The following excerpts were taken from St. Louis at 150 - The Story of the Middle of the Mitten, written by local historian, David McMacken.
The first white men to arrive at the site that would later become St. Louis
were the surveyors that laid out the townships of Michigan
in the 1830s.
They navigated through the woods, crossed streams and rivers and slogged through swamps with their measuring instruments as they identified township lines – and later mile lines.
1850’s: In 1853, Joseph Clapp founded St. Louis when he followed an Indian trail that led to the five-year-old Bethany Lutheran Indian Mission. Clapp was the first person to build a home in what would later become St. Louis. He and many other men and women in the surrounding area constructed a dam and sawmill on the Pine River.
In 1855, Clapp obtained a post office which he conducted in his cabin. Receiving mail was one of the pleasures of the settlers and the post office was a vitally important part of the growing community.
The Fourth of July was the major celebration of the year for the settlers. The occasion in 1857 brought people together from the rival settlements of Elyton (Alma) and Pine River (St. Louis). An invitation from Pine River was accepted by the people of Elyton. At once the Elyton folks began soliciting subscriptions to help pay for the celebration and they accumulated $47.
The year 1856 was a significant one in the development of the Pine River settlement. In May, Joseph Clapp sold his entire holdings to Richard G. Hillyer, Lewis M. Clark and George W. Davis of Saginaw. The sale included his village plat, his sawmill and lumberyard and about 1,500 acres of forest. The trader Wilden too, was ready to sell, and the three newcomers bought Wilden’s store. The new owners were especially interested in the woods they had purchased and began lumbering the property in earnest.
In 1857, the first school within the settlement was built. Miss Betsey Clark was the first teacher in the new school and while 70 children of school age resided in the district, only 20 ended up in Miss Clark’s school.
1860’s: In 1865, the village became known as St. Louis, after St. Louis, Missouri, where General Charles Gratiot, for whom the county had been named, had lived out his years.
In June of 1869, workmen from the sawmill were trying to drill a well to tap the brine pool that lay under the Saginaw Valley. When water burst from the well pipe, the workers tasted it at once and found that it was not brine. A young salesman with a crippled hand joined other young men who were testing how long they could hold their hands in the icy, swiftly-flowing water. To his surprise the salesman soon was able to flex his crippled fingers. Word of his healing spread quickly, and townsfolk began carrying away pails of water to drink and bathe in at home. Many claimed the water improved their ailments. Some claimed miracles of healing.
By word of mouth, news of the healing spread. Soon the story was picked up by the press and newspapers far and wide reported the amazing well in St. Louis, Michigan. Without any intentional promotion, the magnetic well soon was attracting many ill people from beyond Gratiot County.
1870’s: The arrival of the Saginaw Valley and St. Louis Railroad in 1872 provided more than improved passenger service to the Springs. This railroad also carried wood and farm products, survived the financial panic of 1873, paid decent dividends and eventually paid its debt. It was an outstanding success during times when other rail lines went broke.
1880’s: Much of the town’s growth from the 1880s to the turn of the century centered on the crowds arriving at the Mineral Springs. Certainly, the throngs of the early years were gone, but a steady clientele kept the Park Hotel thriving under the ownership of Dr. Willis Andrews. Needing more rooms, Andrews built an addition to the Park and began offering baths in new bathrooms in the basement. The now dilapidated bathhouse, built many years before by Henry Holcomb, was torn down. A pleasant park was landscaped complete with fountains at the north side of the hotel. A long footbridge allowed guests to walk over the mill-race to the quaint pagoda-like building that housed the famous mineral well.
1900’s: Around the turn of the century many businesses were functioning and flourishing in St. Louis. Among these were Tuger’s Grocery and Drug Store, Tyroler’s Department Store, Marsh Field’s Grocery Store, The Table Company and O’Melia’s Flouring Mill. These businesses represent only a few of those operations that served St. Louis.
In the fall of 1899, the people voted bonds of $10,000 to establish a municipal lighting plant. Instead of building new, the city purchased the operating plant from the Edison Electric Light and Motor Power Company for $7,500 and found itself manufacturing and selling electricity.
1910’s: Around 1912, the first motion-picture shows arrived in St. Louis. These outdoor motion-pictures were projected on the wall of Dr. Wheeler’s Office Building on the southeast corner of Mill and Saginaw Streets. The Saturday night crowd stood in the street to watch this amazing new entertainment. This outdoor “movie” opened the door for the movie theater’s arrival in St. Louis.
