Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, A French Colonial Town In America’s Heartland

When we think of Colonial America, we generally think of the old parts of Boston, lovely New England port towns such as Marblehead, or Spanish colonial towns such as St. Augustine. America’s heartland has some colonial traces too. The best preserved and most distinct is the French colonial town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Located about 60 miles south of St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve was one of the first permanent European settlements in what is now Missouri. French settlers came here in the early 1730s. The first years were tough ones. The town was poorly situated on the Mississippi flood plain and often got soaked, leading the poor Frenchmen to nickname their town Misère, meaning “misery.”

The French were mostly from Canada and copied the architecture they were familiar with. Single-story houses had walls of vertical logs set into the earth and plastered in a style called poteaux-en-terre. A roof of wooden shingles extended past the walls to bring rain away from the house and a covered porch often ran all the way around the house.

Each lot was surrounded by a palisade of vertical logs to keep out the animals that strayed unattended around town. The tops of the logs were sharpened to keep out unwanted two-legged visitors as well. Inside each of these little forts was a yard, garden, barn and an outside kitchen, placed there to reduce the chance of a fire inside the house.

Ste. Genevieve did well as the center for the fur trade and many local farmers made extra income mining for lead and salt. When the region was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase it kept its French character. Even as recently as a hundred years ago some residents spoke French in the home.

As well as keeping their culture they preserved many of their distinctive colonial houses. While you won’t see buckskin-clad trappers hauling their loads of furs onto shore from canoes, or French farmers heading out into the uninhabited woods with a flintlock over their shoulder in search of meat for the pot, Ste. Genevieve retains a strong historic feel. Many of the original 18th-century homes are open as museums and are stocked with period furniture.

Ste. Genevieve makes a good day trip from St. Louis, and an even better overnight. Several 19th century homes have been turned into bed-and-breakfasts and the shopping district is well stocked with antiques and gift items.

Being a regional attraction means the town keeps a full events calendar, including occasional reenactments, so you might just get to see those French trappers and hunters after all.

Round-the-world: Mauritius top five

Mauritius has all sorts of charm by the bucketload. It’s got beaches, beautiful resorts, rough-and-tumble districts, colonial architecture, and a tropically lush physical environment. Following are five stand-out places and pastimes that showcase the island’s distinctive beauty.

1. Local grub. In addition to the fresh seafood on offer, there are hunting reserves on Mauritius that generate incredibly delicious venison and boar. Eat these things. Plenty of other food items have to be transported over huge distances and are not particularly fresh. Two restaurants in the south of the island (La Bougainville in Blue-Bay and Les Copains d’Abord in Mahébourg) are particularly good; the latter has a direct relationship with a hunting preserve and puts especially tasty and fresh things on its menu. Its hearty sausage stew, which admittedly has to be flown over 300 miles from Rodrigues Island, is outstanding.

2. Botanical Gardens. The Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens (above and below) are referred to by locals as Pamplemousses. They are a wonderfully peaceful place to relax, despite poor signposting. Guides can be arranged, though it’s perfectly pleasant to simply wander around in blissful semi-ignorance, enjoying the beautiful foliage. The gardens contain a monument to Sir Ramgoolam, the first president of Mauritius following independence, trees planted by visiting heads of state, and a gorgeous colonial mansion (see below.)

3. Le Jardin de Beau Vallon. Located near the airport, this hotel and restaurant occupies a colonial house dating to the 18th century. The restaurant is in the main building, with guest rooms in the house and in several detached cottages. The restaurant is very good, one of the best we sampled in Mauritius. The house, which has been restored beautifully, casts a romantic spell. If you’ve ever had fantasies about drinking rum on a porch on an Indian Ocean island while curtains billow behind you and the fan churns its way through the thick heat, then this is one place to quench them. And if you’ve never entertained such fantasies, an evening at Le Jardin de Beau Vallon might just conjure them up.

4. Beaches. At Chantemer, we were awfully lucky. The windswept beach at the guest house’s doorstep is beautiful. On weekends it fills up a bit with kiteboarders and picnickers, but never to the point of annoyance. There are other great beaches on Mauritius, but this one, to the west of Pointe D’Esny, is very possibly the island’s best.

5. Bois Cheri tea factory. The relatively steep admission here (350 rupees, over $12) ends with a tea tasting at the factory’s hilltop restaurant. The tour starts in a cavernous museum room full of displays devoted to the history of tea and the tea industry. A guided tour of the factory follows. It’s fascinating to watch the tea leaves arrive, go through the drying, slicing, and heating process, and then get packaged. The tour is fascinating. It’s also strangely comforting to be overwhelmed by the deep scent of tea leaves at various stages of transformation. Tours are always offered on Wednesday, and during heavier harvest times tours are provided on a daily basis.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Marblehead–colonial jewel of New England

In a country dominated by big box stores and strip malls, it can be easy to forget our past, but there are occasional spots that are so well preserved they overwhelm you with a sense of another age. Marblehead, Massachusetts, is one of them.

Founded in 1629, Marblehead soon became a prosperous fishing village. In the 18th century it was home to privateers (a politically correct term for pirates sponsored by the government) who attacked British shipping in the Atlantic. When the American War of Independence started it was Marblehead men who crewed the first ship in the American navy, the Hannah. The town also supplied crews for the boats that ferried Washington over the Delaware river. You don’t get more Yankee than that!

But that promising beginning did not lead to greater things. Marblehead became a sleepy fishing and yachting backwater. This was just what it needed. “Development” generally passed it by, allowing the Colonial houses and winding, cobblestone streets to survive intact. I’ve been all up and down the New England coast and I can think of few places that evoke the 18th century like Marblehead. When antiquarian and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft first saw it in 1922 he was so taken with its beauty he used it as inspiration for his fictional town of Kingsport, the setting of several of his stories. Don’t worry, there are no sinister denizens summoning up unclean gods, just wealthy New Englanders with an appreciation for the past.

The best way to see Marblehead is to simply wander in the old town center, where historic homes cluster around the harbor. You’ll spot buildings that are two or even three centuries old, and while you may be familiar with this sort of architecture, seeing so much of it is what’s truly impressive. It’s a bit like a Yankee Pompeii, where the vistas once admired by periwigged gentlemen can still be seen and entire blocks once inhabited by America’s early merchants are still preserved. The homes of 17th century fishermen and the cemeteries of Revolutionary War heroes are much as they were. Don’t forget to stop by the J.O.J. Frost Folk Art Gallery to see the work of the famous local artist and the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum. These two stops will give you some historic background to the town.

Marblehead is great for history buffs, but it’s a popular fishing and yachting destination too. I’m not much of a sailor (although I did catch a sand shark off Cape Cod once) so I don’t have any first-person experience with this side of the Marblehead experience, but the beautiful harbor and numerous yacht clubs show a lot of promise. Vicarious landlubbers can get a splendid view of the harbor from Fort Sewall, dating back to 1644.

[Photo courtesy Judy Anderson]