Written by Frank Magre for Jefferson Heritage and Landmark newsletter
Notes in ( ) are mine: Lisa K. Gendron
"I was born on Crystal Heights in 1906, the eldest of eight children of Peter Constance Magre of Crystal City and Hugtown. My father's family were of French descent. My mother was Mary, daughter of Frank and Odelia Dehner, who were of German descent. My earliest recollections were those spent with my Grandfather Dehner who was from Germany and spoke only German. His house was the fifth house above ours on the Crystal Heights Road. He was a kindly and patient man, and in my mind he would never have accomplished his many farming chores without my help. Only one hitch developed in this arrangement - I was speaking German much to the displeasure of my father,a Frenchman. My father was born in Crystal City at the site where the Centerre Bank now stands. (across from Grace Presbyterian Church) The house was later moved to near Hematite on Highway P on the old Buren farm. It is now owned by Charles Williams. (Jesse F. Donnell moved the house, which he later sold to Charles Williams) At an early age my father's family built and then moved to a house on Mississippi Avenue and 8th Street where Mrs. Philips and Gene now live. (Julie Tull's grandma) After he married he bought and moved to an eleven acre parcel of ground on Crystal Heights, where all eight of his children were born. Dad worked all his working years at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in Crystal City. He had a large garden complete with hot beds and cold frames, and also an extensive grape vineyard and orchard.
We had a horse, cow, pigs, chickens, bees and a pigeon cote. Dad bought our horse, a thoroughbred, from Dr. Jim (should be Jesse) Donnell when the race track was closed in Crystal City. The race track was north from Second St. and around Mississippi. The horse's name was Dick and he loved to chase cars. Generally with two of us on his back he could outrun any horse around. On one occasion on Mississippi Avenue with my brother Joe and Edward Bennett on his back, there was a near tragedy. The boys were racing the Long Mercantile truck driven by "Blacky" Crain. When the horse pulled up along the side Blacky deliberately swerved into the horse. All of them ended up in Ruel Wescoat's yard whose house was around 3rd and Mississippi, with the truck on top of the boys and horse. A group of men lifted the truck off the trio and to the amazement of everyone, neither the horse nor the boys were seriously hurt.
Dick was used for plowing, and the almost daily trip to the Crystal City library. Both the library and the movie were located in the old City Building at that time. We had a spring buggy and used it for shopping and weekly trips to the picture show. I also remember day long trips to Hillsboro to pay our county taxes. On Sundays we hitched Dick to the surrey and all the family rode to church in it. My brothers and I taught Dick to jump fences and this led to his death. In jumping a fence he caught the top wire between his hoof and a loose shoe. The fall broke his neck and Dad had to have him shot. Needless to say, this was a sad day in our lives.
As far back as I can remember, I recall spending much time in Stephen Hug's pasture playing ball and other games. This was where George Oakes, the former Superintendent of the Glass Plant built his home. When we played there, a cemetery was on the south part of the field. We would use one of the tombstones for home plate. This cemetery was later bulldozed over the side of the bluffs. (The cemetery was on Tina Reifsteck’s property. They supposedly moved the graves in the 1940's to city cemetery before they sold the land to her grandfather. However, in the 1970s when they were putting a water line from the street to Tina’s house they went through a casket.)
Crystal Heights people who owned cows could pasture them there. Hug, then French Smith and still later, Ed Heob pastured their dairy cattle there. The price was $1.00 a month. We could always tell whose cows were passing our house by the sound of their bells. The cattle passed from one part of the pasture to the other by going under the bridge on the River Road. (Hug's) The Crystal City High School, the Glasgows, Donnells, Madisons, Bais and others now have homes built on this former pasture. During World War I the Crystal Heights kids dug a large dugout in the pasture with a secret tunnel to it. We first dug a large pit, covered it with poles and bit of tin, then we covered it with dirt and even sodded it. The one thing we had not figured on was that this roof would not support a cow. It took about six men, scaffolding, block and tackle, and a lot of unpleasant cuss words that only Ed Heob would have delivered to extradite one of his prize Holstein cows from our beloved dugout.
In the winter we did a lot of sleigh riding down Crystal Heights Road and skated on Dodd's pond, which was at the top of Crystal Heights Road near Holdinghausen Drive. We also skated on River Road branch and Joachim Creek. We had many spirited hockey games at these places. In the summer we swam almost every day in the river, mostly at Plattin Rock, where the Fred Weber Quarry now is. We often made trips to the sandbar on the Illinois side of the river. We had one small boat and all the kids who could not swim were made to ride inside the boat. Those who could swim hung onto the outside. These were mostly Pruneau, Short, Gurlin, Bennett, Wideman and Harmon kids. If a wind came up while we were playing on the sandbar we would experience some anxious moments on our way back to the Missouri side.
