Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
August 26th, 2013

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.

September 21st, 2012

Gin and Drugs, My Dear, Gin and Drugs

T.S. Eliot

In his masterpiece The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot begins with the famous line “April is the Cruellest Month”. What follows is generally regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th Century. When T.S. Eliot published his influential work, it was 1922 and he had been living in London for several years. He was far removed from his youth growing up in the  gritty neighborhood on the western edge of downtown St. Louis.

For that reason, I’ll forgive him for overlooking August in St. Louis, which to me is far crueller.

But T.S. Eliot wasn’t writing about humidity and how ridiculously hot it gets in this town. He may have been alluding to the prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He turns it on its head, informing the reader that The Waste Land will be a far darker reading experience.

Personally, I’ve read The Waste Land twice. The first time was about twenty years ago when it was assigned in college. The second time was a few days ago when I realized I was about to write a blog post about T. S. Eliot.  On both occasions, getting through it was no easy feat. The Waste Land changes voices and locations constantly. It contains lines in German and mantras in Sanskrit. It alludes to Homer, the Bible, Aldous Huxley,  Sophocles, Dante, and even Buddha. I won’t pretend to offer insight into its meaning or explain it’s purpose. Just take my word for it. The Waste Land is a momentous achievement. Read it and it’s impossible to not admire the beauty of Eliot’s prose.

The Waste Land

Many haven’t read him, and I’d venture to guess that many more bend the truth and say they have. But find me a person who hasn’t at least heard of T.S. Eliot. Pull up any list of the great poets, and it’s likely his name is on it somewhere. For that reason, it has always surprised me T.S. Eliot is not more recognized in the city he was born and raised in. Eugene Field’s boyhood home in St. Louis is a museum. He lived in St. Louis less than ten years. Scott Joplin’s home is a state historic site. He lived here less than seven.

T.S. Eliot’s time in St. Louis was not a flash in the pan. He was born at 2635 Locust Street in St. Louis on September 26, 1888. He was raised and spent his formative years here until leaving to be educated at Milton Academy and then Harvard. His family was well established in St. Louis. His grandfather was William Greenleaf Eliot, a prominent St. Louisan and co-founder of Washington University.

Recently, I took another great bicycle history tour sponsored by the good people at Trailnet. This one led us up and down Locust Street on the western edge of downtown St. Louis, an area that was once referred to as “Automobile Row”. The area has that nickname because of the large amount of automobile dealerships, showrooms, parts stores, and automotive businesses that once existed there. Another post may be coming about that topic at some point, but Trailnet promoted this tour by claiming we’d see “one of the most overlooked historical locations in the midwest”.  The tour was led by Harold Karrabell, a man  who previously led me on Trailnet bike tours of Cahokia Mounds, East St. Louis, and Carondelet.  As I mentioned in a previous post about the Jacob Stein House, Mr. Karabell has an impressive knowledge of the history of St. Louis. His tours are well-researched, well-organized, and informative. Even better, he prefers to lead these tours while riding a bicycle. And once again, Harold didn’t disappoint. As we rode east along Locust Street, we slowed as we approached the Jefferson Avenue intersection. Harold stopped us in front of a parking lot and pointed out a large plaque on the sidewalk.

T.S. Eliot Plaque at 2635 Locust

The plaque identifies the location of the home where T.S. Eliot was born and raised. My jaw dropped when I saw it. Over the years, I have ridden or driven past this location hundreds of times. I simply never knew it was there. I had always heard Eliot lived in Central West End, not in the sketchy outskirts of downtown St. Louis. I simply love historical markers such as this. Some people prefer to only see historical places that still exist, but that’s not me. I enjoy seeing places that have changed and thinking about why they did. Why was T.S. Eliot’s home razed and turned into a parking lot? What did the neighborhood look like when he lived there? When T.S. Eliot lived at 2635 Locust Street, the population of St. Louis was almost 700,000. In Eliot’s day, the street was likely teeming with activity. Today, the neighborhood shows no sign of once being a residential neighborhood. Fortunately, one building still stands that can give us a frame of reference between then and now.

2635 Locust - H.W. Eliot Home - Then & Now

At the time Eliot lived there, Locust Street was a neighborhood in transition. Once residential, saloons and factories started popping up, making it a rougher part of town. Although the Eliot family was wealthy, they remained in the neighborhood during it’s decline because of family that lived nearby. In 1905, the family moved to a new home in the prosperous Central West End. Although this home still stands today as a private residence,  T.S. Eliot lived here for less than a year before heading off to school.

