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Rediscovering Ste. Genevieve

By: Suzanne Corbett

A couple in French Colonial attire, ready to greet guests at the 1792 Bauvais-Amoureux house. [Photo by Gary Adams]

Colonial America is often defined as England’s 13 colonies hugging the east coast, in spite of the fact much that the country’s interior was mostly French. Counted among those French colonies were St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve.

After 250 years, what was the French village of St. Louis has disappeared, gobbled up by time, and its colonial structures demolished in the name of progress. It’s a fate Ste. Genevieve, a village older than St. Louis by nearly three decades, managed to escape.

Instead, through its nearly 300-year history Ste. Genevieve has managed to preserve many of its colonial buildings, customs and unique 18th-century French language. It is a living time capsule, representing countless years of preservation efforts that were rewarded on March 23, 2018, when Congress passed legislation naming Ste. Genevieve a National Historic District within the National Park Service.

“Being a National Park’s National Historic District is going to help our community tell our story. And it will help bring more people here and to see what we have to tell,” explained Donna Rausch, site administrator of the 200-year-old Felix Valle State Historic Site, which also includes the Bauvais-Amoureux House and the newly renovated and opened Green Tree Tavern.

According to Rausch, Ste. Genevieve is more than a just an amazing collection of old houses. It is history. All those homes and their owners helped to shape both the area’s history and that of the United States.

One such place is the Green Tree Tavern, built in 1790, back when George Washington was president. Green Tree was a crossroads just outside the city limits of Ste. Genevieve, across from the original settlement’s common field [The Big Field] where travelers stayed and people gathered and shared news. It was a place for trade, as documented by the number of trade beads found on the site. It also was a place where influential people met, such as Stephen Austin [the father of Texas], who was among the members of Missouri’s first Masonic Lodge west of the Mississippi, which met within the tavern’s walls.

Green Tree Tavern is now open to the public. To visit, check the daily schedule for times that vary according to Valle House staffing.

A short walk from Green Tree Tavern is the Bequette-Ribault House, a classic Creole House built with Norman trusses and now owned and operated by Chaumette Vineyard & Winery Owner Hank Johnson. On Saturdays, May through October, the house and its outbuildings, including a Hospitality Center that doubles as a tasting room for Chaumette’s award-winning wines, are open for touring.

Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, along with the Sainte Genevieve Winery, the oldest operating winery in the area, are included on the Route du Vin, one of Missouri’s Wine Country’s popular wine trails. They also are two good reasons for an impromptu picnic of local meats, bread and cheeses from Ste. Genevieve’s bakeries and meat shops. Visitors can picnic in the heart of the city at one of the public areas downtown or take a 25-minute drive to nearby Hawn State Park, a picturesque setting encompassing 5,000 acres of natural beauty.

Festivals and celebrations

Artifacts on display inside the Felix Valle House state historic site.

First up is Ecole du Soldat [School of the Soldier], April 27-29. A history buff’s dream, the weekend event features lectures on the life activities of the French Colonial period in the Mississippi Valley and Illinois country. Re-enactors will bring to life the area’s French Colonial and militia heritage. On Saturday afternoon, visitors can attend a public heritage auction of discovered desirables – memorabilia, collectibles, accouterments, utensils and whatchamacallits.

In June, it’s La Veillee.

“La Veillee is held the second weekend in June during the French Heritage Festival,”  Rausch said, noting that the festival features events at various locations throughout the town. “At the Felix-Valle House, we have storytellers, period crafts and interpreters in the house and garden. There will be dancing, candlelight tours and refreshments. It’s a great time to visit.” The French Heritage Festival celebrates 300 years of French culture in North America from Quebec to New Orleans and recognizes Ste. Genevieve’s status as having the greatest concentration of authentic French Colonial architecture that exists in North America.

“Ste. Genevieve has the largest concentration of vertical log colonial French houses that are still standing,” Rausch declared. “You can’t say that about anywhere else.”

In July, things really heat up with the Ste. Genevieve County Fair, July 12-15, and the Traditional Artisans Showcase and Sale, July 21-22. The county fair features a parade, livestock shows, a demolition derby, a horse show, truck and tractor pulls, 4-H and FFA exhibits, live music and a midway with children’s rides and arcade games. The art show, as its name eludes, is traditional Ste. Genevieve.

“Ste. Genevieve has long been home to talented artisans and craftsmen and its French colonial atmosphere provides an inviting setting for a leisurely stroll among the historic sites, art galleries, shops, boutiques and restaurants,” said Sandra Cabot, Ste. Genevieve’s tourism and economic development director.

Many of those craftsmen and artisans are featured during the Jour de Fete Arts & Crafts Festival. The annual two-day festival, held Aug. 11-12, features over 250 arts and crafts booths, plus hands-on exhibits and special attractions.