When I was a child we had socialized medicine, but didn't realize that was what it was called. Our medical care in our growing-up years on Crystal Heights was taken care of by Dr. Jesse Donnell, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass company doctor. Employees of the factory that signed up for his service paid $1.00 per month and this included childbirth, setting broken bones, pills and medicines which the doctor mixed himself. His office and home were located at 21 South Taylor, the present home of the Andrew DeGears. (1988)
We grew up during the latter part of the steamboat era. The Eagle Packet Company delivered freight twice each week at the Plattin Rock/Hug's Landing. The paddle wheel steam boats I remember were the Grey Eagle, the Golden Eagle and the Bald Eagle. When one of these boats whistled for a landing, we dropped whatever we were doing and ran down to the landing. The fastest kids got to the landing. by the time the gang plank was lowered. We kids had free run of the lower deck that housed the huge steam engine, the freight and the place where the stevedores slept. The passenger deck was "off limits." Most of the action was along the line where the colored stevedores carried the freight down the gangplank to the warehouse. The warehouse was managed by Al Coleman, brother of Sam, who ran the Coleman Saloon on Festus Main Street. The warehouse had specific spaces where each shipper's items were assembled, although on some occasions orders were placed directly in wagons. Since most of the stevedores could not read, the checkers and the warehouse worked out a system to compensate for this. At the Plattin Rock/Hug's Landing, shippers names were changed to catchy phrases such as: Festus Mercantile was Funny Man, Long Mercantile was Lazy Man, Forshee & Grieshaber was Foxy Grandpa, Waggoner Store was White Star, Hattershire was Half Moon, and I can't remember what Kerruish Store was called. The stevedores got along beautifully with this system. We kids found places to watch along the route the stevedores took to the warehouse. The stevedores enjoyed putting on a show for the kids and any other spectators. They danced, strutted, chanted and sung. We never tired of their antics; besides, they occasionally slipped us an orange or a banana. Living on Crystal Heights these were the first black people many of us kids had ever seen.
Nothing was more exciting to us than the arrival of a showboat. We were usually sitting on the muddy river bank long before the steam calliope had finished its second tune and the boat had docked. We vied for the right to run errands for the show people and crew members. These errands might be picking up cigars, cigarettes, groceries, papers, etc. We had to go all the way to Crystal City for most of the items except those we could get at the Reheisse Saloon in Hugtown. They paid us in tickets, and by the second night's performance we knew most of the actor's "scripts."
Al Coleman, the operator of the warehouse, was a unique character. His home was on the hill above the boat landing. Originally this was a 23.6 acre tract belonging to J.S. Dederick. Stephen Hug owned it at this time. One of Al's ventures was raising white leghorn chickens in considerable numbers. They ranged all over the hill and gave the area the name "Chicken Hill." The name has stayed with this area to this day. Al managed the warehouse and ran a little bootlegging business on the side. This was during the prohibition era, and Al only sold liquor in the half pint bottles. A customer wishing to purchase a half pint of whiskey would give Al the money. Al would then turn to his shepherd dog, "Shep" who was always present and say, "Shep, fetch it." Shep would run as fast as he could go up Chicken Hill to (everyone assumed) Al's red-headed wife, Nell. And it is again assumed that she took the money from the pouch on the dog's collar and put the bottle of whiskey in. At any rate, in a very short time, Shep would come back behind the warehouse with the bottle. If everything still looked all right, Al would go out behind the warehouse and take the bottle from Shep's collar. The families of Lloyd Thuesen, Ray Govero, George Bequette, Joe Cunningham, Tim Herbert, Mrs. Howard Crowe, and Judge Phil Hess now live on Chicken Hill along with some others.
Besides the many chores attached to gardening and farming, we were expected to pick wild blackberries and dewberries for cobblers and canning. We also had to gather tame grapes for canning and wine making. During the prohibition era we took turns at bottling home brew. There was a man named Mr. Gardner who ran the speakeasy from his home which was about where Glen Pullen now lives. Edmond Pruneau ran a small still in his chicken house, for a more or less neighborhood clientele. But for the "hardcore" drinkers the place to go was "French Louis" Layson's. For many years he lived with his parents where Constance Hill now lives. He was a crusty old cuss who lived just beyond the law, having had several run-ins with those who crossed his path. He carried a pistol in a wood-woven basket and almost always had a corn-cob pipe in his mouth. He wore an old black felt hat that had a mud dauber's nest attached to it, and lived in a houseboat along the river below the Hug property. His still was in a shack across the river on Calico Island and he rowed to and from his houseboat and distillery in a john-boat. His house boat was a hangout for those who liked that type of life. There was generally a card game in progress on his boat, with a pitcher of Louie's lightning in the middle of the table. You were expected to pay a dollar when you left. I do not remember what he charged for liquor, but I do remember that you had to bring your own empty bottle. I was one of the privileged few he trusted to dig up his product. He kept his whiskey in ten gallon kegs under a well-kept garden, and he was the only one who knew where to dig for it.
When French Louie went shopping in Crystal City or Herculaneum, he usually hid his shot gun at the edge of town, but always carried his basket with him. On one of these trips ro Herculaneum, he had to pass the St. Joe Rock Quarry run by John Magre. Ed Holdinghausen, Melon Buckner, and A. Reece were the other quarrymen. John was the father of Lorene Reece and Jeannette Barton of Crystal City. John, an excellent shot, had known Louie intimately all his life. One time he picked up his rifle and said, "Let's shake up that old codger." Here was Louie trudging up the railroad track when suddenly his pipe bowl disappeared as John's bullet hit it. Louie never looked one way or the other, just kept on his way up the track. Some hours later, he returned, smoking a new pipe. This time he confronted the quarry workers, opened his basket, pulled out his pistol and said, "You fellows had your fun, now it's my turn." Some chilling moments ensured as the workers looked at the pistol, and then Louie smiled and let them know that he too was only playing.