By MARK EVANS
It was a time of optimism, a time of relief and a time of giving thanks, when community leaders and various officials gathered in front of the Jean Baptiste Valle House on Nov. 2.
The ceremony marked the official establishment of the Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park as the 422nd and newest national park in the National Park Service (NPS).
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt had signed documents making the establishment official a few days before.
It had been thought initially that Bernhardt might be able to attend the ceremony. He was unable to, but U.S. Senator Roy Blunt was present, along with NPS Midwest director Burt Frost, District 116 State Representative Dale Wright, and Donna Hickman, representing Eighth District U.S. Representative Jason Smith.
The NPS was also represented by Mike Ward, superintendent of the Gateway Arch National Park, and local superintendent Chris Collins. Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) director Carol Cromer was also present.
They all spoke, along with Mayor Paul Hassler, in a ceremony that paid tribute to the two-decade effort of local leaders and past elected officials to establish a national park for the preservation of the town’s unique architectural heritage.
Ward noted that Hassler and other city leaders have been “very patient with us,” amidst ongoing delays, and “very helpful.”
“We had a lot of people who worked very hard on this for many years,” Ward said.
The drive toward establishment of a national park began about the turn of the current century.
“I understand 20 years ago, somebody had a vision, and that vision was to have a national park in Ste. Genevieve,” Hassler said. “I don’t know who that person was, but because of the hard work of a lot of people in those 20 years, we get to see it happen. Everybody kept their eyes on the vision. It’s come and it’s here today.
“It’s just a great day here in Ste. Genevieve.”
Wright, who introduced the conveyance bill to transfer property from the Missouri State Parks, part of the state Department of Natural Resoutrces (DNR) to the NPS, also expressed pleasure.
“I was honored to be able to be asked to do a conveyance bill,” he said, “so I filed house bill 2315.”
He noted that, “because of the caronavirus … it was quite a disruptive time.”
The original bill later became part of HB 1330, which was finally passed.
Wright presented Collins with a framed copy of HB 1330, signed by Parson, with photo of his signing, and pen, as well as a copy of the original HB 2315.
“Hopefully this will be something we can remember and cherish for many years to come,” Wright said.
Ward, who served as the master of ceremonies, praised DNR personnel, including Comer, whom he said was “involved a great deal” in the process of transferring the required amount of historical property to the NPS for a park to be established. The DNR, he said, “stepped up and helped us do that.”
“It’s just been an incredible relationship,” Ward said. “We have appreciated the staff so much and everything that they have done.”
Comer was also upbeat.
“I am so excited to be here today, an event decades in the making.” she said. “The DNR looks forward to our ongoing relationship with the NPS.”.
Although he did not speak, Tim Good, now superintendent of the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, was present. His contribution, as acting superintendent during the formative stages of the new national park was not forgotten.
According to Ward, Good has “done a tremendous amount of work on behalf of the park.”
Good, meanwhile, was quick to pass credit onto earlier Ste. Genevieve leaders, like the late Donna Charron, who was a driving force behind the idea – and heritage tourism in general – during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Ward also praised Collins, who was introduced as the first permanent superintendent in late January.
“When I hired him, we sat down and talked about some of the goals we had,” Ward said. “When I got here, he was ahead of me – way ahead of me. Since he actually got here, he’s just been doing a tremendous job.”
“I look back and I’m amazed at all the challenges and what we’ve accomplished together over the past months,” Collins said.
He was quick to spread the credit.
“I especially want to show my appreciation to Donna Rausch and her staff at the Felix Valle State Historic Site, Geoff Giglierano and staff at French Colonial America, Sara Menard and Skip Weiler, along with the entire board and membership of the of the Foundation For Restoration of Ste. Genevieve, Hank Johnson and Chaumette Winery,” Collins said.
He also thanked Hassler, tourism director Toby Carrig, Ward and his staff, Frost and his Omaha office and others. His own crew also got praise.
“I was extremely blessed to have an outstanding crew this summer that poured themselves into making the park, serving preservation in this community,” he said, naming Josh Hepler, Rob Lippert, Chelsi Montgomery and Alex Harrison.
“I’m truly excited and encouraged, as we discover what is next,” Collins said
Ward also introduced Frost, who has hit the ground running since taking over the Midwest region for the NPS.
“He instantly organized and came down, got engaged in the project,” Ward said, “and has been a tremendous help”
“You’re only as good as the people you work with,” Frost said, praising Ward and Collins as being “wonderful to work with.”
Frost also reiterated what the NPS does.
“We’re in the perpetuity business, he said. “We’re here forever.”
He added that the NPS will “continue to build on all the good work” the stewards of Ste. Genevieve have done in the past.
“We’re not here to take over,” he stressed. “We’re not here to become to gorilla in the room; we’re here to work with the partnerships to make sure that these extraordinary resources, both natural and cultural resources,” continue to be maintained.
The NPS, he said, is “here to protect the heritage of the U.S.”
He praised current and past mayors and county commissioners, as well as the St. Louis chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America
“Without their preservation, we would not be here, celebrating this great event,” Frost said.
Ward also credited Blunt, who he called “a history teacher at heart,” for the success.
“I don’t think anyone would argue that we would not be standing here today, had it not been for Senator Roy Blunt,” he said.
Blunt, likewise, praised the NPS, the DNR, Frost, his predecessor Cam Sholly, Bernhardt and Andy Taylor at Enterprise Leasing, “who took over public part.”
“This is maybe the ultimate example of a public-private partnership,” Blunt said, “a community coming together to treasure what they had.”
He also praised Hassler, former Mayor Dick Greminger, “a number of cycles” of county commissioners, and Rauch for their work. He noted that he had toured many of the historic buildings with Rausch.
Blunt also credited former US Representatives Russ Carnahan (who attended), and JoAnn Emerson, who filed study in 2005, which he said “was really where this all got started.”
He said the NPS’s reaction to the Ste. Genevieve study was unique.
“Never before did I have the NPS say, ‘This is so unique; this is so important, it needs to be part of our national commitment,’” Blunt said.
Blunt noted that if the circa 1794 JB Valle House, greatly modified in the 19th century, were the only French colonial building in town, it would still be extremely noteworthy, with the “incredible story told right here.”
“If this was the only building we had … this building would be worth talking about,” he said.
Unlike Kimmswick, Missouri or Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, the Ste. Genevieve homes have not been relocated.
“These buildings are where they always have been and they each have their own stories to tell,” Blunt noted.