Rosemary Straub Davison: Longtime Activist Put A New, Familiar Face On Old Town Florissant
In July of 1991, Rosemary Davison took the keys and the deed to a home at 1067 Dunn Rd. in Florissant.
The two-story, red-brick farm house was built around 1860 by a German immigrant who had made his fortune during the California Gold Rush. Now, the house wasn’t fit to live in.
That didn’t matter to Ms. Davison. She wasn’t planning to live there. She was on a rescue mission.
With other members of Historic Florissant Inc., the nonprofit organization she helped found in 1969, Ms. Davison saved Gittemeier House from the wrecking ball.
Preserving the beauty of some of the city’s original structures is what Ms. Davison had done since moving to Florissant more than 50 years ago.
“We call it Historic Florissant, but it was really Rosemary,” said Gretchen Crank, who replaced Ms. Davison as president of the organization several years ago. “If not for her, Florissant would have a totally different look.”
Ms. Davison continued her preservation efforts until shortly before her death on Sept. 23, 2014, at her brother’s home in Prescott, Ariz. She was 96.
A memorial Mass will be celebrated on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, at Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, the church she’d helped save in 1958.
Everybody Needs Friends
She moved with her husband to Florissant in 1958, where he opened a restaurant and cocktail bar. She soon got wind of plans to tear down Old St. Ferdinand Shrine and worked quickly to convince the Archdiocese of St. Louis otherwise. The new organization, Friends of Old St. Ferdinand Shrine, bought the deed for one dollar.
Her introduction to restoration came with the imminent demise of the Taille de Noyer House, which was built around 1800. The 22-room mansion, located on the McCluer High School campus, is now a museum and home to the Florissant Valley Historical Society.
In 1960, the school district sold the house to the Society for one dollar. The catch was it had to be moved. That cost $10,000.
“It might as well have been a million dollars,” said Mary Kay Gladbach, one of Ms. Davison’s historic preservation partners.
Ms. Davison was undaunted by the challenge.
She was the first woman lawyer to come out of Ralls County, a small, Democratic Party stronghold in northeastern Missouri. She never practiced law, but her background helped her become a formidable negotiator and fundraiser.
To save the de Noyer House, she enlisted Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer to autograph baseballs to sell at a Christmas bazaar, friends crocheted French poodle bottle covers to sell; they even sold rags.
“She was behind every creative fundraiser,” Gladbach said.
To make Old Town Florissant new again, she also wrote grants and enlisted the help of labor unions, civic organizations, business owners, school children and her family.
Her father became caretaker of Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in 1968. He helped restore one of Florissant’s most visible landmarks: the John B. Myers House which overlooks interstates 170 and 270.
Over the years, Ms. Davison saved 10 major pieces of Florissant’s architectural past, including the Archambault House and the tiny Narrow Gauge Railroad depot.
The Archambault House, built around 1850, was Historic Florissant’s first purchase. It eventually became the organization’s offices and Ms. Davison’s home.
In 2009, she wrote the book, Rail Mail and Dreams: the Story of the West End Narrow Gauge Railroad, about the first trolley railway post office in the United States. Lore has it that the original purpose was to transport the new, young wife of Erastus Wells, for which Wellston is named, from St. Louis to Florissant to shop.
She wrote three other books, two about her family’s history and Florissant, Missouri, about her beloved city, in 2002.
Ms. Davison, whose heritage dated back to William the Conqueror, acquired a love of history naturally.
"When I was about 5 years old, I can remember my grandfather reading history books to me instead of fairy tales," Ms. Davison told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2003.
Shortly after moving to Florissant, she was elected to the Board of Freeholders, which rewrote the city charter that had been in place since 1857. Then she really got involved in politics.
She and her husband were active in electing President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Two years later, she helped elect Jim Egan, the first mayor to serve under the new charter. He called Ms. Davison the day after he was elected to ask for her help.
"I told him, 'I can give you two weeks,' but I went and stayed 17 years (as city clerk)," she said in a 2003 Post-Dispatch interview. Eagan served until his death in 2000.
She also served as a committeewoman for Florissant Township and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1984.
Ms. Davison served in leadership roles with numerous organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Missouri Heritage Trust, the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and the St. Louis Archdiocese Commission on Human Rights. She was the first layperson and the first woman in that role.
She was active in the Friendship Force of Florissant and traveled on goodwill and human rights tours to Europe, Asi, and Central America. She was a group leader with the North County Churches Uniting for Racial Harmony and Justice.
In an ’80s newspaper profile, she said: “We need to recognize that we are a global family, all brothers and sisters, whatever race and nationality. We must live together with love and respect. All that affects the least of us affect all us.”
James J. Egan, then mayor of Florissant, lauded Ms. Davison in 1982 as a doer and an innovator.
“Her involvement in the world around her and her dedication to the preservation of our past is intense,” Egan said.
Doing It Her Way
Rosemary Straub Davison was born Aug. 7, 1918, in Peoria, Ill., and grew up in Ralls County, Mo., the oldest of Adolph Straub and Josephine Hancock Straub’s four children.
After graduating from Monroe City High School, she moved to St. Louis and went to work as a U.S. deputy marshal in the Department of Justice, ferrying women prisoners between prison and the courthouse. Her application said 19, but she was only 17.
She put herself through college and earned a law degree from old City College in St. Louis in 1941.
After leaving the marshals service in 1942, she began doing legal work for various insurance companies. It was an opportunity a woman may not have garnered had so many men not been fighting in World War II.
She worked for the insurance companies throughout the 1940s and ’50s and took a part-time job at Miss Hickey’s Training and Secretarial School, now Hickey College, to help put a younger sister through Saint Louis University.
While at the marshals service, she had met another deputy, Leslie Springer Davison; they were married in 1956. He died in 1975.
After retiring, Ms. Davison worked fulltime on her causes: human rights, civil rights and historic preservation.
Her work was out in the open for all to see. Community reaction was not always favorable.
A motorist saw her at the move of the Girardier House, a small, six-room 1860s French farm house that now houses Florissant Old Town Partners. Shaking his finger, he declared, “This is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.”
Gladbach recalled her smiling and saying, “He doesn’t know what I have in mind to do next.”
She had no children, but through OASIS, she volunteered at Combs and Bermuda Elementary schools every Wednesday, rain or shine. Of course, on sunny days, the children were often treated to walking tours of Old Town Florissant.
No Spare Time
In 2001, a park and pavilion were named in Ms. Davison’s honor by the city of Florissant. Florissant Mayor Thomas P. Schneider has already decreed that Ms. Davison’s plaque be quickly added to the Florissant Walk of History near Old St. Ferdinand Church.
In a 2001 Post-Dispatch interview, she said she intended, in her spare time, to “practice to be an old woman.” She never got around to it.
Ms. Davison’s survivors include her sisters, Martha Jean (the late Al) Coonrod of Cheyenne Wyo., Anna Sue (the late Henry) Theising of St. Louis, and her brother, Richard (the late Rosemary Ebert) Straub of Prescott Ariz.
A public memorial Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, at Old St. Ferdinand Shrine, #1 Rue St. Francois, in Florissant. Interment of ashes will be at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Florissant.
If desired, Mass offerings and contributions to any of the nonprofit organizations to which Ms. Davison dedicated her life's work would be appreciated.