There’s an old expression that history is written by the victors. But what if there’s no particular struggle to inspire the writer? We’re lucky when famous people from interesting times write down their thoughts and experiences; luckier still when the writer was literate and conscious of the times. Herodotus was one, and Boswell, and of course, Churchill. We are then left a time capsule to open and interpret. St Louis had such good luck in 1880, when Mayor John Fletcher Darby wrote his memoirs.
Darby (1803 – 1882) was the fourth mayor of St Louis, serving the first of two non-consecutive terms from 1835 through 1837. He enabled the first two railroads in Missouri, put the waterworks under city control, and was an advocate for the purchase of public lands. Most significantly for Lafayette Square, this mayor was directly responsible for the planning, purchase and charter of Lafayette Park, generally considered the oldest urban park west of the Mississippi River.
He was an accomplished fellow. Originally from North Carolina, the moved to St Louis at the age of 16, became a lawyer, and started a practice. Darby was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1834, and two years later, married Mary Wilkenson, the granddaughter of influential St Louisan and former commandant of Ste Genevieve, Francois Valle. In addition to being mayor of St Louis, he was elected a State Senator in 1838 and US Congressman in 1851. Darby was also one of the founders of Boatmen’s Bank, and of Bellefontaine Cemetery.
The mayor wrote sketches of people he had known, which found their way into the newspapers of the time. These were compiled into a book, Personal Recollections, still used as an insightful resource into key Missourians of the 19th Century. He grew very wealthy from his businesses and land holdings, but lost much of it as a result of the Civil War, and eventually filed for bankruptcy
John Darby died at the age of 82, and is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
The St Louis Common was a land tract on high ground west of the city, extending over several thousand acres. It was set aside even before the transfer of government to the United States in 1803, and formalized as belonging to the inhabitants of St Louis by an act of Congress in 1812. Those inhabitants used the unimproved area for cutting firewood and grazing livestock. It was largely covered in bushes and brambles, evolving into a lawless area in which the frequent ambush of travelers between St Louis and Carondelet occurred. A judge of the St Louis Circuit Court was once murdered in broad daylight while passing through the commons.
When Darby became mayor, he and the city government resolved to tame the Common by drawing up documents authorizing the city to survey, divide and sell the land. Mayor Darby made the journey with the papers himself, by horse to Jefferson City, in the hope of gaining authorization from the General Assembly of the State.
It was mid-winter in January of 1836 when Darby set off. What would be a two hour scenic trip along Highway 50 today became a three day trek for the mayor. He had to ford the Gasconade River at Mt Sterling, and he did so “holding on to the pommel of my saddle and holding my legs up out of the water.”
Once in the state capitol, the snow began falling, “to a depth of fifteen to eighteen inches,
after which the weather turned intensely cold.” Darby, with business pressing back home, set off on his return despite the conditions. He reached the Osage River, which was then full of floating ice. The ferry men at the river adamantly refused to attempt a crossing. Darby rode through the uncleared woods alongside the stream until he reached the bottoms and found a ferryman who accommodated him for the night and ferried him across the next morning.
Plodding through Gasconade County, the mayor reached a small clearing in the forest, and a log house owned by a man named Skaggs. It was about 18 feet square, and its main feature was that it had been built around the stump of a giant white oak tree, about 30 inches in diameter and two feet high. He used this as his dinner table. On the inside of his chimney Skaggs was curing venison hams and deer carcasses. Skaggs gladly shared his hospitality, asking “Stranger, won’t you set up and skin a tater?” During their dinner, he complained of neighbors getting too thick, and his need soon to move on. He singled out a neighbor about seven miles away who was “beginning to scare the deer away.”
The following day, Darby made a hard day’s ride in “severe cold,” and had begun to fret about finding shelter for the night when he noticed a plume of smoke on the horizon. He followed it to a fork on the Bourbeuse River, and found a one-room log house, about 16 feet, with a big log fire. It was raised up about three feet high on log blocks, to tolerate flooding.
The man of the house was a widower with four children, ranging from about two to ten years of age. There were also another four story men in the house, bringing the total in the small cabin to ten occupants. There was a single small bed. Darby pointed out that the weather was so cold that the man’s hogs all gathered for the night under the floor, to try to siphon off any heat from the fire in the cabin. They squealed and grunted all night long.
