The Real Ghosts of
The two worlds of The Childgrove in 1966, and from 1914 through the 1940s, are all based on real places, and the people who inhabited them at that space in time. Come join me on a tour of that history.
St. Joseph Missouri in Edward’s Time
1914 to 1957
In it’s heyday, St. Joseph MO had more millionaires per capita than any city in the U.S. They left behind an incredible array of mansions, parks, boulevards, factories and theaters.
Edwards magnificent home is destroyed at the end, just like the building that fascinated me as a child. The two picture on the right are the same building, once one of St. Joseph’s finest when it was built, and when it was demolished after the roof and one wall collapsed after years of neglect. Its story was inspiration for Edwards.
In 1876, F.L. Sommer & Co. invented a product utilizing baking salt to leaven the cracker, which became known as “Saltines.” Sommer entered it in the Buchanan County Fair where it won the premium blue ribbon. Sommer’s business expanded from being worth $50,000 in 1873 to $400,000 by 1880 with factories across the Midwest. Frank used his new wealth to build his magnificent Italianate style home was built in 1882. In 1884, The company expanded into the confectionery business, trademarking the “Red Cross Brand Candies.” Inventive as he was, it didn’t stop others from starting cracker companies as well, and several began conglomerating. The largest of these was formed by Chicago lawyer Adolphus Green, bringing together many, including Sommer-Richardson, into the American Biscuit Company. In 1898 the remaining biscuit companies merged with American Biscuit Company to form the National Biscuit Company later known as Nabisco. who continued to operate the original St. Joseph plant until 1935. The Premium brand, so named for F.L. Sommer’s county fair award at the product’s origin, remains the top selling brand of saltine crackers to this day.
Despite restoration plans, Franks mansion was too far gone, and one night it crumbled, prompting the city to plow down the remains.
Edward’s home, the house that I stood outside of as a child, was torn down in the early 2,000s and I don’t have a picture. Instead, I made it an amalgamation of several houses typical of St. Joseph. The Exterior is modeled from the R.T. Davis Mansion known as the Aunt Jemima House. Built in 1890 by the man who bought the Pearl Milling Company and made Aunt Jemima pancake mix a national brand. The interior is a mix of the Shakespeare Chateau, built in 1885 for Nathan Phipps and Elmarine Ogden, and its neighbor two houses down, the Robison Mansion built In April 1888, James H. Robison, President of St. Joseph Milling.
Oscar Wilde, Saxtons Lions, the Tootle Opera House, and Toyland.
Oscar Wilde is referenced in London with the Bright Young Things, having already passed years before, but he had a link with St Joseph as well. When Oscar Wilde appeared at the Tootle Opera House, he apparently was not too enamored of local bank owner Able Saxton, and wrote a poem about him. Edward mentions seeing a performance of the original production of Babes in Toyland, which opened on Broadway in 1903, then toured the country for many years. The Tootle was one of those stops. The basic story is about orphans Alan and Jane, the wards of their wicked Uncle Barnaby, who wants to steal their fortune. It involved multiple attempted murders, demonically possessed dolls, and forced marriage. Little wonder it gave Edward nightmares, and in turn is the best explanation I have as to why I find the theme song unlistenable even now.
Later, Edward visits the building when it has become a movie theater on the advice of “Murphy” the newsboy. It is years later that he befriends Stephen Tennent, whose mother’s cousin was Oscar Wilde’s last lover.
Milton Tootle built a nearly $200,000, almost 1,500 seat opera house launching December 9, 1872. With its three balconies and massive opulent boxes, architect W. Angelo Powell’s French Renaissance style grandeur wowed audiences back in the day.
Sarah Bernhardt, Buffalo Bill Cody, Edwin Booth and Oscar Wilde were among the performers who were on the giant stage measuring 100′ wide, 67′ high and 50′ deep.
