Excerpt from The History of St. Louis County
by William L. Thomas and first published in 1911
A County that is a Very Large City.
The county, within a belt that surrounds the city of St. Louis, the said belt being of an average width of two to three miles, began filling up with people seeking locations that promised rural delights combined with city conveniences and cheap accessibility, about 1880. At first the stations along the steam railroads on the Missouri Pacific, the Iron Mountain and the Wabash, with the small towns already beginning to expand, were favored, and the ranks of a class of people known as “commuters” increased rapidly. In the year 1896 there were twenty-four trains a day, called commutation trains, stopping at all stations between St. Louis Union Station and Kirkwood, on the Missouri Pacific. Previous to this, however, as far back as the 1860’s, there were people living in Kirkwood and Webster and Laclede and Cheltenham who rode back and forth each day.
There is a man in Webster Groves, Robert Thompson by name, who claims to have ridden into and out of the city as a commuter every weekday since 1867; and there is a goodly number who have been doing likewise for many years. Their numbers increased, their little towns began to grow toward each other and to spread out in all directions, and these people began to chafe under the limitations of the usual railroad time schedule, but ere long the hoped-for relief came in the shape of the electrically propelled streetcar, between 1890 and 1900, followed since then by additions to this class of transportation facilities, until now, when the rails reach out into the country for many miles in all directions.
The county of St. Louis is, to nearly all intents and purposes, a city on a very large scale. Its homes are provided with the city’s modern utilities of light and heat and water. The use of the telephone is well-nigh universal. Our letters are brought to us by carriers as in the cities. Our schools and churches and amusement resorts are economically and rapidly accessible; and, within all of these advantages, we combine our broad meadows of timothy and clover, the cornfields, the orchards and the gardens, the horse and stock farms, the healthful sunshine and the pure, fresh air, all of them our message to our city brethren to come out of the smoke and narrowness of city life and share with us an unstinted earthly facility.
There is no longer a need, on the part of the fortunate dwellers in St. Louis County, to fly to the city to escape from many of the inconveniences that are, in other parts, associated with life in the country. In fact, thanks to improvements in transportation, many of the folk are flying out to live amongst us, owing to the happy combination of city and rural life that is our peculiar and distinguishing feature. As “F. H. C.”, a peculiarly fascinating writer, said quite recently in the Globe Democrat:
“One does not need to dwell isolated on a parallelogram of 160 acres, twelve miles from a lemon and drink from the old oaken bucket to escape abiding in the city. All the charms and benefits of rural life are secured by a sufficient area around your home to keep the domestic bickering of your neighbors beyond audibility and not too far to prevent them from borrowing the lawnmower.
“Not ‘back to the farm’ may be the crying advice, but back to the village. No ‘village’ have we in view where everybody’s affairs are everybody’s business and gossip hangs over every household like a miasma, but the suburban village, whose bread-winners are busy daily in the city, and whose interests and social concerns are largely the city’s.
“One-fourth of the population now live in the country because the country needs no more. One-fifth might be sufficient to keep the non-agricultural classes supplied with such materials as are drawn from the soil. But the other four-fifths are not doomed thereby to be packed in six-story hives, amid noise and smoke and personal promiscuity more irritating than either.
“Mr. and Mrs. Suburbs are no joke; they have risen above that trivial plane of humor and if their tastes have not been spoiled by too long an urban existence and the transportation from the city is half-way decent, they have found the ideal mode of living.
“Back to the soil – partially – is to solve the city problem. He who is neither deprived of the theater or his flower garden has life in sufficient amplitude for all ordinary needs.”
The eloquent description of the city of St. Louis, written by Edmund Flagg in 1836, comes to our assistance as we attempt the office of historian of the county. In the landscape “a stern eschewal of mathematical, angular exactitude is everywhere beheld.” Even in those portions that are nearest the city limits, “the houses are all disjoined and at a considerable distance from each other, and every edifice can boast of its front door plat (and side yards) “bedecked with flowers and shrubbery, and protected from the inroads of intruding man or beast.” As in the old southern French section of the city, the visitor to the county now sees “broad piazzas and cozy settees” and lawn furniture “beneath the tree shade.” Resulting in “a delightful air of old-fashioned comfortableness” that reminds one of “the villages of which we have been told in the land beyond the waters.”