The men talked around the fire for a while, and then the cabin owner invited Darby to join him and his children in the only bed. They all took off their boots and got in, fully clothed, and arranged with each persons head to the others toes. The four stout men lay on the floor with their feet to the fire and wearing all the clothes they had. During the night, one of the sleepers on the floor, “tired of lying on one side, would cry out, “All turn,” and the men would shift positions.
Darby wrote well and had a keen appreciation for anecdote. He appreciated the simple kindness of country people, the fine spirit of his horse, and the hard beauty of the Gasconade countryside.
He wrote, “Many a weary mile, solitary and alone, over the hard, frozen crusted snow, through trials, suffering and exposure, it was that I went, because I had undertaken the self-imposed task of trying to serve the St Louis public schools. I was in a measure buoyed up with the enthusiasm and pride which I felt in believing that but for my exertions the public schools would not have derived any benefit from the St Louis common.”
Proceeds from the sale of the Common were proposed to go into a city fund for grading and paving St Louis’ streets. Darby wanted to modify this to a 50/50 split between the city and the St Louis public schools. His idea was that the gift of funds to the schools would be invested and generate an annual income to benefit future generations of St Louisans. His opponent in this was a member of the legislature from St Louis County. A Catholic, he opposed giving any proceeds to public schools, as those residents supporting private schools would see no benefit. City/County, public/private; it’s remarkable what deep roots some of St Louis’ more intractable issues have.
Eventually, an act authorizing the sale of the Common passed, with the provisions that a general election in the city be held to determine distribution of gains from that sale. Three choices existed: 1) 10% to go to the St Louis public schools, 2) 25% to go to the same, and 3) 50% to go to the same.
The public voted for 10%, and Darby tried to be satisfied with that, as it still represented more than $100,000 for the school fund. The Common was soon surveyed and divided into tracts.
The Board of Aldermen had appointed Col. Thornton Grimsley chairman of a committee dealing with the Common. On March 7, 1836, he and Mayor Darby rode out to the Common to select a site to be set aside as a park or public ground. He described the land as covered in underbrush, with young oaks and hickories, with patches of sumac and hazel bushes. They were both struck by the view the city from this distance.
Colonel Grimsley, a military man who organized a horse troop of militia, felt this area would make a splendid place to train the cavalry, and it proposed to call the site the “public Parade Ground.” Darby had no strong thoughts on the matter of naming, so it was known as the Parade Grounds for years.
An ordinance was passed by the Board of Aldermen two weeks later, and approved by the mayor. It laid out what became the nucleus of Lafayette Square:
Sect.2. The two avenues east and west of the park, extending from Park to Lafayette Avenue, shall be one hundred and twenty feet wide, and shall be called: the eastern one by the name of Mississippi, the western one by the name of Missouri Avenue.
The square formed and bounded by Lafayette, Park, Missouri and Mississippi Avenues shall be reserved as a public square, subject to such rules and regulations as the mayor and Board of Aldermen may from time to time make in regulation thereto.
Thomas Darby was a man of green space vision. He fought unsuccessfully with the Board to authorize two more city parks. He complained that the city had $100,000 in cash on hand at the time, and a new loan of $150,000 at 6% interest (an unusually favorable rate in those days, according to the mayor.)
Mayors don’t have to ford frozen streams and sleep over grunting hogs much these days. A lot of what mayors do often appears more ceremonial than functional. But here was a guy who got stuff done, without complaint and with a conscious eye on the richness of experience.
Lafayette Park has since withstood 183 years of boom and bust, wartime scrap drives, a major tornado, vandalism and decades of neglect. Since the late 1960s the dedicated volunteers of the surrounding neighborhood have transformed the park to a version Darby would no doubt be proud to call his own.
Thanks to research sources, including:
Mound City On The Mississippi – A St Louis History; City Of St Louis Planning And Urban Design Agency; https://dynamic.stlouis-mo.gov/history/peopledetail.cfm?Master_ID=953
Majestic Park Needs Another Resurrection; Peter Hernon; St Louis Globe Democrat; 1981
Personal Recollections; John F Darby; 1880; G.I. Jones And Company; St Louis, MO
Missouri Historical Society Collection Summary; John Fletcher Darby Papers; https://mohistory.org/collections/item/resource:102336
Citation for “oldest urban park west of the Mississippi” from City of St Louis Parks, at
1866 Parade Place Ad From Missouri History Museum at mohist.org.