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Take Five: New local book will tell the story of Clayton's first 100 years as a city

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2012 - Clayton is known today for its quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods of architecturally splendid homes that co-exist with a bustling business district dotted with towering skyscrapers. The seat of St. Louis County has, indeed, come a long way from the scruffy place that incorporated as a city 100 years ago.

The story of how Clayton took that big step forward in 1913 is related in "Clayton, Missouri: An Urban Story” ($35 Reedy Press), a book that will be released this fall, just in time for the city’s centennial bash in 2013.

The coffee-table book features both historical and modern portraits of town life, plus anecdotes, fact boxes and the voices of residents, past and present.

Donna Korando, the Beacon’s features editor, asked me to use my influence with the author -- who happens to be me -- to get a preview of the book. There is precedent for this. In 2009, Korando assigned me to interview myself about another local history I’d written -- "Animals Always: 100 Years at the St. Louis Zoo.” I was initially skeptical about how that would work but found myself to be a fairly cooperative source. Not to be outdone, I agreed to talk to myself again. Here goes:

MDL: Clayton traces its existence to the infamous divorce of St. Louis city and county in 1876. Why did the residents wait until 1913 to incorporate?

SELF: I think the answer is two-fold: In the beginning, Clayton took a while to make something of itself. And then, as the town grew, the townspeople seemed to be able to get things done as needs arose.

After the city-county split, the county had to find a place to do its business and considered various locations before taking Ralph Clayton up on his offer to donate 100 acres of his farmland for a new county seat. Most of the early residences and businesses were clustered around the courthouse. The county had subdivided Clayton’s land gift, plus four additional acres donated by Martin and Cyrene Hanley, into 300 lots that were auctioned in 1878. Early businesses -- hotels, taverns, law offices -- were established because of the courthouse: Residents from outlying areas of the county traveled long distances to conduct business at the courthouse. Courthouse lawyers and judges also built houses nearby.

The county seat was basically governed by the county court, which operated like a county board. To their credit, though, Clayton’s business and political leaders were able to work together to organize a school district and build a one-room school. They started a volunteer fire department. On the other hand, there was no money for civic improvements; and early residents -- and visitors to the town -- complained about mud streets and wooden plank sidewalks and dogs running loose. In the end, it wasn’t so much civic pride that drove the community to incorporate, but fears that they were about to be swallowed up by neighboring towns looking for tax revenue.

MDL: Does your book talk about the Claytons and Hanleys who got the ball rolling by donating farmland to the county?

SELF: Yes, but, frankly, I could write an entire book just on the Claytons and Hanleys, starting with how they migrated to the county from Virginia in the early 1800s. They were really pioneers.

Ralph Clayton is, of course, the city’s namesake, which isn’t too much to ask for donating 100 acres of land for zero dollars. His neighbors called him “Brother Clayton,’’ and he was an interesting character. Not only was he a successful farmer, but he also ran a tannery. On one hand, he was a pious man who hosted traveling Methodist ministers on his farm, but he was also credited with being an expert marksman. When he died in 1883, the flag at the courthouse flew at half-staff, a fitting tribute to the man who’d donated most of the land for the county seat.

The Hanley family’s heritage also lives on in town because their farmhouse was bought by the city and preserved as a museum. It’s the only dwelling that remains from Clayton’s earliest years. A Hanley daughter -- Nancy Caroline Hanley -- never married and lived in the house until she died in 1938. She was known as "Aunt Cal” and must have been quite a spitfire. In an interview published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a few years before her death, Aunt Cal talked about the Civil War days and how the Hanleys, who were Southern sympathizers, dealt with Union soldiers who “invaded” the family farm. She displayed a rebel flag on her porch every year on the birthday of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. I think her tales offer a glimpse into everyday life for rural Missourians during the Civil War.

MDL: How did Clayton evolve into its current mix of modern skyscrapers and historic neighborhoods?

SELF: I think a lot of it started with the forward-thinking architects who designed the private subdivisions that grew up in the countryside around early Clayton and Washington University at the turn of the 20th century. As wealthy St. Louis city residents began looking westward to escape the grit of the urban landscape, they were drawn to the open spaces of Clayton and other nearby towns.

Henry Wright, Julius Pitzman and Jens Jensen were among the noted architects and landscape artists who worked in Clayton. They were visionaries when it came to building structures that complimented and preserved natural spaces. That love of green spaces continues today with the city’s network of parks.

There were certainly struggles along the way, particularly as the city grappled with the growth and redevelopment of the central business district. But the spirit of preservation is active -- and very vocal -- in the neighborhoods of Clayton, and the city has paid a lot of attention to urban planning. So, today you have this interesting mix of historic neighborhoods and city buildings that were designed with a nod to colonial Williamsburg, within walking distance of progressive, modern glass and steel skyscrapers.

MDL: How were early Clayton residents successful in keeping their community working without a local government?

SELF: I think one of the keys was their pioneer spirit. Many of the early movers and shakers lived in Clayton because of jobs related to county government, and they had a stake in making the community work. George Autenrieth, for example, built a hotel that became central to the community. It became a social and civic gathering place for residents, and Autenrieth was one of the town leaders who pitched in to build schools and buy fire engines.

It think it would be great fun to go back in time and go on a Sunday picnic with the Clayton Limburger Club, a men’s club that counted among its members prominent businessmen, judges and county officials who helped build the city in the days around incorporation. The club had an odorous membership requirement: You had to eat a pound of the smelly cheese in one sitting.

It was interesting to learn about the town’s old characters. Like Mayor Charles Shaw who is credited with leading the town through the Depression years and wheeled and dealed to establish Shaw Park. One of my favorite voices in the book is advice given by Mayor Julius Nolte in 1924, as he handed over the post to his successor Mayor Roy Atwood. I found this quote in the wonderful old history of Clayton written by Dickson Terry in the 1970s. It’s very funny, with Nolte offering such suggestions as to "kill the too numerous squirrels” and to also “protect the squirrels because they are not numerous enough.” To "get the streets oiled in front of everybody’s house” and “see that too much oil is not put in front of everybody’s house.” In other words, you just can’t please everyone.

MDL: How did you happen to be writing a book about Clayton?

SELF: As part of the 100th anniversary celebration, the Clayton Century  Foundation commissioned me to write the text for the book. It sounded like a good freelance project that I could do with my daughter Melinda Leonard, who is the true historian of the family. She earned an undergraduate history degree at the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree at Loyola University in Chicago and works for Encyclopaedia Britannica. I’m the storyteller; she’s the historian.

Our toughest challenge was telling this story in about 100 pages that also include wonderful vintage pictures and modern photography by Mark Abeln. We took the museum exhibit approach. You don’t see every name, fact and place in an exhibit, but you walk away with a sense of the overall story. We also focused on Clayton history, not county history. But that said, each chapter in our book could be an entire book.

The book will be in area bookstores and also available through the Clayton Century Foundationand Reedy Press.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.