No immigrant group has more greatly impacted the City of St. Louis than the German community – from population to architecture, from commerce to culture – they have been a powerhouse from the early-mid 19th century to the present. Their impact has been not only powerful but lasting. The Headhouse of Union Station for example, beautifully designed by Theodore Link to represent the French origins of the city’s founder, is one of St. Louis’ most identifiable landmarks.
Link had a degree in engineering from the University of Heidelberg when he arrived in St. Louis in 1873 to work for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company. That, along with his work at L’Ecole Centrale in Paris, prepared him perfectly for design of a railway station that was not only modern but architecturally and historically significant for St. Louis.
Adolphus Busch, a native of Kastel, Germany grew, what was for many years, the world’s largest brewing company and Henry Kiel, a first-generation, German-American became the first St. Louisan to serve three consecutive terms as mayor. The Municipal Opera in Forest Park (the oldest and largest outdoor musical theater in the nation) was born under his leadership. Susan Blow, who opened the first public kindergarten in St. Louis, was also of German descent.
Like the Irish, the Germans settled all over St. Louis and its surrounding counties but in far greater concentrations in South St. Louis than any other area. Their numbers were so great and their imprint so singular that a term of admiration was fondly coined for them, the “Scrubby Dutch” (the German pronunciation of Deutsche having become Americanized as “Dutch”, even as so many of the city’s French and Spanish names were Americanized earlier on). They were apparently the only ethnic group who literally scrubbed their front steps and sidewalks with brushes and cleansers that left them gleaming, and left the city’s soot and grime outside the house.
St. Louis journalist, Jim Merkel, authored the definitive book on South St. Louis in 2010. Published by Reedy Press it’s titled, Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side.* Having lived in the Bevo Neighborhood for eighteen years and covered South St. Louis as a community reporter for The Suburban Journals for ten of them, Merkel has a wonderful grasp of the place and its people.
That he’s fifth generation of a German family that emigrated to St. Louis in 1858 contributes a whole, other level of sensibility to his work. In seventy-six essays covering People, Places, Events and subjects Unusual, Unique, Or Just Plain Odd, Merkel defines and explains south city idioms, residents both famous and infamous, and describes historic landmarks – some of which exist now only in memory.
In his recommended book list for holiday gift-giving, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, Bill McClellan wrote, “Speaking of history, Jim Merkel chronicles the quirks of the city’s south side. If a transplant wants to understand the south side, he should read Merkel’s book.” I have to agree. From “The Horse Thieves of Carondelet” to “Corkball” and “Gumballs on the Sidewalk” Merkel nails the South Side in a warm and congenial way, telling the stories with humor and a wealth of knowledge gleaned from extensive research and hundreds of personal interviews with Southsiders.
On Saturday, May 14th Jim Merkel and I will co-host a 5-hour Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side Coach Tour based upon his book. Jim will tell the stories as I keep the driver on track. The tour will begin at 10:00 am, end at 3:00 pm and cover the entire South Side from Carondelet where James Eads built his ironclads to Soulard Market, from Lafayette Square to The Hill. Copies of the book (that Jim will autograph) will be available for sale at the discounted price of $17.50 including tax.
We will stop to pick up lunch at Gus’ Pretzels and dessert at Ted Drewes. Seating will be limited to 55 passengers. For tour cost and/or to secure a reservation, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 314-368-8818.
* Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side is available locally at Left-Bank Books and Borders Books, and online at: http://reedypress.com/book.php?show=9781933370620 as well as amazon.com.
Photo Credits: Vintage Post Card of Union Station, Adolphus Busch and Anheuser-Busch Train Car – in the public domain at wikipedia.com; Book Cover and Photograph of Jim Merkel – used with the kind permission of Jim Merkel, the book’s author; Turret of Union Station, The Mississippi from the Carondelet Riverbank and Side View of the Chatillon-Demenil Mansion – Maureen Kavanaugh, the author of this blog.