Mardi Gras: A Frenchtown Legacy

Author’s Note: This February 1985 article was one of the earliest I wrote for this publication, which was then called The Soulard Restorationist. Our Mardi Gras was younger then, as was I. This article describes the culture of the once- rural area, before there was a street grid or a neighborhood called Soulard. Here is the article again, word-for-word.


Circa 1985 mardi gras parade traveling northbound on 12th street at sunset.

Circa 1985 mardi gras parade traveling northbound on 12th street at sunset.

Although Soulard’s Mardi Gras has been celebrated but a few years, this festival has inherited a legacy of celebration and merrymaking in Frenchtown. Frenchtown was the longtime name of most of the area now generally known as the “near south side.” The present boundries of this former group of neighborhoods are more or less Busch Stadium to the north, the DeMenil mansion to the south, the Mississippi River to the east, and 14th Street to the west. Within these bounds lived the most wealthy set in early St. Louis, the handful of aristocratic French families whose lavish and frequent entertaining earned them the premiere place in St. Louis society. Today’s Mardi Gras stands as a legacy to those festive, carefree days of Frenchtown.

“They were, beyond doubt, the most happy and con- tented people that ever lived. They believed in enjoying life. There was a fiddle in every house, and a dance some- where every night.”

When St. Louis was little more than a village, Frenchtown was a patchwork of orchards, farms and country estates, inhabited mostly by the wealthy French families who lent a hand in the found- ing of St. Louis. One of the earliest of these estates was that of Gabriel Cerre, from about 1780 to 1805. His home, situated just southeast of the present Park and Broadway intersection, was the frequent scene of elegant European powdered-wig parties set against a fron- tier background. During two such occasions, Cerre announced the marriages of his daughters, first, Marie Therese to Auguste Chouteau, and later, Julia to Antoine Soulard, a French surveyor.

After Cerre’s death in 1805, Antoine and Julia Soulard inherited the Cerre estate, and along with a grant of an ad- ditional 122 acres, the Soulards owned almost all the property between pres- ent Park and Geyer Avenues, from the river to 13th Street. The couple lived in Cerre’s house, continuing his lavish entertainment tradition until Antoine died in 1825. In 1836 Julia began subdi- viding her estate, and in 1837 she built a large house on Decatur (9th) Street just south of Park Avenue. There she spent the remainder of her life, continuing to sell surveyed lots, and in 1838 she donated to St. Louis the two blocks on which Soulard Market stands.

In 1839 one of her sons, Henry, built a mansion on the southwest corner of Hamtrameck (Tucker) and Soulard (Lafayette). This home soon became one of the premier entertainment spots in St. Louis; “the gala balls held there were legendary.” He died in 1891, and the beautiful home was leveled by the same 1896 tornado that destroyed the original Soulard Market buildings. Henry’s mansion site is now a vacant lot at Tucker and Lafayette. Julia’s 1837 mansion stood until 1952 when Inter- state 55 was built.

A surviving example of the festive, gracious French culture stands in the form of the DeMenil mansion, finished relatively late, in 1863. Built by Nicholas DeMenil, whose wife was a great-grand niece of Julia Soulard, the estate was surrounded by wilderness at that time, much like Cerre’s estate 75 years earlier. The house narrowly avoided the fate of the other grand mansions of early Frenchtown, thanks to the efforts of the Landmarks Association to divert I-55.

Circa 1980s mardi gras float.

Circa 1980s mardi gras float.

We can only imagine the pomp and circumstance of the festivities that once took place on the grounds of the DeMenil and like estates. But the Mardi Gras in Soulard today recalls a culture that moved one 18th century settler to write of the French: “They were, beyond doubt, the most happy and contented people that ever lived. They believed in enjoying life. There was a fiddle in every house, and a dance somewhere every night.” Relive the French spirit as you enjoy the Soulard Mardi Gras. Have a good time!