I walked to Francis Park and back this morning with daughter Kate, and it reminded me of this piece I wrote many years ago but I don’t think ever published anyplace, though parts of it were used (with my blessing) in a history of St. Louis Hills. It’s based on historical documents held at the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research center.
In the winter of 1916, David R. Francis—the man who brought St. Louis the 1904 World’s Fair—sent a package from Petrograd, Russia, to St. Louis. It contained Christmas gifts for his friends and family back home. “Mrs. Francis” received a silver box, salt cellar, and “Kirkland Scotland souvenir ‘Cider Cup,’” while his daughters-in-law got gifts ranging from an “ash receiver” to a “tea strainer.”
Missing from Francis’s list of goodies was his Christmas gift to the city of St. Louis: Francis Park.
Francis, in Russia since April 1916 as the newly appointed U.S. ambassador, had been negotiating for several months with Commissioner of Parks and Recreation Nelson Cunliff. Cunliff knew that the southwest corner of the city was ripe for development, and he wanted to build a park there before land became too expensive.
More than thirty years earlier, Francis had purchased 377 acres of gently rolling hillside in this part St. Louis, then known as Southampton. His gift of the park—60 acres bordered by Eichelberger, Donovan, and today’s Nottingham and Tamm—still left him with a sizable piece of property, but the gift, as the St. Louis Republic editorialized, was “an immortal thing.”
St. Louisans streamed to Twelfth Street on Christmas Eve, 1916, to see the Municipal Christmas Tree light up and Santa Clause (portrayed by a man named Otto Karbe) deliver the deed granting Francis Park to the city.
Under the headline “D. R. Francis Gives City 60-Acre Park,” the Republic described Francis’s Christmas present, as well as the gifts of two other prominent St. Louisans: lawyer and businessman G. A. Buder donated a lot for a “community house,” and brewer August A. Busch gave three “Pickering hogs” to the zoo.
Since David R. Francis was in Russia, Perry Francis—his son and legal representative—stood in for him at the ceremony, but in an editorial entitled “In the Stocking of St. Louis,” the paper let Francis speak for himself: “St. Louis has done everything for me; I’d like to do a little for St. Louis.”
Of course, he wanted to do a little something for himself, too. When his shipment of St. Louis newspapers arrived in Russia, he complained to Perry that no other paper had given the story much ink. “You must have attempted to give the Republic a ‘scoop,’” he wrote, “but if so I think you made a mistake as the donation of ground worth not less than $60,000 is a matter concerning which all of the newspapers should have been simultaneously advised.”
Francis’s deed with the city, which was not formalized until July 1917, put some restrictions on the gift, though nothing unreasonable. The property, Francis wrote, was to be used for “Park and Recreational purposes only” and cared for by the city. If anyone ever tried to use it for other purposes, it would revert to Francis or his heirs. And it was to be known forever as “Francis Park.”
World War I delayed any serious park improvements for several years but, in November 1923, Cunliff—who had since been made Director of Public Welfare—announced a novel plan. Under his direction, first-time offenders from the City Workhouse were encamped on the grounds to do the landscaping, clean-up, and other work that would transform a chunk of the Francis Farm into a first-class city park.
“The men who will form the park colony are not criminals,” Cunliff told the Globe-Democrat. “They are men who have made but one bad step, have offended but once, and who want to live down that one mistake. They will be workmen serving out their terms at honest labor for the city.”
Fourteen men arrived at the park on November 6, but Cunliff had arranged accommodations for forty. With his unique scheme, the Director of Public Welfare set Francis Park on its way.
As we continue to ask how St. Louis can improve, we should look back occasionally to our past—to a time when a world war could postpone, not cancel, our dreams; when community leaders had visions beyond, not limited to, themselves; and when even our criminals were viewed as assets, not liabilities.