In 1914, Andrew Affelt opened the Rex Theater on Mill Street. During World War I he changed its name to the Liberty Theater. In September 1922 the Liberty hosted a vaudeville performance featuring popular players from the movies.
1920’s: In 1926 a trio of buyers, including Harvey Hill, stepped forward and bought the Park Hotel. The new owners renovated the building and Hill laid some pretentious plans for the formal grand opening on January 21, 1927. At a cover of $2.50, more than 100 people filled the dining room. They were entertained by three vaudeville acts furnished by Alma’s Strand Theatre; the Alma College Quartet sang and the celebrants danced to the music of McLaughlin’s Orchestra of Saginaw until past 2 a.m.
The Park Hotel was the scene of hundreds of social events through the years including card parties, club meetings, high school proms, wedding receptions and company parties. In many respects the hotel served as the center of the city’s social life until its decline in the 1960’s.
1930’s: On September 15, 1935, ground was broken for construction of a chemical plant on the banks of the Pine River near the corner of North and Bankson streets. The newly-organized Michigan Chemical Corporation had acquired a 14-acre site formerly occupied by Henry Holcomb’s sawmill, salt block and bromine plant.
Through the late 30s a host of new products were produced by the company. A subsidiary, Michigan Salt Company, was organized in 1937 to manufacture and market one of the corporation’s most profitable products – salt for a variety of uses. Crystal Flow table salt was used in many dining rooms and kitchens. By January 1940, the company began full-time chemical research.
1940’s: In the mid-40’s the Hesses added roast duckling to the menu at the Park Hotel. Little did they know that the Park’s duckling dinners would bring new fame and fortune to the hotel. Soon the duckling dinner at Hess’ Park Hotel was widely-known across the state.
During World War II, Michigan Chemical Corporation began researching an effective new insecticide – DDT. Serious research began in April, 1944. A DDT plant was constructed during the summer and the product was shipped to the Army and Navy in tonnages in August. DDT contributed to the safety and comfort of the armed forces serving in insect-ridden areas of battle.
1950’s: In the 1950s St. Louis was a prospering city. As the city’s Centennial approached, citizens began to discuss the possibility of a tangible and useful addition to the city. Someone suggested a swimming pool. Perhaps, at first, the suggestion in the 1950’s seemed far-fetched for a small city, but a committee was formed and worked on the project for a year.
The W.T. Morris Memorial Park was dedicated during the Centennial on July 10, 1953. The pool officially opened on July 16 with Doug McKim as pool director. After two weeks, 24 non-swimmers had passed the beginners swimming test. With the closest other municipal pool being located in Mt. Pleasant’s Island Park, the W.T. Morris Pool drew busloads of children from neighboring towns to enjoy the sparkling waters.
Westgate Park Corporation was formed in 1956 to develop a subdivision south of M-46 and west of the Pine River. Several St. Louis businessmen were involved in the company. The 162-lot subdivision included a park and was annexed to the city from Pine River Township in 1956. Utilities were installed and houses began to be built.
The early 1950s were exciting times for the sports teams of St. Louis High School. State championships in boys basketball and boys track focused the entire community on the prowess of the school’s athletes.
1960’s: During the 1950s and 1960s Michigan Chemical Corporation grew into a complex of buildings and storages tanks that sprawled across the west side of the St. Louis peninsula. The company expanded out to Washington Street (M-46) and continued to pump millions of dollars into the area’s economy.
By the 1960s one of the company’s main products – DDT – was under scrutiny. It had served as a major insecticide for homeowners and agriculturalists alike for many years. Not only was its effectiveness now being questioned – as insects became more resistant to it – but it was evidently toxic to other creatures as well.
Michigan Chemical Corporation was taken over by the Velsicol Chemical Company in the 1960s and the production of DDT was halted by 1964. In 1973 DDT was outlawed for domestic use. The company was out of the DDT-making business and concerns about the chemical’s hazards seemed to be left in the past.
Jim Northrup was playing his second season of professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers when they won the World Series in 1968. Not bad for a young man who had just left Central Michigan for the world of professional sports. Jim played Little League, excelled in athletics at St. Louis High School and attended Alma College, where he participated in football, basketball, baseball and track.
