Missouri’s First Settlement Turns a New Page
Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography courtesy of Ste. Genevieve Tourism.
In August 2014 I made my first multi-day trip to Ste. Genevieve (pop. 5,500), America’s Original French Colonial Village. Prior to that I had made a few stops for meals when returning home from St. Louis, one hour from Ste. Genevieve. Then in early September of this year I returned to Ste. Genevieve (or Ste. Gen as some call it). In fact, I can visualize having a small apartment there. Perhaps it’s my father’s French ancestry (Normandy, France) that keeps drawing me back to this charming city.
It has been listed on America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and most recently the scenic and charming Ste. Genevieve, Missouri’s oldest town, is now under consideration as a new National Park, according to Sandra Cabot, Director of Ste. Genevieve Tourism. “There has been a recommendation by the U.S. Department of the Interior that Ste. Genevieve be considered as a future National Historic Park site,” said Cabot.
In addition, the Green Tree Tavern along St. Mary’s Road that looks out over Les Grand Champs (The Big Field) is the oldest French colonial structure (1799) built by a French Canadian from Quebec. “This tavern played an important part in Ste. Genevieve’s story,” stated Cabot. “It celebrated its opening in September. By the spring of 2019 the tavern will be added to the list of tourist attractions in Ste. Gen. It will certainly be a grand addition. A huge structure, it is probably the most handsome and impressive structure from the outside of the building.”
“Fall is such a sweet and sentimental time and one of the best seasons for both weather and scenery. If you are looking for a weekend or mid-week escape, or if you need to rekindle your holiday cheer, you can be sure to find just what you’re looking for here!”
— Sandra Cabot, Director Ste. Genevieve Tourism
History Of St. Genevieve
Founded in 1735, St. Genevieve (Genevieve was the patron saint of Paris, France) is the oldest permanent European settlement in the state of Missouri. Established on the west bank of the Mississippi River, the village of St. Genevieve was settled about two miles south of its present location. The village was one of several important French communities forming a region known as the Illinois Country, part of the vast territory held by France in North America at the time. Many of St. Genevieve’s earliest residents were French Canadian habitants who farmed the rich, alluvial soil adjacent to the village. They also produced salt and mind lead from nearby sources.
World events impacted the inhabitants of Ste. Genevieve in 1762 when France ceded all its holdings west of the Mississippi River to Spain as a result of the French and Indian War. Despite the transfer and new Spanish government in the region, Ste. Genevieve retained its distinctive French character and language. The disastrous flood in 1787 triggered the gradual relocation of the village to higher ground to its present location between the forks of the Gabouri Creek.
Much of the charm and ambiance of historic Ste. Genevieve is due to the remarkable preservation of the original colonial settlement. Its narrow streets and fenced gardens surround some of the most significant eighteenth century architecture in the nation. These French Colonial style buildings were constructed from massive, hand hewn logs that were set vertically to form the walls of the home. Heavy timbers were mortised and pegged into sturdy trusses that supported the impressive double-hipped roof covering the house and its wide galleries or porches. Fascinating variations of this architectural style are found in the historic homes of colonial Ste. Genevieve as well as in Quebec, Canada and Normandy, France.
As the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 propelled Ste. Genevieve into another chapter in history, its French speaking residents suddenly found themselves citizens of the newly expanded United States. Soon the rush of Americans into the Louisiana Territory left its mark in Ste. Genevieve as well. Today there is a curious mix of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century architecture found in Ste. Genevieve. Mid-nineteenth century German immigrants left their legacy of charming rock and brick homes and stores through the community.
Today Ste. Genevieve’s National Landmark Historic District offers visitors an unparalleled glimpse into its colonial past.
Did You Know?
Ste. Genevieve is Missouri’s first settlement, founded by the French in the early 1700s.
Named by “Country Living Magazine” as One of the 50 Most Beautiful Places in America
Ranked 3rd by “Only in Your State” as one of the 17 Most Charming Towns in America
Late afternoon on Friday, September 1 (Labor Day weekend) I arrived at the Ste. Genevieve Great River Road Welcome Center. There I picked up literature including my itinerary, B&B info, a Visitor’s Guide, a Wine Country map, Hiking Trails map, French Colonial brochure and an Historic District map. Then I watched a short video of the city as I had not seen it in several years.
