Explore St. Louis’ Carondelet Neighborhood

Thursday August 7, 2014

Just three years after Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau founded their little trading post on the Mississippi River, another village was born a few miles to the south. Today visitors can explore the fascinating history of the once-upon-a-time town that had many names before it became St. Louis’ Carondelet neighborhood.

St. Louis was still a fledging settlement in 1767 when another Frenchman, Clement Delor de Treget, obtained a grant and built a stone house a few miles south of Laclede’s trading post town.

“Carondelet itself has an incredible history,” said Andrew Wanko, public historian for the Missouri History Museum. “People don’t realize that on the east side of (Interstate) 55 in the older portions of Carondelet, there are buildings there that are older than in Soulard.

“People don’t really think of it as being that old but it was founded just three years after St. Louis, and it was its own independent city at the time.”

Over the years the village had many names—first Delor’s Village; later, Catalan’s Prairie after Louis Catalan, an early settler and later, Louisbourg, presumably in honor of Louis XVI, the king of France from 1774 to1793. The area was also known as “Pain de Sucre” or “Sugarloaf.”

How it became “Carondelet” is an interesting story. It’s said that after the Louisiana Territory passed to the Spanish, Treget wanted his commission as captain of the militia renewed. Fearing he’d lose his commission because he was French and Baron de Carondelet, the governor general of Louisiana, was in Spanish service, he renamed the village Carondelet in honor of the governor general. Whether the governor general was flattered by the gesture or not, Treget got his commission.

But the liveliest name for the village was a nickname acquired in its early days—Vide Poche (French for empty pocket) back when French was the language of the region.

“That was kind of their (St. Louisans’) slam on the inhabitants of this little town just south of St. Louis,” Wanko said.

But the name even appeared on some maps instead of “Carondelet,” he added.

Two stories address how the nickname came to be. One was that the residents of Carondelet were poor and “their pockets were empty.”

Another says “vide” was a verb and the phrase meant “empties pockets,” the idea being that visitors to the area would have their pockets emptied, Ron Bolte, former president of the Carondelet Historical Society and current board member, said.

“Some said the area was called that because the residents were so poor they had empty pockets. But others said there was a gaming house and Creole ladies down in Carondelet that were visited. Outsiders came down to gamble and drink and when they left, they left town with empty pockets.”

Bolte says he thinks the first theory is accurate. “It was not a wealthy area,” he said. “They (residents) got by on what crops they grew or cattle they raised or the kindling wood they sold to people in St. Louis who could afford to buy it.”

Wealth moved into the area when cholera hit St. Louis in 1849 as people with money fled the city. Henry Shaw, Henry Blow and Roswell Field, father of humorist and poet Eugene Field, were just a few of the wealthy who bought large holdings in Carondelet. A Chouteau descendant, John Sappington Marmaduke, who would later become governor of Missouri and others built large mansions there.

The area began to grow in the late 1850’s but the Civil War interfered with that growth.

During the Civil War years, James B. Eads hired thousands to help build the iron-clad boats he built there to help the Union win the war. One of the seven, named after river cities, was the Carondelet.

Civil War buffs from around the country visit Carondelet to learn about the irconclads but sadly, nothing is left of the shipyards that were at the foot of Davis Street and the Mississippi rivers, Bolte said.

It was such a temporary thing,” Wanko said. “He (Eads) was contracted and he put up the ship yards and then as the war was over, there was really no use for them anymore.

“You don’t really hear too much about it. There’s no plaque commemorating where it was or anything but that’s an incredible piece of history in our own backyard.”

In 1870, the town of Carondelet ceased to exist as St. Louis annexed it. “Carondelet Park was developed out of what remained of the Cardondelet common fields, the town of Carondelet’s farming land,” Wanko said.

“At the same time the Industrial Revolution was taking place, and iron works and smelters were looking for places to process the iron coming out of central Missouri on the Iron Mountain Railroad,” Bolte said. Carondelet’s open land along the river was the perfect place and provided St. Louis with a tax base from those industries.

At least three large steel mills and two or three zinc mills were built along the river earning Carondelet the nickname of “Pittsburgh of the West,” Bolte said. “And, of course, what came with that was a lot of people moving in to work at those jobs.”

The Irish came in with the railroad before the Civil War, African-Americans following the war and Spanish in the early 1900s to work in the zinc mills.

And in Carondelet in 1843 Susan Blow, who would become known as the “Mother of Kindergarten,” was born into the wealthy Blow family. As a young woman Blow trained at the New York Normal Training Kindergarten, with Maria Kraus-Boelté, a devotee of German idealist and philosopher Friedrich Fröbel who believed in “learning-through-play” and cognitive development. She returned to St. Louis in 1873 where she opened the nation’s first continuously operated public kindergarten in Des Peres School. The school has been restored to its 1873 appearance and educators from all over the world visit it to see the room where Blow taught.

The Sisters of St. Joseph became a part of Carondelet early on coming to the area in 1836 at the request of Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of St. Louis, said Sister Cate Filla, a docent at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Carondelet.

The nuns began teaching from a log cabin the same month they arrived. “Deaf students also came the following year when two sisters arrived who were educated to teach the deaf,” she said. “Orphans began arriving early on as well because of the high mortality rate because of the epidemic diseases.”

In 1840 the first brick part of the motherhouse—to begin St. Joseph’s Academy—was completed at cost of $1,050, mostly provided by Elizabeth Mullanphy, wife of a prominent St. Louisan.

English began replacing French at the convent as Irish and German immigrants moved into St. Louis. The nuns’ work spread to other areas of the U. S. as requests for help began arriving from across the country. “Early on, when it was possible, sisters were missioned to go to various locations,” Sister Filla said.

As in many American cities, the area declined as industry waned and moved out, but a rebirth of Carondelet is underway as owners work to restore many of the charming brick residences.

While nothing is left to see of Eads’ ship-building yards, today the history of the town of many names is preserved at the Carondelet Historical Society housed in the former Des Peres School. The school has been restored to the way it looked in 1874 so visitors can see the room where Susan Blow first had her kindergarten class as well as items relating to the history of the area.

Here the visitor can see:

  • On the tables where the first kindergarteners once played at “Frobel’s Gifts,” materials developed by the German creator of kindergarten
  • A Wall of Honor honoring veterans from Carondelet and elsewhere from the Civil War to present
  • Furnishings from the 19th and early 20 century
  • Memory Lane with its “Street of Stores” featuring consumer goods, toys, tools and other items from the past
  • The Bouchein Library with records of the village of Carondelet, the Delor family papers, several special collections, materials for genealogical research, newspapers and thousands of photos. The library is free and open to the public. It is open during Carondelet Historic Center hours and by appointment.

The museum is located at 6303 Michigan Ave.

Visitors can also tour the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent at 6400 Minnesota Avenue by appointment. Tours for groups of five or more are currently on hiatus and will resume in November. Call 314-678-0411 for details.

Visitors can also take a virtual tour online.


Guest Blogger Kathie Sutin a freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri contributed to this blog.

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