Curious attributes, important history and ongoing research can be found in some smaller, often overlooked museums.
St. Louis' oldest house museum opened as a showcase for a poet who wrote about pugnacious toys and sleepy babies. But it may be more relevant now for its Civil War link.
Another, a former plantation, is connected to the last enslaved person owned by a president.
Curious attributes (why is there no kitchen?), important history and ongoing research can be found in the area's smaller, often overlooked museums. Some of these house museums are still open for visitors, even if it's a slow season during the pandemic winter.
But perhaps the limited attendance, with appointments required, means visiting these historic places is one possibility for careful outings.
"It's safer than visiting grocery stores," says Andrew W. Hahn, executive director of the Campbell House Museum. "Every visitor who comes here is by himself. How can you get safer than that?"
At the Field House Museum, the Christmas season is usually the busiest time, but it counted about half of its usual attendance, says executive director Stephanie Bliss. The house retains its holiday decor through January.
"The smaller institutions are the ones I'd be visiting at this moment," she says.
There are more than 30 house museums in the region. In fact, the majority of American museums are house museums, Hahn notes. "So many historical societies run house museums, which is great," he says. "They are usually all volunteers and homespun type of activities."
St. Louisans who remember some here from a long-ago field trip might find new surprises, updates and interpretations of our history-rich area. Certainly the museums' websites are more factual and explicit about some houses' links to slave owners.
Here is a selection that can be visited now. Some, like the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, are expected to reopen in February. For more, see historicsaintlouis.org or check the websites of those listed there.
Field House Museum
In St. Louis, the oldest house museum (although not the oldest house) is the Field House Museum. The 1845 home turned 175 last year; Mark Twain was in attendance when the building received a historic plaque in 1902, and the museum was dedicated in 1936.
In the early 20th century, the house was famous as the 1850 birthplace of writer Eugene Field. His poetry, once taught in Missouri schools, isn't as popular today, although older readers remember the lullaby-like "Wynken, Blynken and Nod," the humorous fight of "The Duel" between a calico cat and gingham dog, and the sentimental "Little Boy Blue."
But Field, although known for verses about childhood, was far from a stiff Victorian gentleman. He was a friendly, even devilish prankster who attended three colleges but never graduated. (At the University of Missouri-Columbia, he wrote a poem about raids on a campus vineyard.) Later, his personal, satirical newspaper columns took him to the Chicago Morning News. He also privately printed ribald works and became an avid book collector.
Although he teased Chicago readers, calling the area "Porkopolis," he famously defended it, too. A British novelist asked him, "Do you not find the social atmosphere of Chicago exceedingly crude, furnishing one with little intellectual companionship?" Field apparently said: "Really Mrs. Ward, ... I do not consider myself competent to give an opinion ... up to the time Barnum captured me and took me to Chicago to be civilized I had always lived in a tree in the wilds of Missouri."
Although some bios of the writer say he wasn't actually born in the South Broadway row house, museum director Bliss confirms that records show he was. In the home, visitors can see several of 18 portraits of him (he apparently liked being drawn or painted) and some antique toys his family owned.
"He was a big kid," Bliss says. Because of his nostalgic poems about children, many vintage toys have been donated to the Field House Museum, but it's not a toy museum, she says.
Still, on a recent visit, the exhibition space (finished in 2016) showed a group of Steiff teddy bears and other stuffed animals. Another room displayed African American children's books, including several editions of "Little Black Sambo," explaining the controversial history of the book's illustrations.
That exhibition nods to the house's other historical figure, Eugene's father, Roswell, who represented Dred Scott in an appeal of his court case seeking freedom from slavery.
Today, perhaps visitors know less about Eugene Field and more about Dred Scott and the historic ruling against him by the U.S. Supreme Court that is credited with helping spur the Civil War. Roswell Field represented Scott pro bono in U.S. District Court and helped prepare the Supreme Court case, asking Montgomery Blair of Washington to argue it. (Blair, who previously had worked in St. Louis, would later be Lincoln's postmaster general.)
Scott had been a janitor in Field's law office, but Bliss says it is unknown whether the enslaved man might have ever been to the home. In addition to Roswell and Eugene were mother Frances and younger brother Roswell. Two Mormon teens, orphaned when their parents died of cholera in St. Louis, were taken in and lived there as a cook and a nanny. After Frances died in 1856, the boys were sent to live with a female relative in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The current building, no longer part of a row of houses, was built for lease to upper-middle-class residents, Bliss says. There are two bedrooms on the second floor and a living room and dining room downstairs, full of furniture of the time. A third floor is often used for exhibitions. Faux painting decorates mantels and wood trim. But there is no sign of a kitchen, which had been in the house's "flounder," a semi-detached building surprisingly common in old St. Louis. (The Campbell House has an existing flounder. Learn more about flounders at stlouis-mo.gov.)
Even if the house itself seems moderately sized now, the expansion with its exhibition space and library of books owned by and about Eugene Field helps address the varied historic elements, from toys to literature to African American history. Bliss says that visitors often arrive interested in one aspect of the home's history and learn much more. "We like to give attention to all parts of who we are," she says.
Where Eugene Field House, 634 South Broadway • Hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday; reservations required • How much $10, $5 for ages 7-16, free for ages 6 and under; free family admittance to the exhibition wing on the third Thursday afternoon of the month • More info 314-421-4689; fieldhousemuseum.org
1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House
Another house that has a link to civil rights history, and which quietly marked its 200th birthday last year, is in Edwardsville. Often cited as one of the oldest houses in Illinois, the Stephenson House was built by a colonel who helped create the Illinois constitution.
