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.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum In Kansas City, Missouri


Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Missouri’s rivers were full of steamboats. The state’s eastern boundary is delineated by the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River cuts right through the center of the state. Steamboats brought people, crops, and consumer goods across long distances much quicker than they could have made it on the crude early roads.

Steamboat pilots, including a young Mark Twain, had to have precise knowledge of the rivers because there were eddies, sandbars, and sawyers (sunken logs) ready to wreck their ship. If he managed to avoid all those dangers, the boiler could still blow up.

In 1856, the side-wheel steamboat Arabia was heading west up the Missouri River. The Arabia was a beauty. It was 171 feet long, could carry 222 tons, and had a reputation for speed, comfort and safety. That didn’t save her, though, and she hit the trunk of a submerged walnut tree. The log tore through the Arabia’s hull and she sank within minutes. Despite the speed of the sinking and the fact that there was only one lifeboat, the crew managed to get all the passengers safely to shore. Within a few days the boat was entirely covered in silt and disappeared, another of the hundreds of casualties on the river.

In 1987, the Hawley family led a salvage crew in search of the Arabia and found her. The river had shifted since then and the boat now lay half a mile from the water’s edge and 45 feet under a farmer’s field. A massive operation began to lower the water level, remove countless tons of earth, and carefully clean off and examine the ship and its contents.

%Gallery-162722%The wet silt had preserved the ship remarkably. The storage rooms were nearly intact, with boxes full of merchandise intended for frontier shops. There were cleaned, cataloged, and preserved and the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, opened to show off the amazing find.

This museum is an amazing snapshot of history. Every possible item imaginable is there: from guns and boots to toys and a complete printing press. There are even jars of preserves. Most of the passengers’ personal belongings sank with the ship and so we have complete outfits and luggage for the hardy travelers seeking a new life in the Old West. Large sections of the boat are also on display, including the paddle wheel and anchor.

Check out the gallery for a small sample of what this incredible museum has to offer.

Another steamboat has surfaced recently. Station WLFI reports that a long drought has lowered the level of the Missouri River enough that the steamboat Montana, sunk in 1884, is now visible at Bridgeton, MO. National Geographic has an interesting article on this steamboat, the largest ever to ply the Missouri, and its ironic end. It sank after running into a railroad bridge. Railroads were what eventually killed the steamboat trade.

Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66


If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Nelson-Atkins Museum unveils interactive website

Nelson-Atkins MuseumThe Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City has unveiled an amazing interactive website.

Called Studio 33, it’s part of an outreach effort by one of America’s leading art museums to bring in a new generation of web-savvy visitors.

Many museums are ramping up their websites. A common feature is to have images of some of the pieces in the collection with information and related links. Studio 33 does this, and also has lots of audio files and videos, including artist interviews, time-lapse films of setting up installation pieces, and behind-the-scenes talks with curators. Experts cover each section of the museum. For example, the museum’s archaeologist takes you through the ancient art collection.

One thing that makes Studio 33 stand out among museum websites, beyond the sheer scale of it all, is that you can explore the museum following three different avatars: a high school student, a docent, and a social media junkie. Each gives a different perspective tailored to a different type of visitor.

[Photo of Caravaggio’s painting of John the Baptist, which is in the Nelson-Atkins collection, courtesy Wikimedia Commons]