In fact, I believe Elmira shares many qualities with St. Louis, but on a far smaller scale. Both cities are the population centers of their respective areas. Both cities serve as the regional hub for financial, cultural, and educational institutions. Both cities have a rich and deep history that often gets overlooked by the people who live there.

1972 Flood

On the flip side, both cities have watched their populations plummet in the years following World War II. Both cities are trying to bring people, companies, and jobs back within city limits. Both cities are desperate to revitalize their downtown cores (and both cities have mistakenly believed that building sports arenas is one way to do it).

Both cities have also been severely impacted by flooding. While St. Louis’s history with flooding is well-known, Elmira’s history with rising waters is just as troubled. Many point to the damage caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972 as the point from which downtown Elmira has never recovered.

And finally, both cities are filled with historic homes, buildings, and structures that are in desperate need of preservation.

Since starting this blog, I’ve become far more aware of the need for historical preservation. This was especially true when Landmarks Association helped me research the blog post about the William B. Ittner schools. I was stunned to see how much work and research they had completed in order to campaign for the survival of those historic buildings.

I can now say for certain that I wish my hometown had its own version of Landmarks seventy-five years ago. That’s because in 1939, the wrecking ball took apart this historically significant house that once sat at the corner of Church and Main streets in downtown Elmira.

The Langdon House

The Langdon House, facing Main Street

This large Victorian home was the home of a wealthy coal merchant named Jervis Langdon. He was an ardent abolitionist, and he served as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad along with his close friend Thomas K. Beecher. The brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Beecher was the pastor of Park Church located across the street from Langdon’s home. Both men counted Frederick Douglass as a close friend. The famed abolitionist even once visited Langdon at his home in Elmira.

It was Langdon’s daughter, however, that would make the most significant impact upon the Langdon legacy in Elmira.

Olivia Langdon as a young woman

In 1867, Olivia’s brother Charles traveled to the Mediterranean aboard a boat named Quaker City. On the trip, he befriended a reporter writing a story for a California newspaper. That reporter was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, soon to become known as the famous author Mark Twain. One night, Charles showed Clemens a small daguerreotype of his sister Olivia. Upon looking at the portrait of the delicate woman, Clemens admitted to falling in “love at first sight”. Throughout the rest of the trip, he asked Charles to bring out the photograph and allow him to gaze upon it again. When the trip concluded, Twain made a point to visit Langdon and his sister during a trip to New York City. During that visit, Clemens was invited to visit the Langdon home in Elmira. It wasn’t long before Twain found himself knocking on the large door of the Langdon home on the corner Church and Main.

For the next two years, Clemens courted Olivia and visited Elmira often. After an initial rejection, the two became engaged in late 1869. On February 2, 1870, Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon were married by Thomas K. Beecher in the library of the Langdon home.

Over the next twenty years, the Clemens family would make Elmira their summer home. While there, they lived at Quarry Farm, a Langdon vacation home located on a large hill outside of town. In the octagonal study built there for him, Mark Twain found what he called “the quietest of all quiet places.”  Here, he would write the majority of his most famous works, including Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Mark Twain at Quarry Farm in Elmira

While in Elmira, the Clemens family would spend a large amount of time at the large house in town. Three of the four Clemens children were born in the house. The house was a convenient place for Clemens to entertain visitors or to do business. The house is where Ulysses S. Grant once visited Twain to discuss his memoirs, a work that Twain helped get published. Clemens even stated that since the house was so large, one could “always escape your enemies in Langdon house”.

The Langdon home is also where on a warm day in 1889, a young reporter from British India traveled to Elmira in search of his idol. Detailing the experience in his later work Letters of Travel, Rudyard Kipling recounts his arrival in Elmira:

“I slid on the West Shore line, I slid until midnight, and they dumped me down at the door of a frozy hotel in Elmira. Yes, they knew all about “that man Clemens,” but reckoned he was not in town; had gone East somewhere.”