1970’s: By 1970, one of Velsicol Chemical Company’s significant products was a fire retardant labeled Firemaster. It contained a chemical compound called PBB – not to be consumed by man or beast. The company also produced Nutrimaster, a supplemental cattle feed. In 1973 a tragic mix-up occurred in the company’s shipping department that resulted in wide-spread concern for the health of citizens throughout the state.
In May 1973, Velsicol Chemical Company ran out of the Firemaster bags. As a substitute they used Nutrimaster bags which were re-stenciled with the Firemaster label. They filled the new bags with PBB-laden Firemaster and these were warehoused. In filling regular orders from the Farm Bureau Services in Battle Creek, Velsicol workers shipped the re-stenciled Nutrimaster bags filled with the Firemaster product. At Farm Bureau in Battle Creek no one noticed the change and emptied bags of toxic chemical into the cattle feed which then was mixed and shipped to various parts of the state.
In the spring of 1974, hundreds of contaminated cattle were slaughtered and buried in large pits. Meat from contaminated cattle and poultry had been sold throughout the state and authorities acknowledged that nearly every person in the Lower Peninsula had ingested PBB. The long-term effects of the chemical compound on humans were not known. An estimated $200 million in lawsuits were instituted against Velsicol and Farm Bureau Services.
The DNR stepped in to investigate the effects of the Velsicol Chemical Company’s operations on the Pine River. Their investigation of the Pine River revealed a profoundly contaminated waterway. The DNR’s reaction signaled that the days of Velsicol in St. Louis were numbered. In a series of legal maneuvers that produced many hard feelings, the DNR made it virtually impossible for the chemical company to continue to function in St. Louis.
More than 300 jobs were lost when the plant closed in 1978. Some employees were able to transfer to other Velsicol plants. Some found other jobs. Some retired. In any case, bitterness remained over the perceived heavy-handedness of the DNR.
If this blow to the local economy were not enough, the DNR did not go home. It continued to monitor the river and the resulting discoveries were alarming. The chemical company’s buildings and property, as well as the river, were thoroughly contaminated by years of chemical production.
1980’s: In 1982, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a deal with Velsicol. The company would pay $38 million and be absolved of future responsibility for the chemical contamination in St. Louis. The settlement was regarded as a very favorable one by the DNR.
The processing plants, warehouses, tanks and offices of the chemical company were dismantled and trucked away in pieces to be buried. What had once been a thriving industrial site now was an expensive, ugly field of dirt. A thick cap of clay was placed over the 50-acre site and draped down the riverbanks to the river bottom to seal in the remaining contamination. Shallow wells were drilled across the property to monitor seepage. The site was fenced and signs warned people of the dangers of trespassing.
With the loss of the Velsicol tax base and the bad economy of the 1980s, St. Louis struggled. Many businesses were vacant and St. Louis needed to come up with a way to recover from the economy downfall.
1990’s: Three state prisons were built in St. Louis in the 1990s. The three prisons brought 900 well-paid jobs to St. Louis as well as an increase in the city’s tax base. The City was also able to utilize the prisoner work-release program.
The DNR continued to monitor the river. In 1994, sixteen years after the plant ceased operations, samples of fish tissue revealed high levels of DDT contamination. Further investigation revealed that the river sediment next to the plant site was 4% DDT. The chemical problems in St. Louis were to have been solved with the removal of the plant and installation of the three-foot-thick clay cap. Few suspected that another major chapter in the story was about to be opened.
In December, 1997 the Pine River Superfund Citizens Task Force was formed as a local advisory group to the EPA. The task force soon pressured the EPA for money to clean up the Pine River. The EPA fulfilled its responsibility and began a filtration process that has been used to present.
In June, 1996 many citizens watched as the St. Louis High School building was demolished. A new high school was constructed in its place. Long time high school Principal Keith Wing often joked about St. Louis being the oldest high school in Gratiot County. After the new high school was built, he was able to boast about St. Louis being the newest high school in Gratiot County.
The early 1990s began an economic upturn for St. Louis. Storefronts in the downtown began to fill up once again and new businesses were started in the industrial park.
In 1996, a Parks and Recreation Commission was developed. With the development of the commission many improvements were made to the existing city parks, as well as the development of new recreational areas. In 1997, Leppien Park, situated on the river in the Westgate Subdivision, was completed. This park makes a great impression upon travelers coming from the west. Penny Park, on Prospect Street along the river, was also completed in 1997.