At 5 pm I checked in at the Main Street Bed & Breakfast located at 221 N. Main Street where I was warmly greeted by Innkeeper Jean Sellberg (Her personality is well suited to inn keeping.) She assigned me the Trope Ricard Room upstairs, which has a porch outside the room that during certain hours is a private porch.
Originally built in 1882 as the Meyer Hotel, the Main Street Inn B&B has long been considered one of Missouri’s finest bed and breakfast establishments. Having recently undergone an extensive year-long renovation, the new owner (Dr. Susan McDonald) and innkeeper Jean Sellberg are thrilled to re-open this inn.
My guest room was attractively furnished and had all of the necessary amenities. Upon arrival wine and cheese were offered, and the breakfast the next morning was excellent. Late Saturday afternoon refreshments were served in the parlor to the inn’s guests.
Website: www.mainstrinn.net; phone: 573-880-7500
About an hour later a friend and I strolled two blocks to dinner and en route we popped into Only Child Originals (jewelry designer and metal arts sculptures) and peeped in the windows of other shops.
Our dinner at Audubon’s Bar & Grill (9 North Main), which as I recall was being rehabbed on my previous visit to Ste. Genevieve, was excellent. Regional dining specialties are offered at Audubon’s. The signature dish is Chicken Baetje (goat cheese, their spin on Cordon Bleu). After a delicious meal, I ordered a chocolate martini for a nightcap. Greg Ferguson, one of the four owners who restored the historic building built in 1903, warmly greeted my friend and me as did several of the other owners of this building. Breakfast is served only on Sunday from 10am-2pm. Lunch and dinner are offered Tuesday through Saturday.
A hotel with 8 guest rooms is scheduled to open upstairs this spring.
On Saturday, September 2 I awakened to a sunny, slightly chilly day. After a sumptuous breakfast with other guests in the large dining room, there was time to shop and discover some of the new shops that were not in Ste. Gen on my last visit. The shops include RUST on North Main; the Show-Me Shop, which is always busy and is a must-stop for me with cheeses and wines, culinary tools and cookbooks, as is European Entitlements with fine home and garden décor and beautiful coffee table books. Add to your shopping list the Belle Ever After Boutique near Main and Merchant and First Settlement Antique’s new location next door to Sara’s Ice Cream. I wandered up Merchant Street, stopping in at the revamped gift shop of the Felix Valle State Historic Site, and the new shop RustikSandKandles, and Simple to Sassy (corner of Merchant and 3rd).
Note the newly restored DuBourg Centre, a posh reception center owned by the Catholic Church of Ste. Genevieve.
What a gorgeous church this is! This Gothic-style brick church, which will seat 2,000 people, has beautiful stained glass windows, statues, marble altars and two paintings given to the church by King Louis XVI of France.)
One block away is a trio of new shops: What-Nots and Oddities (across from the Courthouse Square), Rhinehart and Rhinehart’s Art Gallery (a native of St. Gen recently returned after a storied career as an artist; the wall-sized paintings are astounding!) and the ASL Pewter Foundry on Third Street across from the Southern Hotel B&B. There you may watch the artisans at work and shop for lead-free pewter in original designs—some new and some dating to the 1700s. For lovers of vintage jewelry visit Steiger’s Estate Jewelry downtown on Merchant Street.
Ste. Genevieve Calendar Of Events
November 11: Cookie Crumb Trail
November 18: Harvest Celebration on the Route du Vin Wine Trail
December 1, 2 & 3: Holiday Christmas Festival
December 10: French Christmas at the Felix Valle House
Ste. Genevieve Wine Country
A short half hour drive from Ste. Genevieve is the wine country of Missouri. It is especially beautiful in the autumn.
“The wine country is a big tourism draw and it ties in to our local heritage, both of the French and subsequent German influence on wine making traditions,” said Sandra Cabot, Tourism Director. “The beauty of the combination of the wine country and the historic District, which is a national landmark historic district, is that it makes for a perfect 2-3 day visit. You can do the historic sites, the shopping, downtown activities in one day, the wine country the next, and beautiful hiking, biking and scenic tours. There are several hot spots for antiquing in St. Genevieve County. One is St. Mary’s Antique Mall, which can easily take two hours to wander down its aisles, and others are Schultz’s Antiques and First Settlements. Note: St. Mary’s, Missouri is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Ste. Genevieve.
