Some rough edges are expected after a thousand or so years, but Sugarloaf Mound is not aging gracefully.
The 40-foot mound, overlooking the Mississippi River where Interstate 55 curves over South Broadway, is the last remaining of about 40 mounds built in St. Louis by a Native American culture that thrived in this area from A.D. 600-1300. It now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The same civilization also built the earthen works preserved at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois.
In the 1920s, when historic conservation of Native American sites was no concern to developers, two houses were built on Sugarloaf.
The Osage Nation bought the house and property on the highest part of the mound in 2009. The Osage didn’t build Sugarloaf, but tribal leaders say its ancestors include the local mound builders.
Chris W. Clark, a north St. Louis County resident who became interested in the mounds after visiting Cahokia, was dismayed at the deteriorated state he found on a recent visit to Sugarloaf. He found the home and property in rough shape.
“I asked my wife if she wanted to go see the only mound remaining in St. Louis, and we went and saw it — in that condition,” he said, adding that he is less concerned about the home, but rather with the erosion and overgrowth of vegetation on the actual mound.
“My idea was that (the Osage) were going to take it over and preserve the actual ground. But in some parts, it’s washing away,” Clark said.
Officials with the Osage Nation, based in Oklahoma, were unavailable for comment.
Joan Heckenberg lives on the lower part of Sugarloaf, in a home bought in 1928 by her grandparents, August and Lydia Wiegert. They bought the house from a warden at the old City Workhouse, which was nearby on South Broadway, where a Family Dollar store now stands.
Heckenberg moved there in 1945. She said before I-55 came through, her home and Sugarloaf sat between Osceola and Wyandotte streets. She said both streets ran west to Broadway until the highway cut them off in the mid-1960s.
“Historians say my house is on the ‘platform,’” said Heckenberg, a retired nurse who worked at St. Anthony’s Medical Center. “That was the waiting area, because only the chief and top medicine men could go up on the big mound.”
For years, a quarry operated immediately south of Sugarloaf and destroyed some of the mound’s original features.
Ironically, Heckenberg said the quarry’s work may have ultimately saved the mound, and her house, from I-55.
“The state told us once that once they heard a quarry had (dug and blasted) in that area, they didn’t even want to mess with it. So they decided not to take it” for the interstate, she said.
Heckenberg said she was pleased the Osage bought the property, and appreciates the security fence and video cameras they installed about two years ago, though she also expressed concern about the erosion.
As to actual preservation, Heckenberg said, “I think they’d like me to sell to them, and then they could tear down both houses at once and restore the mound.”
But Heckenberg can handle any sales pressure. She knows pressure. In 1965, she delivered a baby in the front seat of a car on St. Anthony’s parking lot, while the couple’s dog barked in the back seat.
“I don’t want to sell,” she said. “I like living here.”
Your weekly capsule of local news, life advice, trivia and humor from Post-Dispatch columnist Joe Holleman.