In St. Louis, Intrepid Women on the Frontier

St. Louis. I’d never been there until my husband’s recent business gave me a chance to check it out. Funny I should have missed it over the years, as I attended the journalism grad school at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I remember piling into into a car to go eat catfish at a tin-ceiling hotel in Booneville, and traveling to Kansas City for barbeque at Arthur Bryant’s, which Calvin Trillin made famous in a 1972 piece for Playboy.

Even though I would have driven through St. Louis coming and going to Columbia from parts East, I don’t remember stopping in.

This time, I went with a mission in mind. I was looking for traces of Eliza Scidmore. Early in her career, she wrote frequently for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, then one of the most influential papers west of the Mississippi.

“A sense of place.” Like master biographer Robert Caro, I think it’s crucial to understanding the influences that shape an individual.

Scidmore wrote for the paper from Washington. But did she spend much time in St. Louis? That’s what I hoped to find out.

So I Ubered out from our B&B in the Benton Park neighborhood to the University of Missouri’s St. Louis campus. It houses the St. Louis Mercantile Museum, repository of all the historical records of the Globe-Dispatch, which ceased publication in 1986. I knew from advance research that the newspaper’s business records only dated back to about the 1920s, but I wanted to poke around and see what I might find, for context.

Thomas Edison’s patented mimeograph machine from 1870s (Photo: D. Parsell)

Unfortunately, I didn’t find much that served the purposes of my book. But I did enjoy two fine exhibits now on display. One was a very thorough look at the history of journalism in the region, well curated and worth a look. One delightful discovery: an original mimeograph machine patented by Thomas Edison in the 1870s. I remember the mimeograph we had in the office at my Catholic school back in Marietta, Ohio, which I used to run off — from purple stenciled sheets — copies of the “newspaper” I started in eighth grade.

The exhibit that really captivated me, though, was one on “Intrepid Women in the American Wilderness.” The title alone was seductive.

The display consisted of 101 selections from the Caroline F. Schimmel Collection at Penn Libraries, featuring narratives by women who wrote about their experiences in areas that yet to be “tamed.” The material covered a wide range of material and experiences, including accounts of Indian captivity, 19th-century voyages to Alaska and other wilderness areas, field journals of nature writers and illustrators like Celia Thaxter, artifacts from Wild West entertainer Annie Oakle, and novels by authors from Willa Cather to Ann Patchett (represented by her 2011 book State of Wonder).

Journalist Nellie Bly. Julette Gordon Low (of Girl Scout fame). Mountaineer Annie Peck. TV star Dale Evans. Katherine Lee Bates (author of “America the Beautiful” and subject of a new biography by fellow BIO member Melinda Ponder). Actor Sarah Bernhardt. Authors Louise Erdich, Zora Neale Hurston, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Frances Milton Trollope.

Quite a lineup, and a fascinating look at women who “toughed it out.” Certainly topical in this day of “she persisted” and #MeToo.

Noticeably absent: Eliza Scidmore, despite her authorship of two early books on Alaska and a huge number of writings about her newspaper travels in the West.

St. Louis Mercantile Museum (Photo: D. Parsell)

Benton Park in St. Louis

As for visiting St. Louis, Bruce and I both enjoyed our stay a lot. Dined at several really good restaurants, and had a pleasant interlude at our B&B in the Benton Park neighborhood, where our room overlooked the park.

Maybe it’s because I was raised in midwestern Ohio, but I felt really comfortable in St. Louis.

Another highlight of the trip was spending a day at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Beautiful fall weather, and a stunning number of plants still in riotous bloom.

There was also a terrific Japanese garden, one of the largest in North America. That kept me amused for awhile, as Eliza Scidmore wrote a lot about Japanese gardens and gardening.

A nice fall getaway, indeed.

Halloween fever at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis (Photo: D. Parsell)



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