There are 11 wine trails and 10 wineries and microbreweries. A new amenity that originated in 2016 is now available for private charters or on weekends you can reserve a seat and it will pick you up at your downtown Ste. Gen hotel or B&B and take you through wine country. Groups also reserve the trolley for historic district tours. Step-on tours are offered. For more information visit www.VisitStGen and follow the links to transportation (click on Vines to Wines).
Recently Chaumette Winery, owned by Hank Johnson, won several awards, as did Crown Valley. On my last visit I had the privilege of being a guest at Chaumette in a lovely private villa decorated with a Country French flair. I toured an historic on-site chapel and a special events barn, visited the Tasting room, and overindulged at lunch at the Grapevine Grill.
Mid-afternoon a friend and I explored the new parts of the Wine Country: Watertower Winery, Weingarten Winery and the Garten Haus Restaurant.
Back in town, even though I needed a nap at this point, I did more shopping in downtown Ste. Genevieve. One of my favorite quaint shops is Odile’s Linen and Lace, Etc., which features curtains, table laces, pillowcases and handkerchiefs; scarves, hats, jewelry, heirloom caps for babies, gowns and it even has Downton Abbey merchandise. My final stop downtown was the Sainte Genevieve Winery at 245 Merchant St. This shop is open daily from 11 am-5 pm, and it features a full line of premium and traditional wines and wine-related gifts. I purchased several Christmas gifts there.
On Saturday evening I enjoyed my guest room at the Main Street Inn, read and relaxed.
On the morning of my departure, a Sunday, after another delicious breakfast with convivial guests, I met the multi-talented Yvonne LeMire, owner of the Rosemary and Thyme Cooking School. She was preparing for a cooking class called “Ladies Who Lunch.” I was invited to participate, but my schedule did not permit me to do so. She graciously spent time with a friend and me in her lovely Country French home located next door to the Show Me Shop on Main Street.
On my way out of town I drove over to the Bequette Ribault House at 351 St. Mary Road to see the progress made since my last visit in 2014. Most days the owner has a tour guide to explain the history of the home and outbuildings.
As I departed the charming town of Ste. Genevieve, I knew I would return some day (soon, I hope). I am already looking forward to a return visit. Check out the busy Calendar of Events. How about going on the Cookie Crumb Trail in November or celebrating a French Christmas the first full weekend in December or “La Guignolee,” a French tradition on New Year’s Eve? Ste. Genevieve has captured my heart as it will yours.
Missouri Staycation: Ste. Genevieve County
When was the last time you saw a sky completely full of twinkling stars? Or heard cows lowing outside your bedroom window? Or tasted grapes fresh off the vine? If, like me, the answer is ‘never,’ shame on us. Especially since a short hour’s drive can put us smack dab in the middle of some of the prettiest countryside in the U.S.
“Ste. Genevieve County, just 60 miles from home, combines natural beauty with more worldly attractions (about a dozen wineries and a French Canadian settlement dating to the 1740s) to offer a weekend getaway that will make you feel like you’ve been away much longer.
Our immediate destination was Chaumette Vineyards & Winery on State Rte. WW, a popular destination among St. Louisans who have likened it to French wine country. The changing fall colors, a quiet cozy retreat and a gourmet restaurant—that was enough for an overnight escape. Anything else would just be a bonus, I thought.
Turns out we got all that and then some. Chaumette proved to be an idyllic setting, with rolling hills all around. Its ‘villas,’ attractive suites built up on wooden piers to replicate the French architectural style found in historic Ste. Genevieve nearby, had wraparound wooden porches with views of the endless rows of grapevines. Inside, we lacked for nothing, from a walk-in closet to Kaldi’s coffee.
A hike around the property took us past the large dining room and tasting room building, set high on a hill for optimum views of the rows of Chardonel, Norton and Vignoles vines, as well as nearby cow pastures. Past that, a small chapel nestled in the woods, ready for couples who want a country wedding (of which, apparently, there are many). Intending to do the entire 3-mile loop around Chaumette, we disappeared into the woods down a gravel path, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
About half a mile in, we came upon an adjacent winery/brewery, Charleville, known for its Hoptimistic IPA. Turns out we zigged when we were supposed to zag, or something like that. But we were on country time, and decided to just go with the flow—Charleville, it is. On a much smaller scale than Chaumette, it was built in the same year, 2013, and we sidled up to the thick wooden bar for a Strawberry Pale Ale, $1.80 a taste, $5 for a flight of five.