4446 Westminster Place - H.W. Eliot Home - Then & Now

After graduating from Harvard, Eliot moved to London in 1914. There he met the poet Ezra Pound, a man who would have a profound impact on his writing and career. Pound helped Eliot get his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock published in 1915. The success of Prufrock marked the beginning of Eliot’s career as an influential poet.  Along with The Waste Land, Eliot would publish several noteworthy poems such as The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and Four Quartets (1945), each of which earned him critical acclaim and recognition. He also gained renown as a playwright and a literary critic.  In 1939, he published a book of poems named Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which became the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. In time, he’d be recognized as one of the most important poets of the 20th Century. To honor of his impressive body of work, he was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature.

 In 1929, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. He lived the rest of his life in England, but he never forgot the influence St. Louis had on him. Later in life, he spoke about the impact of  growing up in a river town. He fondly recalled going down to Eads Bridge to view the Mississippi when it flooded. He believed people who grew up in a river town understood rhythm more than people who didn’t. In The Four Quartets, he writes about a river in this notable stanza:

The Four Quartets

T.S.EliotEliot did return to his hometown on a few occasions. In 1953, Eliot returned to speak at the celebration of Washington University’s 100th anniversary. In his speech, Eliot expresses his feelings about growing up in St. Louis:

“Many other memories have invaded my mind since I received the invitation to address you today. But I think these are enough to serve as a token of my thoughts and feelings. I am very well satisfied to have having been born in St. Louis. In fact, I’d even say I think I am fortunate to have been born here rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.”

T.S. Eliot died of emphysema on 1965. His ashes are interred at St. Michael’s Church in East Coker, Somerset.

In closing, can we get a street or something named after this guy? As of now, the extent of T.S. Eliot’s recognition in St. Louis doesn’t go beyond a few plaques and a small bust in the Central West End. How about a park or a library? His grandfather has one of the Ittner schools named after him. It’s time St. Louis gave T.S. his due.

Harold Karabell & I on the Automotive Row Trailnet Ride

The Drink

Initially, I planned to get a drink at the closet location possible to T.S. Eliot’s plaque on Locust Street. This worked out pretty well, because that meant I’d be heading to the Schlafly Tap Room, located just a couple blocks to the east. Even better, Schlafly was hosting their annual “Hop in the City” beer festival on the same day Harold showed us the plaque. Since I already had a ticket, it seemed like a perfect fit.

That is, until I read about an exchange T.S. Eliot had with an admirer in the 1950’s. The person asked him about the source of his inspiration. His reply quickly changed my mind.

Gin and drugs, my dear, gin and drugs

Imagine my joy when I found out T.S. Eliot drank gin. Although the Manhattan is my favorite cocktail, gin is very dear to my heart. The gin and tonic is probably my standard drink to have on the porch after a long day at work. I also love martinis. After reading his response,  I started hunting around for more clues about T.S. Eliot’s drinking preferences. The news only got better. I found out he had a cat named “Noilly-Pratt” after the French vermouth brand. In the Letters of T.S. Eliot, he explains how he wrote the monologue to the verse drama Sweeney Agonistes: “I wrote it in three quarters of an hour after church time and before lunch one Sunday morning, with the assistance of half a bottle of Booth’s gin.”. Finally, I found this quote:

Martini Quote

With that, there leaves no doubt that a martini is the drink for a T.S. Eliot blog post. Located just a few blocks west of T.S. Eliot’s boyhood home at 3037 Locust is the Fountain on Locust.  The window of this restaurant advertises ice cream and retro cocktails. It’s a neat place with a fun and colorful decor inside. Their specialty is the “Ice Cream Martini”, and the drink menu has a full-page of varieties. I’m not an ice cream and alcohol kind of guy, so I went for the standard dry martini. The selection of gin at Fountain on Locust is a bit weak for a place advertising retro cocktails, so I the best I could get was Bombay Sapphire. Nothing against Bombay, but I was hoping to get something special like Plymouth or Broker’s.  To my delight, the bartender made me an excellent martini. If it had any vermouth in it, it was probably the same amount my father used when he taught me how to make a martini: Open the vermouth bottle and just wave your hand over it a couple of times. And to top it off, it was wonderfully stirred. I can’t abide a shaken martini. Damn you James Bond! I like to think T.S. Eliot wouldn’t put up with that, either.