One of Chaumette’s French Colonial-style Villas located along Ste. Genevieve ‘s Route du Vin.

Fourth Friday Art Walks, held monthly, also offer the opportunity to meet artists and experience the city’s shops and restaurants.

In December, plan to attend the Le Réveillon French Christmas, highlighting the holiday music, customs, foods and crafts of the colonial village. Visitors just might be inspired to return in the New Year for the Kings Ball, a costumed Mari Gras ball where one is encouraged to dress as a colonial, though it’s not required.

Between August and December, great fall foliage, harvest festivals, church suppers and haunted cemetery tours draw thousands to Ste. Genevieve. Staged in the Big Field across from the Green Tree Tavern is Rural Heritage Day, an event featuring old ways harvesting methods and crafts. Visitors can watch the harvest being gathered using vintage farm equipment or catch a ride through town on a horse-drawn hay wagon.  Historic houses are open during the festival, with many hosting their own slate of events.

Encounters with Ste. Genevieve’s late city founders are the focus of the Déjà vu Spirit Reunion in the historic Memorial Cemetery. A lantern-led tour gives guests the opportunity to meet the area’s most famous dearly departed, brought to life through historic interpreters.

A place of discovery

Whether it’s a festival weekend or not, visitors should begin at Ste. Genevieve’s Welcome Center, located steps from the city’s most celebrated historic house, the 1785 Louis Bolduc House Museum, deemed the most authentically restored Creole house in the United States. The displays and 10-minute video provide a good foundation of the area’s history. To save a few bucks, visitors can purchase a Historic Tour Passport. Priced at just $15 per person [$5 dollars for students through 12th grade], the passport is the best buy in town, providing admission for the 1806 Jacques Guibourd House, 1818 Felix Vallé State Historic Site, Ste. Genevieve Museum, 1792 Bauvais-Amoureux House, Green Tree Tavern and Bequette-Ribault House. The Bolduc House and its adjoining sites is a separate ticket but a must-see for any history buff.

Bolduc House [Photo Bill Naeger]

With so much to experience, it’s sometimes hard to decide what to do first. When asked where to begin, Donna Rausch advised, “To get the best picture of what was going on here I think people need to see the houses and hear the stories. See the older houses built in the late 1700s like the Bolduc, then see the Felix Valle. That way you’re stepping forward. You can see the change that happened after the Louisiana Purchase and the changes that happened such as when the first steamboat made it’s way up the river in 1817 or when [Missouri] became a state. You should see all the time periods that you can.”

Starting in late April, visitors will want to see The Center for French Colonial Life, which opens April 28 and serves as a new point of entry to the Bolduc House and its associated properties. Another spring spectacular is the Spring Garden Walk weekend, May 19-20, which features tours of public and private gardens, including recreated 18th-century gardens. Plant sales and art exhibits are among the activities along with special events planned along the Route du Vin.

Any time of the year is a good time to sample Ste. Genevieve’s “terroir,” which translates loosely to meaning “taste of a place.” That place – its soil, weather and the traditions – contributes to the flavor of its food and wine. Standout eateries celebrating Ste. Genevieve’s terroir include:

• Audubon’s Grill and Bar located just off the town square and named in honor of former resident James Audubon, the early 19th-century naturalist and painter famous for his Birds of America series

• The Old Brick House, housed appropriately in the oldest brick house west of the Mississippi and famous for its fried chicken

• The Garten Haus Restaurant at Weingarten Vineyard and Winery for a sample of German cuisine reflective of the meals served in Ste. Genevieve during the 1800s

• Grapevine Grill, where lunch and dinner can be enjoyed, April through October, on the sweeping porch overlooking Chaumette Winery’s scenic hills and vineyards

• The Anvil Saloon & Restaurant, whose bar came from an 1850s-era steamboat

While in town, visitors can sleep at The Southern Hotel, a 200-year-old landmark hotel located in the heart of the historic district that has operated as a B&B since its renovation and opening in the 1980s. Visitors also can experience a wine getaway in rural Ste. Genevieve and rent a villa at Chaumette. The villas were built to resemble 18th-century French Colonial architecture but are furnished with all the preferred 21st-century amenities, including an onsite spa and Wi-Fi. For visitors seeking a more rustic weekend, camping sites, including premium electric sites, are available at nearby Hawn State Park.

While Ste. Genevieve’s history can be sampled in a single day, Rausch suggests taking a weekend trip to the area and including the MODUC Ferry across the Mississippi to Illinois. On the Illinois side of the Mississippi, visitors can explore where French settlers lived prior to Ste. Genevieve, including Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher and the Pierre Menard House. There, they also can discover the connection between the two locations – a connection still shared through heritage and annual special events. One caution: Don’t forget to plan a return trip to the Missouri side of the Mighty Mississippi before the ferry stops its day’s operation.

Aside from that, all a visitor has to do is enjoy!

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