Kipling then took a carriage to Quarry Farm, but was told Clemens was in town. He traveled back down the hill and found himself at the Langdon house. Kipling continues with his description of the meeting:

“Then things happened somewhat in this order. A big, darkened drawing room; a huge chair; a man with eyes, a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong square hand shaking mine, and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world saying: – “Well, you think you owe me something, and you’ve come to tell me so. That’s what I call squaring a debt handsomely.”

“Piff!” from a cob-pipe (I always said that a Missouri meerschaum was the best smoking in the world), and behold! Mark Twain had curled himself up in the big armchair, and I was smoking reverently, as befits one in the presence of his superior.”

Rudyard Kipling & Mark Twain

Kipling was just starting his career and was still unknown. It would be a few years before he’d achieve fame as the author of stories such as “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “The Man Who Would Be King”. But a year after their meeting, Twain recognized a sketch of Kipling in a copy of the London World. The article also mentioned that Kipling had traveled to the United States. Twain took interest in Kipling’s work and began to admire his burgeoning career. In 1895, Twain wrote a letter to Kipling:

“It is reported that you are about to visit India. This has moved me to journey to that far country in order that I may unload from my conscience a debt long due to you. Years ago, you came from India to Elmira to visit me. It has always been my purpose to return that visit and that great compliment some day. I shall arrive next January, and you must be ready. I shall come riding my ayah with his tusks adorned with silver bells and ribbons, and escorted by a troop of native howdahs richly clad and mounted upon a herd of wild bungalows; and you must be on hand with a few bottles of glee, for I shall be thirsty.”

Interior rooms of the Langdon Mansion

Olivia Langdon Clemens died in Italy in 1904. Although buried in Elmira, Clemens returned just once to Elmira after her passing. His last visit was in 1907 for the dedication of a new organ at Park Church. On that visit, he declined an offer to visit Quarry Farm because it would “awaken sorrowful thoughts”. Samuel Clemens died in 1910 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira along with Olivia and their four children.

Mark Twain's Grave in Elmira

Imagine if the stately Langdon home still stood in Elmira. Located at the busiest downtown intersection, it could have become the symbol of the city. Flanked by the historically significant Park Church, the elegant Trinity Church, and Wisner Park, the entire neighborhood would have become one of the most historic corners in the Southern Tier. Perhaps the house could have been used as the focal point in presenting the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira. Unlike other cities that claim a legacy to Twain (Hannibal, Hartford), Elmira has no central building from which to tell his story. The octagonal study that was relocated to the campus of Elmira College is too small. His grave in Woodlawn Cemetery is well, perhaps too morbid. Quarry Farm still stands, but it’s far outside of town and isn’t open to the public. It’s even likely that most Elmirans couldn’t find it if they tried.

Mark Twain Study

The ultimate fate of the Langdon home is nothing short of maddening. In the 1930’s, the Langdon family offered to sell the house to the city of Elmira at its assessed value. It was offered as such for the purpose of creating a museum or a place of historical significance. For a price of just under $50,000, the city could have preserved a rare historical jewel that would have been a beacon for the city. City leaders debated, voted, and ultimately concluded that such a large home would be too expensive to maintain. The city declined the offer, so the home was sold home to a private developer. Within months, the home was razed and a shopping center was built. Named “Langdon Plaza”, the shopping center provides visitors to Elmira a place to purchase meatball sandwiches and hair gel.

All that is left of the Langdon home is the fence that surrounded it. Like the octagonal study, it was relocated to the Elmira College campus.

Langdon Plaza

The Drink

After flipping a car, it’s so surprise that I needed a drink. Maybe five. And although completely uninjured, I still had the mind to milk it. To that end, Mom filled me with good bourbon, gin, and plenty of home cooked food over the next few days.

Carl on the rocks

The extended trip also allowed me to spend New Years Eve with my Mother and her close friends. The party was held at the home of two very close friends in Elmira, Carl and Bunny Vallely. This presented a great opportunity because Carl Vallely is also a huge fan of the Manhattan cocktail.

