CLAYTON • Gentleman farmer Ralph Clayton, 90, stood amid the grove of trees he had once owned. He slipped off his hat and bowed his head. The hundreds who gathered around followed his lead.
"In the name of God, in the interests of civilization, with the hope that none but days of happiness shall greet the people of St. Louis County, I commence this work," Clayton said. Then he shoved a spade into the earth.
Clayton's first turn of dirt on April 19, 1878, began construction of a St. Louis County Courthouse in the future city that would bear his name. Clayton's donation of 100 acres had cinched the competition for a new county seat, made necessary by St. Louis' "Great Divorce" one year before.
It had been a bitter affair. In August 1876, city voters narrowly approved separating city and county. County voters trounced it, but some suspect precincts delivered hundreds of "no" votes to reject smeared with crude eraser marks. The downtown business Brahmins who wanted to be rid of county taxes and state influence over county government forced a court battle that overturned the result. Divorce became final in March 1877.
The previous county courthouse downtown, known today as the Old Courthouse, became city property. The city had 350,000 residents, the county about 30,000 - and only 150 miles of gravel roads.
Its exiled government met in homes and taverns before settling into a roadhouse called the Mount Olive Hotel, near today's Hanley Road and Olive Boulevard. The first order of business - where to build a courthouse - was contentious.
Kirkwood, then the big city, considered itself the rightful place. The future Florissant, a farming district known as St. Ferdinand township, pitched a bid. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat noted that "the hair of the three unfortunate (county) commissioners turned grey, and the hinges of their gates were worn out."
They opted for an east-central site, made easy by Clayton's donation. It was tranquil farmland, vaguely described as being west of Hanley Road and north of Clayton Road. One selling point was that a narrow-gauge railway from the city soon would reach Clayton's grove.
The $38,000 courthouse opened the following December. Clayton died in 1883, and the city named for him was incorporated in 1913. County population, at 274,000 in 1940, exploded after World War II and surpassed the city in the early 1960s. County voters rejected six requests for more court space until 1945, when they approved building a new courthouse that now serves as County Police headquarters. The last of the 1878 courthouse was demolished in 1971 to make way for today's county government plaza, next to a modern six-story courthouse.