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The Rich Histories Of Our River Towns

Photo: Ursula Ruhl

By Don Corrigan (South County Times)

On wintry days with cold rain, ice and snow, most people of sound mind and body are warming by the gas fire and flat screen or doing yoga at the rec center. They are not thinking about their Meramec River heritage.

Sunset Hills and Fenton residents should think twice before turning their backs on the river. The muddy Meramec borders parts of each city and it’s a part of each city’s rich history.

To know a little bit about that history, it’s not at all necessary to scour library book shelves or to pound the right search words on a keyboard to find archival material on the World Wide Web. Actually, you can just put on your mukluks, a coat and ear muffs – and hit the trails on each side of the river.

On the Fenton side of the Meramec River, you’ll find three plaques that can get you started on understanding the history of the river town area. They are across from the Fenton Feed Mill under the James R. Coleman Pavilion.

“William Long founded Fenton in 1819, naming it after his grandmother, Elizabeth Fenton Bennett. The original town plat covered 12 acres, consisting of six square blocks. The first lots were sold in 1819,” the display explains.

Long had the distinction of being an ensign in the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. Author Sandie Grassino in her book, “Sunset Hills” by Arcadia Publishing, notes that Long was an early settler on the Sunset Hills side of the Meramec River.

Long moved his family to the Fenton side of the river, but was disappointed by poor sales for his lots in Fenton. He then moved back across the river to a site near today’s Pardee Lane. In 1849, Long contracted cholera and died after visiting a sick friend in St. Louis.

The namesake city for Long’s grandmother, Fenton, lived on beyond its founder. Its incorporation in 1874 was intended to bring law and order to the settlement of 150 residents.

“The place had a colorful reputation attributed to fights having been fueled in the local saloon between local woodcutters and visiting cattle drovers,” notes the Fenton plaque. “Religion achieved what politics could not: Fenton settled down.”

The history further notes that no elections were held for 70 years and the population was only 230 in 1937 and only 300 in 1959. Fenton thrives today with a population of over 4,000.

Recreation Havens

Plaques on both sides of the river note that the Meramec has been a recreation destination for more than a century. Small resort sites and club houses were built to provide shelter for swimmers, anglers and boaters.

Another plaque at Fenton’s pavilion notes that the Biltmore Country Club was rumored to be a popular hangout for gangsters during Prohibition. Also, noted is the overuse, abuse and neglect of the river, which is now in transition to recapture some of its past glory.

A plaque at a scenic overlook in Sunset Hills near Minnie Ha Ha Beach also recalls the Meramec’s recreational history: “The property had well tended grounds and offered visitors a place to recreate away from the city. The property had picnic facilities, a dance hall, a zoo, a refreshment stand, a boat dock and a swimming beach.”

The overlook plaque recalls a ferry that once ran between Fenton and the Sunset Hills area in the 1800s. In 1854, a covered toll bridge was built and the remains of that bridge can still be seen when the river is low.

The plaque at what is now Minnie Ha Ha Park notes that Sunset Hills has built new shelters, restrooms, the overlook and asphalt trails. Travel north on those trails and a hiker or biker can find benches and a resting area with a historical plaque, courtesy of Rich and Carol Stieren of Sunset Hills.

This plaque notes the generations of the Stieren family who had fun at Minnie Ha Ha and on the Meramec:

“In 1945, Jerry Stieren (Rich’s father) bought a Clubhouse on the Meramec River across from Minnie Ha Ha Park in which Rich has fond memories growing up with his family and friends. He owned a tugboat on the river and while serving in the Korean War, the tugboat cut loose from the dock and was never found.”

Had it been found, that tugboat would have been donated to the park in Sunset Hills, but the Stierens have contributed to the park and trail areas in other ways, including with benches and the rest area.

Distant Past & Future

A plaque in Fenton recalls early visitors to the area from more than 10,000 years ago:

“The first visitors to Fenton hunted the great mastodons. Later inhabitants were the American Indians from the Osage and Missouri tribes. Eventually these inhabitants were pushed out by white explorers. Early explorers were drawn to the area by fur trapping and the mining of iron, flint, salt and lead.

“By the 1800s, interest turned to the harvesting of timber. Many wooded ridge tops were completely cleared and the lumber used for railroad ties contributing to westward expansion of the country.”

The river’s historical plaques have proven resilient to extreme weather and increased flooding in recent years. Perhaps future plaques will provide observations on the effects of floodplain development and climate change on the Mississippi River tributary known as the Meramec.

A river walk to view the plaques is a great way to get a start on local history. Further resources are available through the historical societies of both Fenton and Sunset Hills.

Additional words of wisdom on local history include Sandie Grassino’s illustrated work “Sunset Hills: Images of America,” and “Fenton,” by Donna Seger and Kenneth Seger for the Fenton Historical Society.

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