There’s a great story that goes along with Carl and his love of the Manhattan. Years ago, when he first courted Bunny, he showed up at her door to take her on their first date. Tucked under his arm was a thermos. When Bunny answered the door and inquired “What’s in the thermos?”, to which Carl replied “Manhattans, of course!”. I can’t help but admire the guy for that. Taking a thermos of Manhattans on a first date is nothing short of fantastic.

And going forward in my search Manhattan cocktail varieties, I can now the recipe for “The Vallely Manhattan”:

  • 1 Part Canadian Club Whisky
  • 1 Part Sweet Vermouth
  • Stirred and served on the rocks

I asked Carl what the ratio of the ingredients should be, and he simply said “until you get the right color”. I guess I’ll have to work on that. He also omits the cherry, since it “takes up room in the glass needed for more Manhattan”. I certainly can’t argue with that logic. The “on the rocks” aspect of the Vallely is tough for me to get by, but it’s his drink. I was in his house and I was happy to drink them with a fellow fan of my favorite cocktail.

Carl served me a few of his Manhattans that night, but I also took the time to visit Horigan’s in Elmira. Owned by my old high school pal Katie Boland, I am a frequent visitor here when I’m in Elmira. My father used to spend so much time at the bar reading books that they’d actually keep the book there for him. Katie also happens to be Carl’s step-daughter, so when I asked for Carl’s version of the Manhattan, she was happy to oblige.

Horigan's ManhattanAs for my opinion of the drink, I’ll say that it’s very pleasant. Due to the ice and the use of Canadian whisky, it’s a lighter and smoother version what I’m used to. It doesn’t have that bite on the first sip (which I adore). It made me think I could be tricked into drinking more in one sitting than I’m used to. After rolling a car, that’s not the worst idea.

November 26th, 2012 by Cameron

The Fanciulli & More Tower Grove

Using a Garmin for the Bike-a-Sketch

Recently, a few readers have hinted to me that Distilled History has been a bit heavy on the History. I’ve been told the Distilled side of things needs a bit more love. Looking back at my latest posts, I think my readers have a point. It’s time I get back to drinking.

With that in mind, I’m going to try keep the history to a minimum in this post. Instead, I’ll describe a great drink and add a bit more to the fun I first introduced in the Tower Grove Park & A Fantastic Manhattan post. Since writing that post, I’ve created a few more Tower Grove Park drawings (or “Bike-a-Sketches”, as they have come to be known).

To make these, I plot a drawing out using Tower Grove Park as a canvas. Using a bicycle and a GPS, I ride around the park like a complete fool and track the route. When it’s done, I export the route to Google Earth save the image. The fun of doing this is starting to wear off, but they do make for interesting rides to work.

Flower Bike-a-Sketch: I get a kick out of using the main roundabout in Tower Grove Park for these sketches. Since that’s where most of the traffic is each morning, it’s also where I get most of the curious looks from people trying to figure out what the hell I’m up to.

Bike-a-sketch: Flower

I Heart Mom Bike-a-Sketch: Did this one to celebrate my Mother’s 67th birthday in September. I can’t deny it. I am a Momma’s boy, and I heart my Mom.

Bike-a-Sketch: I Heart Mom

I Love Fried Chicken Bike-a-Sketch: My mother also makes the best fried chicken in the world. I drew this one the week before she came in for a visit. Read between the lines and it says “Mom, you will make me fried chicken when you get to St. Louis”.

Bike-a-Sketch: Chicken Leg

Turkey Bike-a-Sketch: Although I’m told this turkey looks pretty good, it’s not anywhere what I hoped it would be. The head looks awful and the feathers are a bit rough. The turkey on paper was far prettier.

Bike-a-sketch: Happy Turkey Day

The Drink
Olio Cocktail Menu

Another reason I chose to focus on the drink in this post is because I found another place in St. Louis that makes a great one. As I sit here writing this, I’m still elated about the fantastic cocktail I had a few days ago in the McRee Town (er, I mean Botanical Heights) neighborhood. It’s located just a few blocks north of Tower Grove Park.