Back at Chaumette, it was time for one of the weekend’s highlights: dinner at Grapevine Grill, where CIA-trained chef Rob Beasley has gotten some buzz as far away as St. Louis. A native of Louisiana, he infuses the menu with Creole-Cajun flavors; do not miss the Louisiana Shrimp, whatever you do. The flourless chocolate cake, drizzled with port and caramel sauce and plump cherries, should be on your dessert radar, too. We walked the third of a mile or so from our villa to the dining room in the dark, hoping the enormous sea of stars would light our way. Alas, it’s pitch dark out there, even with starlight, so bring a flashlight.
Day two had its own agenda, with plans for some serious hiking in the gorgeous environs, followed by exploration of historic Ste. Genevieve until the homes closed or we dropped of exhaustion, whichever came first. The hike, a 1.5-mile loop around Pickle Springs Natural Area, was breathtaking, with water features, massive boulders called hoodoos and deep stone set-backs the park map dubbed ‘canyons.’ Bring hiking boots! It is as pretty a sight as I’ve seen, but with its own Midwestern forest character of lush woods and trickling water.
Be sure to give yourself enough time for the county’s jewel in the crown: historic Ste. Genevieve. Main, Market and Merchant streets have the lion’s share of tourable properties, but homes all around town proudly display wooden plaques with the date of their founding and the name of their original family. You’ll see many in the 1700s and 1800s, several of them open for touring (not necessarily every day, however): the Louis Bolduc, Felix Valle, Jacques Guibourd, Jean-Baptiste Valle, Bequette- Ribault and Bauvais-Amoureux homes. They’re French in origin, mostly built by French Canadians who traveled south down the Mississippi to escape persecution by the British or to seek better commercial opportunities.
As a living record of Missouri’s French colonial history, the town of Ste. Genevieve is a National Historic Landmark. It originated as a French colonial settlement, and in 1803 was sold to the fledgling United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Most homes built during the French colonial period, including many that visitors can tour, were constructed in a distinctive style typical of French Canada called vertical-log. The wooden beams are lined up vertically, unlike the horizontally stacked logs of the typical log cabin. Interestingly, Ste. Genevieve has the largest number of these vertical log homes in the U.S. And, it has three of the remaining five poteaux-en-terre homes in the entire country, structures that are supported by wooden columns anchored directly in the dirt. Also noteworthy: it is thought that the oldest rose garden in Missouri is here, behind the Jean-Baptiste Valle House (circa 1794).
Apparently the rose cuttings came from none other than Madame Therese Chouteau, considered the matriarch of St. Louis.
Editor’s Choice for Most Beautiful Town
Established in the 1740s, Ste. Genevieve was the first European settlement in Missouri, and much of its historic charm and ambiance is due to the remarkable preservation of the original French colonial settlement. Its narrow streets and fenced gardens surround dome of the most significant 18th century architecture in the nation.
Ste. Genevieve gets national park designation, but much remains to do before it will open
STE. GENEVIEVE, MO. • The iconic National Park Service arrowhead emblem that directs visitors to famous national landmarks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, will eventually point tourists to a small Mississippi River town where French houses date to the 1700s.
The long-sought formation of the Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park was approved by Congress and signed into law March 23. It authorizes the National Park Service to acquire about 13 acres, including historic buildings, for inclusion in the park about an hour south of St. Louis.
Getting the national park designation was the culmination of 20 years of effort that local officials hope will bring more tourists to the town of nearly 4,500.
Momentum grew in 2005 when Congress ordered the Department of Interior to study whether part of the city and county meet federal criteria to be included in the national park system. The study began in 2010. It was supposed to take three years, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the National Park Service released its findings, which declared dozens of properties as historically significant and suitable for a park designation.
Now comes the job of getting it open. When that will happen, likely a few years from now, and specifics about how it will function largely remain unknown.
“We want to see things happen at a fast pace, but I don’t think you can do that, especially when you’re dealing with the federal government,” said Paul Hassler, the town’s mayor for the past year. “There are things that have to be in place and it’s going to take some time.”
He and many others in Ste. Genevieve are bullish on the boost that a national park site will bring to the town, and are eager to work with the National Park Service to do what needs to be done.
