What’s the old saying about never meeting your heroes? I’ve been told the same applies to visiting places you used to vacation at as a child. It’s never the same. The Simpsons did a whole episode on it.
So… my reasons for making the weekend trek to Ste. Genevieve were complicated.
My family would suffer through the five hour drive to the little town every Easter. I say suffered because… it was my brother and I in the car. We were small, easily bored children in the pre-smartphone era. My poor, poor parents.
Ste. Genevieve is about an hour south of St. Louis, and is famous for being the oldest settlement west of the Mississippi, with buildings dating back to the early 1700s. My dad grew up here and so we’d come back annually to pay a visit to grandma and the rest of the fam bam.
I have fond memories of comfort food at the Old Brick House, throwing rocks into the banks of the Mississippi, and running down to Sweet Things to get as much candy as $10 could buy. When I was older, I started spending summers at grandma’s, and even worked as a volunteer tour guide at one of the historic homes. So, needless to say, I have a wonderful association with this sweet little town that I did not want to tarnish.
I’d considered driving to Ste. Gen for a long weekend several times, but the timing just never quite lined up. Then, my dad and I were invited to my great Aunt Rita’s 100th birthday bash in St. Louis. It seemed like a sign.
After booking one night at a local hotel, we were on our way. The entire time I kept reminding myself to not get too disappointed, things change and memories from childhood are usually viewed through rose-colored glasses.
Less than five hours later, we pulled into Ste. Gen. First stop? Sweet Things. Would the candy store be as magical as I remembered?
Oh. Hell. Yes.
When I walked inside, very little had changed. Maybe a layout reorganization, but the charm was still there. I even found the candy I used to always get: Nik-L-Nips. Different packaging, same ungodly sugar content. It tasted like my childhood.
We got to the Louis Bolduc House, where my first encounter with a decent shift took place. The Bolduc house is technically two close properties; Louis’s and the LeMeilleur house. Back when I was a volunteer docent, guests interested in a tour walked into the LeMeilleur house, which was equal parts historic home and gift shop. Today, tourists enter the Centre for French Colonial Life, entirely separate from the two homes.
Once more, the tours have significantly expanded… or maybe my memory is worse than I thought. Were we always allowed into the kitchen addition? Has that attic space been open the whole time? It was a treat, especially when I thought I remembered it all.
Something else I really appreciated seeing was the focus on slavery in the early days of Ste. Genevieve. The LeMeilleur house has a whole section devoted to unearthing the names of the enslaved people, those who sold enslaved people, and those who bought enslaved people. According to my dad, he recognized many of the names and would wager that they were not-so-distant relatives. It really puts the consequences into perspective, and reminds you that the era of slavery was not too long ago.
Overall, it was good to see the Centre for French Colonial Life put such an emphasis on this subject.
After the tour, we took a walk through Lions Park to see if Sara’s Ice Cream would still be open in freezing temperatures.
Alas, it was not. Surprise, surprise.
Instead, we walked to the Ste. Genevieve Catholic Church, where every Easter was spent in our nicest outfits trying not to fidget. I didn’t know this, but my ancestors actually donated most of the funds to build this church. $18,000 of the required $24,000. Probably quite a bit of cash in those days but now, I doubt $18,000 would even restore one of the stained glass panes.
We walked in after the sun had set. The church was completely empty and still. It was even more beautiful than I remembered.
Afterward, hunger had set in. My grandma had been a hostess at the Old Brick House (the first brick building west of the Mississippi), so we always ate there. And I mean, always. If we stopped elsewhere without grandma, instructions were clear: lie and tell her we ate at the Old Brick House.
Needless to say… it was time for a change.
The Anvil Saloon has been around since 1855. It’s claim to fame is the gigantic bar, which was brought in via steamboat up the Mississippi river. What most guests like to do is order the famous onion rings, and be so overwhelmed by the quantity that they can’t even finish them all.
I personally think the homemade pies are the unsung hero. I practically licked the plate.
Post-dinner, I was pretty wiped out after the five hour trip to get here. I’m not sure what it is about sitting in cars that wears folks out, but I was done.
Driving through to the hotel, my dad began pointing out what had changed in Ste. Gen. They tore down the old courthouse building. The Klein’s drug mart is now a CVS. Regions Bank is where the Bank of Ste. Genevieve was. You almost wonder if the town is losing its charm.
Then again, we couldn’t really talk. We had booked a Wyndham hotel as the locally-owned ones were out of the price range. How hypocritical.
What snapped me out of my somewhat superficial concern for Ste. Gen was my dad reminding me that the LeMeilleur home used to house an auto repair shop in the 1950’s. And now, it’s history on display for the world to see. It’s a give and take. Yeah, there’s a CVS in town now, but we also almost lost a historic home decades earlier. It’s not like the previous generation was any better at retaining the small town charm.
All this to say, my love for this place remains intact. Ste. Gen will always hold a special place in my heart. Getting in the car to leave for St. Louis, I found myself wishing for just another night in the town.
But preferably in the summer. I sure do miss Sara’s Ice Cream.
Have you ever revisited a childhood haunt? What was it like? Share your experience in the comments!
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