Curiosity, or perhaps a longing for tradition, takes us occasionally to old neighborhoods. We exit from a major highway, and perhaps wind up in "Dog Town" where people still have time to chat.
"Dog Town" can be found by using Highway 40 east to McCausland Avenue, exiting north to the next stop light, and then south into Clayton Avenue, which is the west entrance to it.
Cracked sidewalks tell the age of the place as one drives over the Highway 40 overpass, passed the Dewey School, and down a half mile into what could be called the heart of "Dog Town", where many small stores serve their customers in the most neighborly fashion. Clayton Avenue, which is lined with old homes and four family flats, meets up with Wise Avenue at a point that forms a convenient square-like widening in the road, just right for Lehman's Hardware Store, located on Wise Avenue, and the High Life Cafe opposite on Clayton Avenue, for parking.
Tamm Avenue, which is one of the oldest streets in "Dog Town", crosses Clayton and Wise Avenues, leading toward St. James, a Catholic church. During the time when "Dog Town" was called Cheltenham, Tamm Avenue housed the first railroad station.
It was the Spanish Governor General of New Orleans, Don Manuel Gayoso de Lemos who gave 8000 acres of land to & Gratiot League in 1798, a group of citizens who had settled in the area, which stretched from Kingshighway to Big Bend Road, from Pernod Avenue to a line one third of a mile north of the southern border.
Bill Hamlin Jr., whose father's business, Lehman Hardware Store, has been in "Dog Town" since the turn of the century, and is a prominent member of the merchants of the area, has his own ideas about the boundary line of "Dog Town". He said, lifting himself up from a chair, reaching for a pen and paper, `We're kind of boxed in, it's like being a city within a city." He drew a map and explained, "We're located between Forest Park to the north, Manchester to the south, the Checkdome to the east, and Clayton to the west." Bill is a lanky young man who helps his father in the hardware business, has been doing it for the last ten years. He said that he graduated from college, and that he hopes to continue with the family tradition. "I am the fourth generation at Lehman's, there was my great grandfather George E. Lehman, my grandfather Moon, and my father Bill Hamlin Sr., and now I am here too." Bill loved to talk about his plans for the future and how he plans to make a success of it. "We like people, and we don't plan on becoming rich, it's doing what you like that counts."
He explained that by belonging to a wholesale group his father can buy goods at a lower cost, the merchandise is delivered, and that this way Lehman's can compete with superstores.
When it's time to find a bite to eat one can visit the Highlife Cafe across from Lehman's on Clayton Avenue. Dhimitrios, the Albanian owner of the cafe serves mostly breakfast and lunch. At the age of 72 he works a daily shift of eight hours. "Decent people live here", he whispered. He looked professional with his chef's hat and a white apron. "One thing I tell you, I always try to make good coffee. But gravy is the best thing in a meal, and my gravy is the best." He snapped his fingers like a French chef accentuating his stories. "Most important is soup, I always have good soup here, what is a meal without soup?" he asked. The breakfast was tasty, the Fench fries, shaped in squares, were spiced with pepper, eggs were soft, and the toast well buttered. Coffee was indeed a freshly brewed delight. Dhimitrios came to this country at the tender age of 17. "You see, even at my age I help my children, specially in this day and age." He philosophied about life in America. "I can't understand why people have to be poor in this country, social medicine and jobs that's what we need." He waved his arms around like the Italians do when they talk.
The heater at the cafe threw out enough heat for a very cold winter day, and the radio was blasting out melodies from the 30s.
"Dog Town" found its name when a group of people named squatters, who built shacks in the neighborhood of Graham and West Park after they were evicted from Forest Park in 1876, kept large dogs to protect their wives and children while they were at work.
Another story told of how the Phillipinos, who had an exhibit at the World's Fair in 1904, had brought with them wild tribes to exhibit them at the Fair. One such tribe was called Igorrotes, a dog-eating tribe. These tribesmen were supposed to have stolen dogs from "Dog Town" and had eaten them. The Post Dispatch had reported in one of the June 1904 issues that the dog-eating Igorrotes in G-string costumes, along with man-eating Laneo Moros, and lake-dwelling Moros, were supposed to be featured in a parade June 18, 1904.
In those days of the World's Fair, when Miss Alice Roosevelt was present at the Fair incogtion, and decided to make it official by staying a trifle longer to see the British Pavillion. Back then, women wore mussed undermuslins, taffeta silk shirt-waist suits and corsetts. At that time, social organizations turned into businesses, and Spain's most noted bullfighter, Don Manuel Cevera, whom the king of Spain gave a medal of honor for his bravery, was appearing at the Delmar Garden.
That was the time Bill Smith, the richman from Pittsburg was supposed to have come to the Fair to scatter his money around and didn't do it -- it was then that "Dog Town" really developed. Homes were built for the tradesmen, policemen, craftsmen, who had found work at the Fair.
Minette Hathaway, who works at the Tamm Pharmacy, across from Lehman's on Tamm Avenue, and who used to operate a beauty shop in the area between 1930 and 1955, said, "People don't change much around here. Most of 'em who shoved out of the area sooner or later move back again." Tamm Pharmacy has been in existence for 70 years except it used to be called Bisseck Pharmacy. The present owner, Meyer looks like he could be the town's physician too, he wears a shite coat and looks official. Minette said, "Lots of Irish policemen live in this area, you know, and we have a large Catholic church just around the corner a couple of blocks."
Heading away from "Dog Town" square, one can find St. James, a large gothic church which towers over the area -like a symbol of strength. The Rev. John O'Sullivan opened the church as a mission of St. Malachy's parish in 1860 at a time when "Dog Town" was called Cheltenham.
A group of Quakers had settled in the area around 1844 to built a factory to produce Clay products and they named it Cheltenham. About 1860, when the country was embroiled in civil war, when the abolition of slavery was a burning issue, and when Missouri as a borderline state was subject to much dissention, the people wanted to have a church in Cheltenham, and a Catholic school. The Dominican nuns, who had to overcome many obstacles, "are responsible for the success of, St. James's School today.
In 1852 the territory between Kingshighway and Tamm Avenue, north of Manchester, was cut into lots of 17 acres. These farms were designed for county seats and were attractive because in front was' the city, and in the rear was the wilderness with all its mystery and seductiveness, almost unbroken to the Pacific coast. Forest Park was farmland for eleven years after St. James's parish was established, and many property owners and workmen were catholic, and became members in that parish.
The owner of Victoria Cleaners on Clayton Avenue by the square, Lannie Claudius, was fascinated by the history of "Dog Town" as was described in the Cheltenham History book. She constantly recognized people who were pictured in the book. She said to her customer, "Look here, that couldn't be him? No, his face is too young, I don't think it's him." Since there was only one copy in existence, the property of St. James's School, she found herself consoled by the promise of a copy for herself. Minette at Tamm's Pharmacy wanted one too. The Hamlin's at Lehman Hardware Store told of how many people from the area bring old Lehman advertisements to the store, tokens of nostalgia.
The quiet life in "Dog Town", where strangers are recognized as such, and where people take time to visit --aside from the major highway, almost forgotten by people who speed to western counties, is not bad. The delivery trucks drive slowly, almost apologetically through the quiet streets, residents drive old model cars carefully through the neighborhood, and dogs roam across tidy yards.
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