The Dubinsky Brothers took on the theatre as its fifth operator and would switch from Dubinksy live stock to motion pictures in 1919. Finally in 1933, the building was completely gutted down to its four walls and became the Pioneer Building with offices and some retail.
On November 21, 2016, the 144 year old theatre was gutted in an epic fire. The city called for its demolition within a month. With the theater and the bank long gone, the only remnent of this is one lonly lion that sits on a country road where Saxon’s summer home used to sit.
Lunatic Asylum No 2
From Edwards time to now
Finally, the cemetery, now on prison grounds and hence off limits, where crumbling stones bear only numbers. There are no surviving records as to who was buried under what number. These are truly lost souls. David was fiction, but the 2000 patents who remain beneath this sod, many abandoned by relatives, were not.
Opening on November 9, 1874, the State Hospital for the Insane No.2, more commonly named the Lunatic Asylum #2, pledged the lofty goal of “the noble work of reviving hope in the human heart and dispelling the portentous clouds that penetrate the intellects of minds diseased.” For 127 years, it occupied the spot, the town eventually growing around it and swallowing the farms that once made it an autonomous institution. One of those fields is where the shopping mall sits today. In 1899, it gained the name the St Joseph State Hospital, but the old name stuck around for much longer in the town vernacular. Patients were regularly led on walks to take fresh air and sunshine as part of their treatment, and many worked on the farms. By the early 1950s, the facility had grown to nearly 3,000 beds and housed everyone from the criminally insane to the mildly depressed. The workload was so severe that little was done for the patient besides maintenance. With modern treatment and medications, the facility outlived its mission, or instead, it was fulfilled by other means. Today it is a prison, the tunnel filled with tons of concrete.
In the 1970s, I spent a night in a cell, not as a patient but as a guitar teacher. In high school, I volunteered to teach teens, the youngest ones who resided there, one night a week and was trapped in a snowstorm. As I lived across one of the last fields behind the facility, I walked with my guitar and entered via the old tunnels that branched off to my building. For my own safety, I was locked in until morning when the storm was over.
Theaters, shops, parks and neighborhoods.
At the turn of the 20th century, St. Joseph was still a hub of industry, culture, and community. It boasted a parkway system by the same designer as Washington D.C’s Basin Park, more miles of electric streetcar track than New York City, an amusement park, luxury hotels, the largest stockyard west of the Mississippi, Four candy companies, several newspapers, multiple rail lines including an interurban that connected it with Kansas City, and hundreds of shops.
Eugene Field, St. Joe's poet laureate.
The Frank Sommer Co. Inventor of the Saltine Cracker, whose merger With the American Biscuit Co. created Nabisco.
The Hotel Metropole
The St.Joseph and Des Moines R.R. whose offices once were in the "Goldsberry" building.
The race track at Lake Contrary. Teddy Roosevelt spoke here.
The Wyeth Estate, across from the orphanage.
The Hotel Metropole Lobby
St Joseph in John’s Timeline
3107 Edmond St, St. Joseph MO, was the first place I knew in this world. It was built in the early 1900s, with built in cabinets and mirrors, pocket doors, and a stairway that branched off in several directions. It would have been considered upper middle-class compared to the mansions of the city, but it was a palace to me. My parents spent 15 years working on it, building an addition on the back, modernising the power and plumbing, re roofing, a hundred other little things. Finally, just shy of my 10th birthday, they discovered the foundation needed major work, which was more than they could handle. The people who bought it didn’t have the Elm tree sprayed, and it died the next year. It changed hands a few times, apparently ending up as a drug den. The church across the street bought it, and my parents begged them to let us go gather mementos, but they were so spooked by the drug paraphernalia and damage, that they refused and plowed it down intact, just like they did Mrs. Harrison’s house next door years before. It’s now a parking lot.
My Brother Bob, My Grandmother Goldsberry, and me on my birthday as Bob shows me how my new Vacuform works.