Hassler was part of a group who went to Washington last fall to speak before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources to push for the designation. Three people from his Ste. Genevieve contingent dressed in traditional French garb, which is a familiar site around the town — its French colonial past is a core part of the town’s identity, and tourism is a vital part of the area’s economy.
The original Ste. Genevieve settlement was founded around 1735 — the first permanent European settlement in what is now Missouri. The town is famous for its historic buildings that have survived the centuries, especially those using “poteaux-en-terre” construction, which means “posts-in-the-earth” and refers to its vertical logs built directly on the ground. Ste. Genevieve is home to three such buildings, part of the largest concentration of colonial French architecture in North America.
Some of the town’s many old buildings already are owned by the state and private groups who give tours, and also by people who live in them.
Between 25,000 and 40,000 people visit the town each year, said Sandra Cabot, its director of tourism. She said that number is conservative, and could double once the national park is open.
“Even buying gas — everything contributes to the local economy,” she said of the expected spike in tourists.
Developing a timeline is the next step in getting the national park running, she said.
No land for the park has been acquired, and the soonest it could be funded would be next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, said Alexandra Picavet, a National Park Service spokeswoman.
Typically, a new park site would start with a budget of perhaps $150,000 with one staff member to spearhead the planning process.
“All new parks start small and grow over time,” she said.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2016 that acquiring the land for the Ste. Genevieve park would cost about $335,000, and that state-owned property within its footprint likely would be donated to the park service. Privately owned property was expected to be purchased by the park service over five years.
The office also estimated the park service would spend about $1 million a year on maintenance and operating costs for the park after the property is acquired.
The Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park, under the current design, would be in two sections.
The smaller area would be a 4-acre parcel including the state-owned Delassus-Kern House on U.S. Highway 61. A resource study and environmental report released in 2016 calls it “a large example of vertical log architecture encased in late Victorian additions” that has been owned by the state since 1993. No significant stabilization has been done, the report said, partly because of work to learn more about the house’s origins and partly because of restoration costs.
The biggest portion would be about 2.5 miles away, on St. Mary’s Road just outside the town’s historic downtown. That area, about 9 acres, would include the state-owned Bauvais-Amoureux House, which is part of the Felix Valle State Historic Site, and adjacent properties, such as a former inn known as the Creole House.
That chunk of land also would cover the Bequette-Ribault House, which was restored by owner Hank Johnson, who also owns Chaumette Vineyards & Winery just outside of Ste. Genevieve.
Johnson gives tours and hosts wine tastings at the house, which dates to 1808 and is significant for its original Norman truss roof and poteaux-en-terre construction.
He is thrilled about the national park designation, and said he is interested in exploring a public-private partnership with the National Park Service for his site, which includes the Lasource-Durand cabin.
That could happen. Legislation authorizing the park encourages agreements between the park service and other landowners, said Picavet, the park spokeswoman.
“The energy and the interest the community has shown in this site is a great indicator of how we’ll be able to work together in the future,” she said.
Such a shared arrangement seems unlikely for a modern-day business like the Huck and Roth Garage, a boat-repair shop in the proposed national park’s boundaries.
Jerry Roth, who has owned it for more than 50 years, said he’ll wait to see if he gets an offer to sell to make way for the future park.
“I’ll have to make up my mind then,” he said.
Local business owners say the national historical park designation will highlight Ste. Genevieve’s charms.
The town seems to be hidden, said Judith Sexauer as she readied her art gallery and frame shop, Galleria Ste. Genevieve, for an art walk on a recent Friday. The building dates to 1860.
“There are people who just go to national parks,” she said. “I think this is going to add to getting us on the map in darker letters.”
Sara Menard is excited too. She’s president of the Foundation for Restoration of Ste. Genevieve, and owns Sara’s Ice Cream shop.
The foundation would keep its properties, including the Guibourd-Valle house, which it would continue to operate separate of the national park site. Menard is hopeful the foundation will benefit from the National Park Service being in town.
Nelson and Delia Nix of Oakville toured another historic building, the Felix Valle house recently. Both said Ste. Genevieve already had the feel of a national park, so much so that they asked for a National Park Service passport stamp after the tour.
The Valle house is set to remain state-owned, but the Nixes will be able to take another day trip south and get that stamp someday — whenever the Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park opens.