|Vol. II, No. 3, Winter 1989|
by Jane Stephens
After nearly 300 years of history, beginning as early as 1715 when local Indians guided French ex-primitive lead mines in what was then French Louisiana, Fredericktown, Missouri decided that it was time to take at look at itself-- a good look!
After fulfilling the requirements to become a Certified Local Government, the city of Fredericktown and its Heritage and Landmarks Commission applied for and received a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to perform an historic survey of "above-ground resources,"i.e, to locate and identify buildings and structures of potential historic significance.
There was to be a unique aspect to the Fredericktown survey. While I was employed as a professional consultant to the project, the surveyors would be local "historians," volunteers interested in the community, but with no specific expertise or experience in historic survey work. Nine individuals agreed to take on the task of surveying all structures within a designated area. Each person became responsible for approximately forty buildings.
The plan was simple! We were to complete Historic Inventory Data Sheets (HIDS, supplied by the state) for each building in our survey.
The data sheet is a one page form which requests information about many items, including date or period of construction, style or design, builder, plan shape, number of stories, roof type and material, type of construction, foundation material, etc. Additional space is provided for information on the history and significance of the building. (The term "significance," by the way, can indicate local importance and does not necessarily imply a national level of interest).
As each surveyor will testify, once a data sheet is completed and a 5 X 7 black and white photograph is attached, a great deal of information has been gathered about the building, and the significance of the structure either looms large or fades.
As the consultant, I conducted three workshops to introduce the volunteers to local sources of
"house history" --sources such as oral interviews, published histories, city directories, newspapers,
records of community organizations, company records, assessors records, church histories, public
records, etc. Our best resource for this aspect of the survey work was Houses and Homes:
Exploring their History by Howe, Fleming, Kemp, and Overbeck, published by the American
Association of State and Local History. The workshops also covered some architectural
information, using Virginia and Lee McAlester's Field Guide to American Houses. Handouts and
slides illustrating styles and stylistic elements were used to train the participants in the
fundamentals of architecture.
I would enjoy claiming that these workshops provided all of the knowledge needed by the participants to do the surveys. Honesty, however, forbids that claim. Most of the volunteers learned by "plowing in" and finding their own answers to the survey items. Their diverse personalities and backgrounds proved an asset rather than a hinderance to the project. For example, Bascom was one of our most valuable participants; he had either remodeled or repaired -- in some cases even built -- many of the houses. John was the most knowledgeable of local history, and was therefore sceptical of much "new" information. Beulah was a pest at times because of her blasted attention to every detail] Paula was the pusher who nagged all of us to meet deadlines and keep time sheets for purposes of the grant. Dennis was the steady hand who picked up the slack, time after time. The other workers all contributed in their own special ways. Every person who participated devoted hours to the project and was vital to its success.
An important aspect of the workshops was the discussion of the "historic context" for our project. Historic context is defined by the Department of the Interior as "a body of information about historic properties organized by theme, place and time." With few exceptions, historic significance in Fredericktown is that which relates to the lead mining industry. This industry, along with the occasional mining of iron, nickel, copper and cobalt, has been the basis for the town's existence. Therefore, an historic context based on that of lead mining for our project was obvious and natural. Not only is a context required by the grant guidelines, it is a necessary "magnet" which keeps everyone headed in the same direction.
For example, in 1943 a group of 15 houses, identical except for shutter designs, were built of brick veneer over clay tile blocks. Nothing of great interest is immediately apparent about these modest cottages, other than their sameness, until one realizes that they were built for miners' housing during World War II, and were probably the last such to be built in Fredericktown. Keeping the historic context in mind, one can see that they symbolize an important era for Fredericktown. In fact, our survey data revealed that, as we had expected, the town's greatest periods of economic and architectural development clearly coincided with American wars when lead was in great demand. In the 1943 houses, a clear parallel between architecture and mining is evident.
After the completion of 352 HIDS and photographs, a color-coded map and a written summary were submitted as an Interim Report to the State Historic Preservation Office. A complete set was also placed in the Heritage and Landmark Commission office in Fredericktown. The Interim Report not only summarized our findings but also contained recommendations for potential national and local registration of individual sites and districts.
Other than an historic context with a multitude of Historic Inventory Data Sheets, maps, and photographs, what did Fredericktown gain from the survey? Technically, the results included a half dozen individual sites and two districts of National Register potential -- rather impressive for a town of fewer than 5000 people -- along with other, local district, possibilities. The real benefit for the town, however, emerged as people began to appreciate local events and sites that they had previously ignored or overlooked. Local enthusiasm grew as local history was explored. A court house that had been viewed with apathy became a source of pride when the people were reminded that Theodore Link, the architect for the St. Louis Union Station, had been its designer. The courthouse square is, we now understand, a Lancaster Square Plan -- i.e. one in which the adjacent streets issue from the center of the sides of a town square, rather than the corners -- in itself a fact of considerable historical significance. An 1840s rubblestone livery stable retains its original integrity, and although we could not document the local lore that beneath it were once "caverns large enough for wagons to pass through," many now recognize it as an important architectural resource. A 1920s Mission style gas station on the square is looked on in a new light.
Elderly people in Fredericktown also shared in a sense of importance since rather suddenly people began to take an interest in their memories. Indeed, they had newly eager listeners!
The best indicator of the local public response to the Survey is that the town has made application for a subsequent grant to continue the work, including 160 additional structures too significant to be omitted. The decision was to "keep looking."
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