The Hill: 1890 - Now
Exerpts from the writings of Louis H. Schmidt
Early (Italian) immigrants lived in the northern edge of the area around Pattison, Northrup and Shaw. During the 1890's, Lombards (Northern Italians) arrived in a constant stream. Many worked in the clay products plants and, because they had to live close to their work, the Fairmont section built up rapidly. By 1900, Sicilians discovered The Hill. Although the Lombards outnumbered Sicilians three to one, two languages were in the mines and factories. This inaugurated a generation of bitter ethnic quarreling.
The Mutual Aid Society, in 1907, imposed a $2.00 fine for fighting. After a couple of generations, the differences mostly disappeared. The area was remote from the city, and public utilities were virtually non-existent. Many lived in the old shotgun frame shanties of about three rooms each, or in two-story, four-family frame tenements. Some lived in boxcars until the mine companies built the three room shanties. These were single men who married later or married men who sent for their families later. The men would pack in wherever they could and do this in shifts, the house being full most of the time.
In 1890, The Hill's residential district consisted of ten austere shacks, each with about a dozen men. 175 men were found living in thirty-four rooms. Two shifts of men often shared the same room. After the turn of the century, one-story, four-room brick houses appeared. Most of the early homes served as boarding houses. The boarding house system outlived its usefulness by the 1920's. During that period, 999 homes were built on The Hill. The next decade added another 321 units. The national census of 1930 recorded virtually no boarders on The Hill.
In 1908, the yearly output of clay products for the city was valued at $6.4 million. An expert geologist once remarked that Cheltenham clay could easily be used in the manufacture of the finest pottery in the world. But the local industries preferred sewer pipe and fire brick which, rather than attracting master potters, attracted thousands of unskilled laborers. In the peak years of mining (1860-1930's), during the 1800's in the Cheltenham area, everything was done by hand. The worker would go straight down a shaft in a cage. They worked in what they called a stall. They had to furnish the drill, pick, shovel and dynamite. After digging with a pick, getting 35/40 cents a ton, the clay was loaded in a box car then pulled by mules to the cage. An intricate tunnel network was developed. After a day's work, they would put the dynamite in holes and break up the clay when they left for the next day's work. The mules were a small white breed of the Missouri mule. Their hoofs were smaller, using six nails instead of eight. They were kept in the tunnel, went blind and died there.
The clay was white and porous and was removed like chunks of coal. It seemed the clay was deeper than coal and was between layers of limestone. Once the Cager transferred the clay to the outside, it was loaded onto cars and taken to the factory yards for up to three years of curing. Once cured, it would be ground and pulverized, then rubbed through a screen, then made into bricks.
The Cheltenham Industrial Complex dominated the local economy until the 1930's. Every morning, wrote columnist Harry Brundidge in 1936," An army of workers stepped down the steep paths to work in the mines and factories." The Hill, in the early 1900's became one of the most stable areas in the city. There was very little movement. In a 1935 study, Donald Cowgill called The Hill "Fairmont Heights". There was a definite problem with the Sicilians and Lombards. They didn't mix well. But most of the trouble was with words, not knives. They had a common problem - survival, and the community held together. Sicilians called the Lombards "pigeons", and the Lombards countered with "hatchets" for the Sicilians.
In 1900, 90% of The Hill’s male work force (325 men) was employed at the Cheltenham brick works. By the depression only 30% labored there, and by the 1930's the clay industry started to slow down. In 1900, a brick-worker's pay was $1.35 to $1.50 per day. The pay hardly changed since the 1890's.
Two strikes came - one in 1901, the other in 1917. The companies brought in blacks to break the ranks. The miners would then give in and go back to work. The unions never did get in. The 1917 strike was more violent. This second strike was led by the Sicilians. Two company guards were stabbed and one striker was shot.
Gradually the Italians found other work. The simultaneous exhaustion of the clay mines and the great depression devastated the Cheltenham brick, tile, and mining industries. In 1930, 17% of the factory workers in the area were unemployed or laid off without pay. The employment situation would worsen, and by the time the A.F.L was strong enough to unionize the industry, the Cheltenham kilns were cold. Later the mines were used for dumping grounds, and the factories have long since changed tenants. But the last of Cheltenham's occupants, the descendants of Lombards and Sicilians, have staunchly refused to leave the neighborhood.
The Germans in the 1890's had the St. Aloysius Gonzaga church, which centered on the Magnolia-January area (5608 magnolia). This was a small group that moved there from an older parish in Soulard. When the flood of Italians arrived in the early 1900's, a mission was started for Italians in the basement of the German Catholic church. They met here many years. They would (not too often) walk six blocks to St.Aloysius. Fathers Holweck and Long ministered to a German congregation, but agreed to preach for their Italian neighbors as well. The trouble was they couldn't speak Italian. In 1903 Rev. Caesere Spigardi of St.Charles Borromeo church (near downtown St.Louis), established a mission. After a fund drive, spearheaded by Rev.Cesare Spigardi's leadership, the Italians erected a frame building in 1903 for $10,000. This was on the corner of Cooper and Wilson. This structure burned in 1921. This has it's own legend (about a vat of moonshine exploding in the rectory). The St.Ambrose church was built at 5130 Wilson in 1926,(a Lombard Romanesque style),but the Sicilians were included in the planning and building, pulling the whole Italian family together.
Other churches of note in the area include the Italian Evangelical (Protestant) church, formerly at 2109 Edwards and since 1929 at 5343 Botanical; the Bethlehem German evangelical church at Shaw and Hereford in 1889, later at 5801 Southwest, now Mt.Tabor Church at 6520 Arsenal.
Important commercial landmarks on The Hill were Southwest Bank at Southwest and Kingshighway, Fair Mercantile Co. at 5257 Shaw. In 1925, the Columbia Theater opened at Southwest and Edwards. The Family Theater opened at Marconi Ave. Near Daggett in 1920. Later arrivals were Chemetron Corp., and several printers and binderies and paper houses, Ravarino-Freschi Spaghetti co., and the Blue Bidge Bottling Co.
The Oak Hill and Carondelet branch of the Mo-Pac Railroad was built in the late 1880's to connect the railroads main line with the iron mountain tracks in Carondelet. Transit service to the area was provided by the tower grove line on arsenal and Southwest which had begun as a horse car line of the Gravois railway co. Running out Arsenal as far as Grand Blvd. In the early 1890's this line became a branch of the Union Depot Railway. It was electrified and then extended on Arsenal to Kingshighway to serve Koerner's Garden. By 1904 the line reached westward to its loop at Tamm and Columbia. The other route serving the area was the Southampton line on Kingshighway, south from Vandeventer. In 1924, the Peoples Motor Bus Co. began operating it's Lindenwood bus line on Vandeventer and southwest to provide direct service downtown.
During the period after 1910 heavy and light industries gravitated to the Cheltenham locale. Two of the most important sources of employment were the Carondelet Foundry and the Banner Iron Works, which by 1930 employed 11% of the colony's males (205 jobs). The Quick Meal Stove Company, which introduced the gas burning Magic Chef oven in 1929, erected an immense factory at 2100 Kingshighway in 1910 and employed more than 100 neighborhood workers during the 1920's and 1930's. Joining the industrial network was the McQuay-Norris Company, which built a spacious plant at southwest and cooper in 1919. The factory manufactured piston rings and engine parts and employed 75 residents in 1930.
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