The two-story, four-room Federal-style house includes bold colors favored by the family at that time. It was the home of Col. Benjamin Stephenson, described as having worked as a merchant, sheriff, bank president, colonel in the Illinois militia, road commissioner, Indian agent and a U.S. representative for the territory. When he lived in Edwardsville, the area was a political hub, and Stephenson ran a land office, making money for him and the federal government.
Stephenson's wife, Lucy, was only 10 years old when they married in 1799 (he was 30). She had her first child at 14.
But perhaps an even more surprising aspect to the house's history is that even though slavery was illegal in Illinois territory, the family brought enslaved people with them in 1809. To get around the anti-slavery law, slaves were registered with a courthouse as "indentured servants."
The "servants" were supposed to agree to the designation. The Stephenson House website explains the situation:
"In reality, what choice did they have regarding their freedom? The slaveholder chose the number of years an indenture would last. In many cases, the period listed on an indenture was ninety-nine years. The idea was not ultimately to set the servants free but to keep them in legal bondage. If an indenture contract was coming to an end, it was not uncommon for the owner to take the servant to St. Louis and sell them at auction, recouping some of their original investment."
Despite research, the website says, little is known about the Stephensons' servants, but at least two were indentured when less than a year old. Research into their past is ongoing.
Ben Stephenson didn't live long after the family moved into the new house in 1821. He died the next year, likely of malaria. Lucy bought five of the servants in the estate's sale.
The house, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, was purchased by the city of Edwardsville from a fraternity in 1999. After restoration work, it was officially dedicated in 2006.
Where 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House, 409 South Buchanan Street • Hours 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday in winter; reservations required • How much $6, $3 for ages 6-12, free for ages 5 and under • More info618-692-1818; stephensonhouse.org
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
The childhood home of Julia Dent, future wife of Ulysses S. Grant, was built between 1812 and 1816 by enslaved laborers owned by a Virginia man. This makes the original structure older than the Stephenson property. Nearby house museums older than the Grant site include the Sappington House (1808) and the Taille de Noyer House in Florissant (circa 1790), plus a couple in Ste. Genevieve.
The future Grant property was purchased as a summer residence of Maryland merchant Frederick Dent and his family, who were renting a house in St. Louis. Then surrounded by hundreds of acres, the country house was expanded and the Dents eventually moved there year round, with the property worked by more than two dozen enslaved people.
Whether considered a plantation or farm, it was known as White Haven, a name Dent's relatives had also used for their plantation in Maryland.
But Julia Dent spent a lot of time away, attending a boarding school in St. Louis and returning to White Haven in the summer. After she graduated, she stayed in St. Louis for months, living with businessman John O'Fallon's family and throwing parties with his daughter. But she returned home in 1844 and soon met Grant. Grant visited the home while stationed at Jefferson Barracks; he and Dent married in 1848.
The Grants, who shared a love of nature and rode horses together, lived on the property with their four children from 1854 to 1859. But he was less successful as a farmer than as a general, and even though he wanted to use White Haven later as a horse-breeding operation, the Grants never moved back. They did visit, however, and owned it until about 1885, the year Grant died. Julia's slaveholding father, who believed before the Civil War that secession was legal, ended up living with President and Mrs. Grant at the White House, where he died.
When Grant began farming, he purchased a man, William Jones, from his father-in-law. After Grant gave up farming in 1859, he went to the St. Louis courthouse and wrote a manumission paper freeing Jones from slavery, the historic site's website says, adding that "Jones is the last enslaved person to have been owned by a U.S. President." What happened to Jones after 1859 is unknown.
White Haven's lower level is open, and visits to the site have been slow during the pandemic, says superintendent Tucker Blythe. "We feel it's fairly safe. We don't have that many people at a time."
The house's winter kitchen is in the basement, and its summer kitchen is a separate building. There is also a chicken house and an ice house. The property, once 850 acres, is now less than 10 (some of the original acreage is part of Grant's Farm). One of the farm's oldest trees is a black oak that dates to about 1829.
When Grant lived at White Haven, the house was beige. Now it's Paris green, a color popular in the Victorian era (supplemented then with arsenic) when Grant owned it after the Civil War.
Where Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, 7400 Grant Road • Hours 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily • How much Free • More info 314-842-1867; nps.gov
Campbell House Museum
The Campbell House, one of the area's grandest small museums, has no formal hours in January and February, but that is all the better for visitors: Appointments are still available.
An expansion and renovation project on the 1851 house was finished in November. Because of the pandemic, there was no official unveiling of the renovation of the laundry room and addition of a space for a classroom, gift shop, elevator and accessible entrance. Since the work is done, though, all four floors plus the basement are accessible (and don't require traipsing up 130 steps).
One new restoration involves $600-per-roll wallpaper for the dining room. An expert examined old photos to design the pattern and choose eight colors, including robin's egg blue, taupe and gold. Extra rolls of the bespoke paper were printed in case repairs are needed.
The old laundry room was well-used when Robert and Virginia Campbell lived there starting in 1854. During the 1870s, for instance, the house had a laundry girl responsible for cleaning everything worn, slept on or used when dining by the family and the house's eight or nine servants. Of course this was washed by hand and everything was ironed, director Hahn says.
The family had an enslaved worker until 1857, when Robert Campbell emancipated Eliza Rone and her children. Rone and her husband, John, moved to Kansas City in 1870, but stayed in touch with the Campbell family until Eliza's death in 1923.
Where • Campbell House Museum, 1508 Locust Street • Hours By appointment only through February • How much $10; free for children 12 and under • More info 314-421-0325; campbellhousemuseum.org