Updated 9:21 a.m., March 30 with clarification on No. 8 - As a St. Louisan, there are things we pass by all the time that are just plain weird. How many of us actually stop to ask why they are that way? That’s the reasoning behind St. Louis Public Radio’s Curious Louis project and also why local author Dave Baugher wrote a book investigating all the things he wanted to know the backstory of.
The book is called “Secret St. Louis: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure,” which was recently published by Reedy Press.
Baugher joined St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter to discuss some of the oddities he researched for the book and how he came to be interested in them.
“You drive around St. Louis, like I often do, and you see things you pass every day like the dove out at West County Mall,” Baugher said. “Why is the symbol to that mall a dove? No one asks that, no one thinks about that. When I drive through North County, there’s a wonderful business park out near Bridgeton called Earth City. Earth City is a very strange name for a business park, so where did that name come from? I like to ask these questions—why is that piece of art there? Why is that statue there? This, that and the other thing.”
Over time, Baugher started to think he had enough history collected for a book.
“I always had a strange curiosity for things that other people didn’t think about,” he said. “ … I’ve always had as strange affinity for the weird, the odd and the unusual.”
There are 97 oddities featured in Baugher’s book. Here are the explanations behind 10 of them. How many have you seen or experienced?
1. The West County Center dove
Baugher said that when the mall was constructed in 1969, the person who designed the dove, Joe Thaler, had “one foot in counter culture and one foot in the corporate world.” He wanted to put up a shape that was intriguing, some sort of animal form. At one point, a dragon was in the running, but he ultimately settled on a bird form. It was not originally conceived as a dove, but when people saw it, they called it a dove, and he went with that designation.
2. Eliza Poole’s “tombstone” in Tower Grove Park
Anyone who has taken a good long run in Tower Grove Park knows of the mysterious “tombstone” emblazoned with the name Eliza Poole. Who was Eliza Poole? Was she murdered in the park? Why is she buried in such a public place? In fact, though the stone bears remarkable resemblance to a tombstone, it is not. “Eliza Poole lived a full life,” said Baugher. Poole was a cousin of Henry Shaw and the stone is merely a marker erected in her honor in front of an tree. The tree is now long-gone but, above her name, you’ll see the word “oak.”
3. The Big School Ice Cream Cone
Have you seen the big, colorful ice cream cone in front of Mesnier Elementary School in Affton? “It was an old corporate logo ice cream cone from the Velvet Freeze in South County,” said Baugher. It was moved to the elementary school in 1992. Fun fact: it used to be vanilla, but is now flavored.
4. The Billiken
Think you know the Saint Louis University mascot? Think again.
“The Billiken has an interesting backstory in that it was invented by Florence Pretz, who was a turn-of-the-century artist in Kansas City,” said Baugher, mentioning the fact that it does have Missouri roots. “It became a good luck charm and it immediately took off and became this strange worldwide fad. It went viral before things went viral.”
There were keychains, icons, figurines...sort of like a troll doll.
“Her invention spread and she became bitter because she did not get enough royalties,” Baugher continued. “She said, at one point, if she saw one she would smash it. Apparently, it was adopted by Saint Louis University because people thought it bore an interesting resemblance to the football coach at the time, John Bender.”
5. Five cities in 45 seconds
There is a stretch of I-170 — you probably know it — where you can drive through five cities in (count ‘em) 45 seconds. Yes, Baugher, drove down the stretch of highway and timed his drive through Overland, Charlack, Sycamore Hills, St. John and Bel-Ridge. Driving at a reasonable speed, it takes 45 seconds to pass through all five municipalities.
“I’m a North Countian, I would drive by there all the time,” Baugher said. “There were times you could see three city limits all at once. I thought: that’s not right. We’ve talked a lot about consolidating, so it is serious issue. It is sort of humorous and it is a geographical oddity but it is also a lesson that we need to come together and unify a little bit more.”
6. Smallpox Island
In the Lincoln Shields Memorial area in West Alton, you will find a memorial set up for the tragic site of Smallpox Island, which has been swallowed up by the Mississippi River. It was originally called Sunflower Island, but during the Civil War, Confederate prisoners who contracted Smallpox in the overcrowded Alton Prison were sent to the island to die. Many were buried in a mass grave that was not uncovered until the 1930s.
7. The million dollar money cube
“There is in fact a way you can find out what a million dollars would look like if it were all in $1 bills, which, incidentally, is not the most efficient way to carry one million dollars around,” said Baugher. Head down to the Federal Reserve’s Inside the Economy Museum (“An economic version of the Magic House,” Baugher said.) and you can see a huge cube of money. Well, kind of. Apparently, it is only coated in one dollar bills and the bills inside are fake.
8. Picnic at a radioactive waste dump
There’s a spot in Weldon Spring where you can picnic at a radioactive waste dump. Why would anyone do that?
“You’d want to because…who wouldn’t want to? It is a really interesting sight,” says Baugher.
During World War II, the U.S. Army took over a stretch of land in St. Charles County and used the site to produce ammunition. Later, the Atomic Energy Commission acquired the property and built the Weldon Spring Uranium Feed Materials Plant, also known as the Weldon Spring Chemical Plant. A quarry nearby, originally mined for limestone, became a site for dumping nuclear waste. Both sites have gone through remediation efforts and are designated Superfund sites. Now, an Interpretive Center exists on the property as a well as a 75-foot limestone disposal cell. Visitors can walk to the top of it. Read more about this history of the site here, from the Department of Energy.
“You get less radiation there than you would have in your own backyard,” Baugher said. “It is a nice view from the top. You can see the Arch on a clear day.”
9. The area’s only nudist resort
In Franklin County, there exists a nudist resort called the 40-Acre Club. There are a lot of rules and a code of conduct for the naturists who come to visit. The site is in a nicely-landscaped, park-like setting. “Very friendly folks,” Baugher said. If you are interested in more naturist recreation, there is also a group called the St. Louis Gateway Nudist and this list of organizations in Missouri.
10. St. Charles Rock Road's origins
One of Baugher’s favorite finds was the history of St. Charles Rock Road.
“It confuses a lot of St. Louisans because it neither leads to St. Charles nor is it made of rock,” he said. “In fact, it used to lead to St. Charles and it was made of rock. It is probably the oldest road in St. Louis County and was originally laid out by the Spanish. It predates the United States, being laid out in 1772.”
Later, in 1921, it would become the first paved road in St. Louis County.
“It was probably originally worn there initially by travelers wearing a path between the two cities [St. Charles and St. Louis],” Baugher said. “The traffic problems on the Rock Road do predate its existence, as most North Countians probably already expected.”
Is another book in the works for Baugher? It is a little too soon to tell, he said.
“There are more stories, certainly, to talk about,” Baugher said. “This is an endlessly fascinating city. This is a place that has many different organizations, groups, historical sights, different statues, monuments — and every one has a story. This is a unique place and we need to celebrate it more often.”
Is there something in the St. Louis area you would like to know the backstory of? Let us help you! Ask your question of Curious Louis and we’ll get to the bottom of it.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.