Books and Facts

A few weeks ago I took a trip out west, mostly to New Mexico. I drove nearly 4,000 miles, mostly on U.S. Interstate highways. It fascinated me that no matter how much the scenery changed–and believe me, it changes between the Missouri Ozarks and the high desert country of the Sierra Nevadas–the road you’re traveling on stays remarkably the same. I told myself that when I got back I would find a good book about the highway system in the United States.

The book I found is The Big Roads: the untold story of the engineers, visionaries, and trailblazers who created the American superhighways, by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). It is a fascinating and well-told history of our highways, starting even before automobiles were much of a force on American roads. Did you know that it was bicyclists, participating in the two-wheeled craze of the late 19th century, who first insisted on having good, paved roads? Did you know that one man, a highway engineer, invented the cloverleaf, and held the patent on it?

But the thing that struck me most about the story is that the things we take as gospel truth in the development of America’s highways are simply not true, or at best, exaggerations. For instance, President Eisenhower is often cited as the creator of the highway system. Fact is, the entire system was conceived, planned, and begun, down to the nitty gritty details such as what signs to use, decades before his administration. His signature on a bill lending federal support to the project was about the extent of his involvement: and most of the work on that bill was handled by Vice President Nixon, while Ike was in the hospital. Eisenhower later mostly washed his hands of the project when he saw highways running places he believed they made no sense–such as right through the heart of most American cities.

It’s also believed by many people that the Interstate system was built to allow for planes to land on the highways when it was needed for national defense. The book dismisses this old canard as something ‘still alive on the Internet.’ It was talked about by some involved in the project, but quickly dismissed as infeasible for many reasons.

I found the whole book enlightening, and I am so glad I read it. It also drives home to me the truth that today, there is so much disinformation, bad information, and intentionally misleading information being shopped around that it’s hard to know what’s true. Many libraries, both public and academic, have been conducting workshops in how to spot ‘fake news,’ how to know when you’ve read something from a reliable source. It’s more than just a source you trust, since ‘a source you trust’ most often means a source that expresses opinions similar to yours.

I guess that in the end, this is a recommendation to stay informed by reading good books. They have long been, and will likely continue to be, one of the best places to get good information.This is not to say that all books contain nothing but truth. That is an unrealistic assumption. But a well researched non-fiction book, which cites its sources in careful footnotes, is almost always better than something your buddy posted on Facebook.

Genghis Khan

In the popular view, Genghis Khan is one of the most vile people in history: a conquering, murderous barbarian who sowed a path of destruction all across Asia and up to the very gates of Europe in the 13th century. So it surprised me a number of years ago to read the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by J. McIver Weatherford (Crown, 2004). It was the author’s intent to show that although Genghis Khan did lead a massive army across Asia, conquering anyone who stood in his way, the empire he built was a model of enlightened thought. Religious freedom was emphasized, as was equality of women. People from all conquered nations and cities were allowed to become administrators and officials in his governments, and he took advice from anyone would offer it.

The book so impressed me with its revisionist view of the Great Khan that I was excited to see Weatherford’s next book, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire (Crown, 2010). This story went deeper into the Mongol leader’s respect for the women around him, and how when certain of his sons and grandson let him down, the women who had been active participants in his court stepped up to become great and near-great queens of history. As with the previous book, the research was excellent, the storytelling compelling, and the new perspective on this chapter in history was very enlightening.