We would drive to Bean Lake along highway 45, paralleling the railroad tracks and waiving to the breakmen in the caboose. I wouldn’t have known who Carl Sandburg was back then, but it seems he helped lay them. He didn’t last long. He writes:
“My Irish boss, Fay Connors, hired me at a dollar and twenty-five cents a day and I was to pay him three dollars a week for board and room in his four-room one-story house thirty feet from the railroad tracks at Bean lake.. I tamped ties several days from seven till noon, from one till six in the evening. On Sunday I washed my shirt and socks. At the end of two weeks, on a Sunday morning, I hopped a freight for Kansas City and left Boss Connors to collect for my board and room out of my paycheck. The rest of the pay was still owing and was never collected. If Connors did get it he couldn’t have sent it to me, as he didn’t know my address and I wasn’t expecting to have any address for weeks or months.“
Bean Lake was the place to go before air conditioning became the norm. It was 10-20 degrees cooler by the lake than in the city, but these destinations fell out of fashion in the “modern” world.
The town of Bean Lake sat across the railroad tracks, and had a food store below.
The Little World of my Childhood
It wasn’t big by the worlds standards, but it all fit me just fine. It had Two epicenters, one being my home and neighborhood, the other my fathers shop, both of which play a part in my potion of the story.
The Goldsberry building, as it was referred to in the Historic Places register, was built in the mid 1840s attached to the back end of the Missouri Valley Trust Company (featured in the movie “Paper Moon. I got to stand with Peter Bogdanovitch and watch him film Tatum O’Neil). The upper floors were empty the entire time I knew it, and I could feel the emptiness. Yes, that sealed up door in the basement was real too, leading out to a cavity under the sidewalk that has since been filled in.
I spent so much time there as a child, and always felt surrounded by others memories. I watched the parades go by from the stoop, watched the destruction of the buildings across from the big show windows, the imploding of the once opulent Rubidoux Hotel, from the upper floor, and witnessed my father lock the door for the last time and walk away from 100s of a St. Joseph business, another one left behind in the new world that replaced it. I felt the ghosts of this place stand with me every time.
Mrs Harrison, my next door neighbor, was real. The day I was born, she presented this to me, my very first present. It’s not a Stief like the one in the book, but it’s mine. I also have the Christmas stocking she supplied for my first Christmas a few months later. It’s been empty for a long time, but it still gets hung every holiday season in remembrance of her.
Keeping warm in the den.
Our Cabin, built my my father.
In the 20s, it was an active place. By the late 60s, this end of the lake had silted up and this building, minus the porches, became Art's. It was all private cabins then, like ours. In the early 80s, a massive Missouri River flood wiped it all away. Today the shores are empty and the lake is a wildlife preserve.
Little Boy Blue in the library.
The Skylark Drive-in
The Market Square Historic District was placed into the National Register of Historic Places by the St. Joseph Historical Society on March 17, 1972, but the Urban Renewal Program had already slated it for demolition. The city claimed the large government grant for the “Cleanup,” had already been received, so it was too late to stop. Preservationists were going to court to stop it, but the demolition crews arrived in the middle of the night on Sat. Dec 1, 1973, just days before the court date and started swinging the wrecking ball. The case became moot, and the land was redeveloped for a Holiday inn, now sitting vacant. An incredible amount of history was destroyed including the original Pony Express Freight Depot. Before they were done, the city had pulled down almost 150 classic and highly decorative buildings in the downtown area. There have been numerous attempts to revive it, but there are now blocks of empty building, and the area has become known for drug abuse and crime.
Sherwood School and Kid culture
28th and Edmond, just two blocks down the street, was my grade school. It was a mixed bag with one teacher who still stands out as a great inspiration, and a principle who was the most sour and cruelest person in my childhood. When busses were introduced, St. Joseph closed many of these smaller schools. It’s now a small neighborhood park using the old playgrounds.
We still had old desks back then.
My Captain Crunch Cereal Bowls!
Both mentioned, The Great Race, Left, and The Wild Wild West, below.