Back In The Day

On a sweltering day in August, 2010, at a little past one, Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis, had something special to offer. A funeral procession with horse-drawn hearse and a small cortege of mourners came rolling up the street. Now Martin Luther King Drive in its 4200-block is a busy place with lots of shops and businesses, yet all activity ceased for a few minutes. Body shop guys; people buying fruit at the produce stand; bedraggled-looking pickers, their shopping carts brimming with cans—everyone stopped to watch the approach of this wonderment. Which century was it? The first thing to draw attention was a sound that is not very often heard: The clop-clop-clopping of draft horses on the asphalt. As impressive as these horses were—large, yet graceful; wearing the finest tack; feathered plumes adorning their heads—the coach itself was the spectacle. It was a thing of grandeur, white and massive, the steel-rimmed wheels a good six-feet in diameter. The main section, nearly the size of a parlor, had glass sides so one could view the closed casket within. Who was this personage to warrant such a stylish send-off? The coachman, bedecked in white as well, a top hat shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare, looked neither to the left or the right, but held his gaze steady on the horizon. He was in it for the long haul; the cemetery was a good distance off.

“That’s one lucky stiff,” uttered one fellow, none too original, as he went back to his tuck-pointing.

It was something out of a movie or a book, perhaps a fairy tale. For a while, every bystander was transported  to a time when Martin Luther King Drive was named Easton Avenue and all the conveyances were horse-drawn. Indeed, there were clues to augment this reverie, for there were signs,  viewable in the immediate environment, that hearkened back to the horse-and-buggy days. The funeral procession passed directly below one such anachronism. On the east wall of a large brick building located at 4234 MLK, approximately 16-feet above ground level on what would be the second-story, is a rectangular banner sign that reads “SADDLERY.” That’s all, no other reference. Black lettering on a red-orange field with a black outline; this sign was likely exposed through demolition of an adjacent building in the last five years or so. Had it been there for decades the colors would have washed away in the sunlight.

A similar artifact may be found less than a mile away on another east-west thoroughfare, Delmar Avenue. This west-facing sign is equally brief, having one word only, “HORSESHOERS.” The sign is positioned near the roofline of the three-story edifice, giving it prominent view to east-bound traffic on Delmar. Interestingly, someone has drawn the figure of an old man on some durable paper stock and affixed it to the building at ground level so that the figure appears to be looking up at the old sign.

It is nothing short of remarkable to be able to look through 21st century eyes at signs that were painte

d on buildings in the 19th century.

Likewise, over on the 2100-block of Cass Avenue on the city’s Northside, there was another similar dated wall sign, this one a well-preserved beauty advertising SCHACHT & COOK HORSE SHOERS. I photographed this sign in 1980; the building itself is long since gone and there is no reference to the named business on any available database.

Not far away, just north of downtown, may be found the text-rich sign painted on the south wall of the former Mound City Buggy and Auto Company, located at 1500 N. Broadway. This wall is actually hodgepodge of faded remnants of various signs, some painted over others. In places, the letters appear jumbled, text from disparate ads mixing together, giving the broad, brick face a sort of mishmash effect. How does this happen? The elements have washed away the primer used to cover up the previous ad copy.

What’s nice about this old wall is how the advertised products connect the horse-drawn era to the horseless carriage era. The top line advertising MOUND CITY BUGGY COMPANY is quite legible. Less so, the next line down reading HALLADAY AUTOMOBILE, which is partly obscured by another line of copy, likely painted at a later date, and reading “Mfrs Of Inland-1-Piece Piston Ring.” In terms of ad copy, it is loquacious by modern standards. The casual observer, with diligent study, may decipher the full message found on the lower levels: “Machine Tools, Jigs, and Dies” “1,600,000 In Use And Going Strong.” There is even more verbiage on this wall, but it remains a mystery—a good th

ing, as we don’t want every thing simple and straightforward.

By 1900, the Mound City Buggy and Auto Company had offices variously at 2007 Locust Street and on S. Broadway between Papin and Chouteau. The extant building on N. Broadway [pictured here] must have been the company’s manufacturing plant.

Because of all the Indian mounds found on both sides of the river, St. Louis was once known as Mound City and there were, and still are, numerous enterprises that carry the appellation or prefix Mound City. In St. Louis, by the 1880s, virtually all of the mounds were gone, sacrificed to urban development. Tod

ay, only one remains in the 4500-block of Ohio Street, alongside I-55. There is a house built on top of it.

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