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.

Park features

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.

 

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