From 1906-1931, a mysterious benefactor served Thanksgiving dinner to orphans in St. Louis
On Thanksgiving, every year from 1906 until 1931, a luscious, mysterious Thanksgiving dinner would appear before the children living at Father Dunne’s Newsboys Home and Protectorate, formerly located at 3010 Washington Ave. in downtown St. Louis. The home was a place for orphaned or homeless boys, often newsboys, who were too old to take shelter at typical orphanages.
Who was the benefactor who served up such Thanksgiving meals? In 1906, the St. Louis Republic newspaper called him “the prince of mystery,” when he anonymously donated turkey, dressing, rolls, fruits, nuts, pie, cake and ice cream to the 56 residents of the home after learning they had little provisions themselves.
On Tuesday’s, “St. Louis on the Air,” Andy Hahn, the executive director of the Campbell House Museum, joined the show to tell the tale of Thanksgiving cheer and who exactly the mysterious gift-giver was.
The man who started the orphanage, Peter Dunne, was born in Chicago and became a priest after moving to St. Louis and taking a job as a night watchman at Saint Louis University. An orphan himself, he saw a particular need in the St. Louis area in the early 1900s to care for orphaned young boys struggling to survive on the streets of the city by taking jobs as shoe shiners or newsboys hawking newspapers. Hahn estimated that at the time there were close to 1,000 such boys in St. Louis.
In 1906, Father Dunne opened the Newsboys Home and Protectorate on Selby Place and welcomed some homeless boy into the orphanage, despite not having many resources to support the home. By the time Father Dunne died, in 1939, he had served 7,000 boys through the orphanage.
“One day, while [Father Dunne] was out, there was a knock on the door and this gentleman asked the cook ‘Is there much food for the boys?’ and according to Father Dunne’s own autobiography he said ‘There are two donuts and half a loaf of bread in the pantry,’” Hahn said.
An hour later, two wagonloads of provisions arrived at the home, which lasted the boys for months. That was the first of many gifts from the benefactor that would later include the donation of a pool for the boys to play in, monthly checks of support and yearly Thanksgiving dinners. All while keeping his name a secret from the boys.
“Not only was he interested in providing for the boys, but he was also interested in them personally,” Hahn said. “He liked to be there for that Thanksgiving dinner to see the wonder on the boys’ eyes as they were brought into the dining hall. This was not just food, it was a production.”
A catered dinner, there were white linen tablecloths, there were flowers on the table, a band was brought in to accompany the dinner, candy and presents were dispersed along the dinner table and the food was spectacular. A far cry from the lives the boys were previously living on the streets of St. Louis, Hahn said.
The mysterious benefactor is known by many monikers—“that feller,” as the boys called him—but his real name was Hugh Campbell. He was the son of a famous St. Louisan, Robert Campbell, an Irish immigrant who became an American frontiersman, fur trader and businessman who left a considerable inheritance to Hugh and his siblings when he died.
Hahn said that 10 of Hugh Campbell’s brothers and sisters died in their infancy and that experience founded in him a love of children that encouraged his generosity. Unmarried himself, he used to bestow candy and gifts upon friends’ children and music lessons for kids who lived in his neighborhood.
In one year alone, Campbell spent over $2000 on candy from Busy Bee Candy Company for the children of the Newsboys Home. Even with all his gifts to the home over the years, his identity was not revealed until the year after his death in 1931, when Father Dunne disclosed his name.
“You could tell in the quotes in the paper that Father Dunne lamented the loss not only for the financial loss to the home but because he and Hugh Campbell had become quite friendly,” Hahn said. “I think maybe Father Dunne saw Hugh Campbell as a father figure himself.”
It was through the Campbell House Museum that the full story of the mysterious Thanksgiving gifts were originally realized a few years ago. The home, which is located at 1508 Locust Street, was the boyhood residence of Hugh Campbell and stays open today as a museum for visitors to catch a glimpse of the gilded age of St. Louis.
Earlier this year, the museum released a book entitled “The Gilded Table: Recipes and Table History from the Campbell House,” which details some of the recipes that would have been served at Father Dunne’s Newsboys Home in the early 1900s. Written by Suzanne Corbett, a well-known food historian, the book also includes more details about the story of Hugh Campbell and Father Dunne’s Newsboys Home.
“Some things people won’t want to try like boiled buffalo tongue, but other things are absolutely spectacular—lamb chops, fried chicken, delicious desserts,” Hahn said.
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.