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By MARK EVANS
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
The transition from engineer to historian is not as foreign as one might think.
“I really spent my whole career solving problems. That’s what they teach engineers,” Bob Mueller said. “So when you retire, how are you going to solve problems? History was my outlet for that. You ask yourself ‘Who had the first automobile in Ste. Genevieve?’ ‘Who’s really buried in the church?’ ‘When did the cemetery really start?’ We had all these legends in Ste. Genevieve. How do you prove one way or another?”
Mueller remarked that historical research is full of “’Eureka!’ moments.
It did not take Mueller long after retiring to Ste. Genevieve in 2004, to grow into the role of the community’s leading local historian.
The journey, though, was a lifelong one.
Mueller grew up in Farmington. In 1963, his parents moved to Ste. Genevieve, where his mother was from. (His father was born in Zell.) Mueller stayed with his grandparents in Farmington to finish his senior year at St. Joseph High School, before heading off for the University of Missouri at Rolla, where he received a mechanical engineering degree.
He worked for Olin Corporation-Winchester in Alton, Ill., for 17 years, serving in various roles, including research and development, process engineering, product engineering, head of quality.
In 1985 Olin won a contract to manage the Lake City Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo., which provided a lot of the US military small arms items. He was in charge of engineering and later in charge of production there.
“During this whole time period, I started reading an author named Eric Sloane, who writes bout early American tools and life,” Mueller said. “It kind of intrigued me. I was always kind of interested in tools. My grandfather was a stonemason as was my great-grandfather. They built the steeple at Weingarten 100 years ago. My earliest ancestor came in 1832 and was a master blacksmith. I had uncles who were cabinetmakers. That whole sort of thing interested me.”
They also lived close to Missouri Town 1855 (now called Missouri Town Living History Museum), a collection of some 25 structures from the early 19th century that depicts life in that era.
“My kids said we went here every weekend, but that’s not quite true,” Mueller said.
Later he was transferred to run a plant near York, Pa., which was home to the first Continental Congress. It was also close to Amish country ad to the Gettysburg battlefield. Philadelphia, with all its history was just an hour and a half away. Baltimore and Washington, D.C., were also within easy driving distance. Access to all these historical sites continued to fuel Mueller’s growing fascination with history.
Mueller retired in 2001, shortly after General Dynamics bought out Olin, and moved to Ste. Genevieve in 2004, where his father still lived.
When he came back, he soon got into genealogy.
“I had an aunt who died at 95,” Mueller said, “and I thought, I’d better start getting some of this information before the people that actually lived it are gone and you can’t ask them any more questions, like my grandparents.”
That led Mueller to get interested in the influx of German immigrants to the area.
Historic architecture also fascinated him. After moving here, he soon got involved in the Foundation for Restoration of Ste. Genevieve and became fascinated not only with the surviving French colonial homes here, but also with the people who had built them and lived in them.
“So that was a natural growth out of genealogy to study Jacque Guibourd and different people,” he said.
About that time he began reading Carl Ekberg’s books on Ste. Genevieve history, beginning with his groundbreaking Colonial Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the Mississippi Frontier.
“He was starting to write books on Louis Bolduc and Francois Valle where he was getting into the people and using records to kin of describe their life,” Mueller said. “That really interested me.”
In the early 2000s, a death left an opening on the State Historical Society of Missouri’s board of trustees. The late Frank Myers recommended Mueller take the position. Since 2010 he has been on the group’s executive committee.
“That has just been a great experience,” Mueller said. ‘It opened me up to great historians.”
One he got to know was Ekberg, who “became a mentor” in Mueller’s words.
“He’s encouraged me to research and to write I love the research; writing is a little more difficult,” Mueller said, noting that, “Those kind of people inspire you.”
He looks up to Ekberg, whose research he calls “magnificent,” along with Jim Baker, long time administrator of the Felix Valle State Historic Site.
“While we don’t have diaries and biographies, he and Carl both have a knack of taking pubic civil records and church records and court cases and putting together the story of a person,” Mueller said. “That’s a pretty unique talent. I keep trying to immolate it.”