Before I even get to discussing the drink, it’s important to mention the building. Just a few years ago, if you drove through the intersection of Tower Grove and McRee, you’d see a 1930’s gas station in a severe state of disrepair.

Drive through the intersection today, and you’ll see a fully restored structure housing Olio, a wine bar operated by Ben Poremba.

Olio is actually only one-half of Mr. Poremba’s recently completed project. Behind the restored gas station is Elaia, a restaurant in a restored 1890’s house. Elaia serves Mediterranean cuisine, but I did not dine on my visit. I came for the drink experience at Olio, and it went very well.

Olio

Olio has everything I want in a drinking establishment. First of all, it’s in the city of St. Louis. It sits in a structure that someone took the time to renovate and improve. I fully support projects that preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods in St. Louis. Obviously, it’s even better when I am able to drink in them. Olio has provided that opportunity. Score one point for them.

Second, the staff at Olio is knowledgeable and attentive. John Fausz, the bar keeper who served me, took the time to meticulously prepare the cocktail I ordered. He was extraordinarily friendly and offered additional information about the drink. Olio, you score another point.

Fernet-Branca

I ordered a Fanciulli, which is a close relative to the Manhattan.  The big difference (and I do mean “big”) is that a Fanciulli replaces the bitters ingredient of the Manhattan with fernet. Fernet is an aramo, which is Italian for “bitter”.  It’s made from dozens of herbs, fungi, bark, roots, and spices to create a remarkably sharp and complex taste.

To the uninitiated, it’s said that drinking fernet can be something like taking a blow to the side of the head. It’s so strong that it can easily overwhelm any other ingredients in a drink. In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Wayne Curtis tells a good story to validate this. In 1960, the Broadway actress Betsy von Furstenberg was suspended from Actor’s Equity Association (the labor union for live theater) because she spiked Tony Randall’s drink with it. He thought he’d been poisoned with iodine.

In many parts of the world, Fernet is used as a digestif and is considered to be an effective remedy for hangovers. It’s extremely popular in Argentina, where it’s considered by many to be the national drink.

At Olio, the Fanciulli is served with rye, Capano Antica vermouth, and Fernet Branca. It’s served neat. And here is where Olio closed the deal. As the bar keeper served my cocktail, I was told the story behind the Fanciulli.

Sorry folks, but it seems I can’t avoid the history side of things after all.

Fanciulli Cocktail at OlioMy new friend John informed me the cocktail is named after Fernando Fanciulli, an Italian immigrant who had success composing martial music. In 1892, Fanciulli was selected to lead the Marine Band in Washington, replacing the legendary John Philip Sousa. For a few years, Fanciulli enjoyed success leading the band and composing his own marches, but he chaffed at the lasting legacy of his predecessor.

Fanciulli's Band

While on parade in 1897, a military officer asked Fanciulli to have his band play a Sousa march so the men could march in “full swing”. Fanciulli didn’t take the request kindly. He sternly replied that he’d play what he saw fit. Taken aback, the Lieutenant responded by issuing a direct order to Fanciulli, demanding he play Sousa’s “El Capitan”. Fanciulli again vehemently denied the request. The Lieutenant responded by issuing an order to have Fanciulli arrested and brought up on charges.

In less than a week, Fernando Fanciulli was court martialed and dishonorably discharged from the military.

Fortunately, Fanciulli had someone in his corner. The Secretary of the Navy at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, ruled the sentence was too harsh. He overturned the ruling and Fanciulli was able to quietly serve out the remainder of his enlistment.

Fanciulli soon moved to New York City to lead the 71st Regiment Band. After daily performances in Central Park, Fanciulli would often spend his evenings at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue. As Olio’s menu suggests, it was here that the “brooding and bitter” Fanciulli would order the drink that shared these qualities and would soon share his name.

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