The Fountain on Locust

July 12th, 2012

The Jacob Stein House

Head south on Broadway from downtown St. Louis and you’ll soon find yourself in a unique part of town. You’ll be in Carondelet, a large neighborhood that seems to maintain its own identity.  The vibe is different there because Carondelet used to be a separate city entirely.  Incorporated in 1851, Carondelet did not become part of St. Louis until it was annexed in 1870.

Carondelet was first settled by a man named Clement DeLore Detreget in 1767. He was a Frenchman, but the future of Carondelet would be all German. In 1829, a German emigration writer named Gottfried Duden published a famous book titled Bericht über eine Reise nach den westlichen Staaten Nordamerika’s (Report of a journey to the western states of North America). In this book, Duden refers to the area around St. Louis as a “Rhineland of the West”.  His glowing report triggered a huge German immigration to Missouri starting in the 1830’s. By 1850, Census records show that over one-third of Carondelet was German.

The Jacob Steins House

Today, Carondelet is known for containing one of the largest (and most beautiful) public parks in St. Louis. It’s also teeming with historical structures. In the 19th century, German stonemasons built sturdy homes throughout the area that could stand the test of time. Today, Carondelet contains the largest number of stone-built homes in St. Louis.  Some of them are among the oldest structures still standing the St. Louis.

One of them is located at 7600 Reilly Avenue. It’s known today as the Jacob Stein House. Jacob Stein was an important citizen of Carondelet prior to the Civil War. He was an immigration agent, so he also played a role in promoting the area to German immigrants. The neighborhood around his home even became known as “Steins Town”.

Built in 1843, the house is a perfect example of the limestone construction used by German stonemasons at the time. Here’s a photograph of the Jacob Stein house in the late 1800’s.

The Jacob Stein House

In the years after construction, one end of the home was converted into a tavern and a store.  With the neighborhood filled with thirsty Germans working nearby iron and steel mills, it’s a safe bet that making beer readily available would be a profitable venture.  The tavern has since been removed, but the original bar still exists inside the current home.

I learned about this house and the German heritage of Carondelet while on a bicycle tour organized by Trailnet and sponsored by Great Rivers Greenway. On this tour, about twenty-five riders were treated to a historic tour of Carondelet by a brilliant guy named Harold Karabell. I’ve mentioned him before in my post about the Big Mound of St. Louis. He gives a great tour and he has an encyclopedic mind.

Harold & the Bike Tour

A highlight of the day occurred when the current owner of the home came outside to determine why a bunch of people in spandex were gawking at his home. He was a very friendly gentleman who was well aware of the significance of his home. He even produced a photograph he owns of Jacob Stein, the original owner.

Jacob Stein House & Current Owner

The Jacob Stein House was named a St. Louis city landmark in 1976. I’ll have other posts from this bicycle tour of Carondelet coming soon.

Note: I can’t recommend Trailnet highly enough. They have a calendar filled with bicycle rides and similar tours of St. Louis. Not only do they do great work for bicyclists, they do great work for the city of St. Louis. It’s only $55 to become a member, and it’s worth every penny.

The Drink

The drink section of this post took me to a location that I have been meaning to visit for quite some time.  One of the great things about living in St. Louis for the last few years has been taking part in the craft beer explosion that’s happened in this town. New micro-breweries such as Square One, Civil Life, Urban Chestnut, and 4 Hands have popped up all over the city. Carondelet has the distinction of having one of the best new additions to the St. Louis beer scene: Perennial Artisan Ales.

Blueberry Brown Rye

Many craft beer aficionados had been telling me to check this place out for some time.  I just hadn’t made it down there since Carondelet is not in my neck of the woods. Since the Trailnet bike tour took me right past their location, I thought it’d be a perfect time to head over and see what they had to offer.

Perennial focuses on small batches of beer using ingredients and flavors that defy traditional categories. The building offers a spacious bar area and I found the service to be extremely friendly (in other words, they gave me a big free sample of cider). To begin, I ordered their Blueberry Brown Rye.  I did this on purpose, since I normally don’t care for fruit flavor in anything. I love fruit, I love food, and I love beer. But I prefer to keep it all separate. Just like I don’t like blueberries in a bagel, I usually don’t like blueberries in a beer. However, Perennial’s recipe swayed me on this day. The fruit taste was subtle and I found it extremely tasty. I ended up having two.

I followed that up with their Hommel, a dry-hopped Belgian pale ale. Again, very delicious. In all, I highly recommend Perennial, especially to beer lovers looking for something a bit different.

I look forward to getting back to Perennial and I hope they continue to make an impact on the St. Louis beer scene.

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