By MARK EVANS
The thought had already been percolating in my mind that a follow up would be nice, looking at some of those who paved the way for the Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park by building the community’s heritage tourism industry and preserving our unique built heritage.
Local historian Bob Mueller was of the same mind set. After our stories on the establishment of the park and a look at the elected and appointed officials who had worked on the project for some 20 years had run in the Herald, he suggested I go deeper, in an email, and credit some of these departed local leaders.
Probably the first person to realize the town’s architectural significance was Charles Peterson. Coordinator of the original Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) report during the 1930s, he wrote “Early Ste. Genevieve and Its Architecture,” published in Missouri Historical Review 25, No. 2 in 1941 and subsequently sold as a pamphlet. An international figure in historic preservation, his continued interest in Ste. Genevieve was crucial.
Charles van Ravenswaay, longtime director of the Missouri Historical Society, and a nationally-respected historian, was also an early advocate of the town and its buildings.
During the 1950s and 1960s, things began picking up steam. In the 1950s, Harry B. Mathews, Jr., head of Mississippi Lime Company, and his wife, Constance Mathews, a leader in the local National Society of Colonial Dames of America (NSCA) brought in renown architect Ernest Allen Connally to lead a painstaking restoration of the circa 1793 Bolduc House, given to the local NSCA chapter in 1949.
A seminal restoration project, it set the standard for such projects in the future. In May 1958 it opened as a tour house, launching the local heritage tourism movement.
Also key to the movement, and the salvation of many of the aging buildings, was the work of Norbert “Boats” and Frankye Donze They restored the Amoureux House, the Green Tree Tavern, the Vital St, Gemme Beauvais House and the Felix Rozier house (later the Inn St. Gemme Beauvais).
Later, Royce and Marge Wilhauk restored the Bequette-Ribault House.
Meanwhile, local historian Lucille Basler spent years cultivating interest in the town’s history and its unique buildings, while also doing significant genealogy research on local families. So did the NSCA’s Fran Ballenger and Lorraine Stange.
In 1973, a young Missouri Parks employee came to town. Some 40 years later, Jim Baker retired as site director of the Felix Valle State Historical Site, but remains active in the local historic preservation community to this day.
Another key part of the puzzle was Gregory M. Franzwa. A PR executive, he visited the town and fell in love after taking a midnight stroll, He wrote the highly successful paperback, The Story of Old Ste. Genevieve in 1967 and helped put out a PBS film, Ste. Genevieve: A French Legacy. His Patrice Press later published Dr. Carl J. Ekberg’s seminal Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the Mississippi Frontier and several other works. Ekberg and fellow scholar Charles Balesi were among the first academics to delve into the town and its history and traditions.
In the mid 1960s, the Ste. Genevieve Tourism Bureau successfully applied to the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce to have a study done on the feasibility of the town becoming a heritage tourist destination and how to achieve that goal.
A major study was led to the February 1966 publication of The Master Plan for Restoration of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. The 11 x 17-inch booklet gave detailed plans on a proposed future Ste. Genevieve that would throw its full weight into emphasizing the colonial era.
That path had many bumps and turns, though, with many individuals coming to town, fired up about its potential, only to get burned out at the lack of progress.
One individual who stayed the course was the late Donna Card Charron. She came to Ste. Genevieve in the mid-1990s, initially as a partner of leading restorationist Tim Conley.
Donna and I had many brainstorming sessions, trying to gin up ways of bringing more people into town to appreciate and support its unique treasures. She and her husband Bill also bought and maintained the Bequette-Ribault House. She remained a mover and shaker in the local heritage tourism field until her untimely death.
Conley, meanwhile, became one of the town’s leading preservationists, saving the 1808 Louisiana Academy from imminent collapse in the 1990s and restoring it to a showcase. He later restored the 1794 Jean Baptiste Valle House and then saved the early 19th-century Auguste Aubuchon House from collapse with another total restoration.
Really, too many people have contributed to the promotion and maintenance of the town’s heritage traditions, and architecture, to name here. Organizations like the Foundation For Restoration of Ste. Genevieve, Inc., as well as the Chamber of Commerce and some groups that no longer exist all played big roles over the years.
In an email to me, Bob Mueller was also quick to credit Donna and others.
“The dream of having a French colonial park in Ste. Genevieve had its roots around 1984 when the Wilhauks completed the restoration of the Bequette-Ribault house, movement of the LaSource-Durand cabin and construction of the Creole House. They had a vision to create a living history museum to tell the story of Ste. Genevieve,” he said. “While their dream did not materialize, a newcomer came to town with a love of our French history. Around 1996, the late Donna Card Charron began championing her vision of a national park presence in Ste. Genevieve. She was passionate about Ste. Genevieve’s unique architectural history and she was persistent in her efforts to have the French influence in the Mid-Mississippi Valley recognized as part of the American story. Donna enlisted the Foundation for Restoration of Ste. Genevieve, Les Amis, and others to have the Ste. Genevieve experience recognized by the National Park Service. Several attempts were made to establish a French heritage area that spanned both sides of the Mississippi but eventually settled on trying to get a National Park Service site in Ste. Genevieve County. Donna’s passion and persistence must be recognized when it comes to the history of the National Park Service site here in Ste. Genevieve.”
He also rightfully praised Baker and his successor, Donna Rausch.