Weatherford’s third ‘Genghis Khan’ book came out in 2016, and it will likely be the last book in the set. It is called Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom. In the introduction, Weatherford describes that it was an investigation into Genghis Khan’s treatment of the various religions practiced in the many lands he conquered that started him on his journey of research into the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan was himself a deist, worshiping the eternal sky and sea. But he had great respect for holy men of all stripes, Confucian philosophers, Taoist scholars, Buddhist monks, Christian priests, Jewish rabbis, and Islamic imams. He shielded them from harm, exempted them from taxes and compulsory labor. He met with them regularly and held long discussions. His eventual conclusion was that all great religions had some truth to teach, but none was the final, best, or correct faith. He ordered that within his realms, nobody was to be harmed or molested based on what faith they practiced. Sadly, his laws on religious freedom did not long outlive him. His descendants let the squabbling among Taoists and Buddhists, Christians and Muslims resume and grow violent again. But Weatherford paints a direct line of influence through Genghis Khan’s religious law to Enlightenment philosophy and right up to Thomas Jefferson, who owned an influential biography of Genghis Khan, and whose statements on religious freedom, first in Virginia and then in the United States, echo nearly verbatim words of the Great Khan.

For anyone who likes to read history, this set of books should provide a wonderful and instructive reading experience.


Free Book Boxes

Did you know that the phrase ‘Little Free Libraries’ is actually a copyrighted name? One has to pay royalties to the creators of said phrase to use it. So we don’t have Little Free Libraries. We have Free Book Boxes, and they are now installed in three Webster Groves parks–Larson, Blackburn, and Southwest. You can find them near each park’s playground. If you’re looking for a good book to read, please take one. If you have a book you’d like to share with others, please drop it off.

The idea for placing free book boxes originated with Parks & Rec Director Scott Davis a while back. A library staff member was stocking the book cart that we keep by the swimming pool in summer and the skating rink in winter, and Scott suggested that we should have–well, he used the copyrighted term, which we won’t repeat here.

We thought it was a great idea, and the library paid to have the boxes made. We were only finding expensive (overpriced!) boxes, until we made contact with the gentlemen who run a wood shop at Laclede Groves Senior Living Community. They produced four professional looking, sturdy boxes.

Parks Superintendent Yvonne Steingruby picked up three of them last week and had her staff install them in the parks. This morning we went around and filled them with books. The fourth box will be installed somewhere on the library grounds, we haven’t decided where just yet.

We hope people enjoy the Free Book Boxes!

We Vote on November 8?

Were you planning on voting for president on November 1st this year? Were you surprised to find out that the election is actually on November 8th?

Prior to 1845, the federal government did not mandate a presidential election date. States could choose any day as long as it was within the 34 days before the meeting of the Electoral College on the first Wednesday of December. But as travel and communications improved, Congress began to be concerned that states that voted early might affect the results of states that voted later and that voters would travel to different states and vote again.  In 1845, Congress set the date for presidential elections as the first Tuesday in November after the first Monday. The needs of an agrarian society determined the date. November was chosen because it would not interfere with the fall harvest and would be less likely to be affected by winter storms. Tuesday was chosen because farmers would be able to make the long drive into the county seat to vote without having to leave on the Sabbath and they wouldn’t miss the market day on Wednesday.

But why the first Tuesday after the first Monday?  When the first Tuesday is on November 1st, there are more than 34 days before the Electoral College. So Congress added the clause – “after the first Monday.” Now there are always 29 days between the election and the meeting of the Electoral College. Counting this year, there have been 55 presidential elections and only seven have not been on the first Tuesday – 1864, 1892, 1904, 1932, 1960, 1988, and 2016. The next one won’t be until 2044!


Dining Out–1965

We’ve been cataloguing quite a few archival documents lately. This afternoon I came across several editions of the one-time local newspaper Kirkwood-Webster Advertiser. The center of the June 24, 1965 edition presents a Dining Out Guide, complete with advertisements about the most popular eateries in the area, and an article about the ‘Ever Popular’ Yacovelli’s.

I am old enough to remember most of the places, even though only a few of them, such as Sunset 44 and Schneithorst’s are still in business. Yes, Sunset 44 has moved from its old Sunset Hills location to a place in Kirkwood. And no, I don’t think you can still get a prime rib dinner for $3.95 ($1.50 for kids under 12!).

No other restaurant lists its prices, though most of them tempt you with their specials. Lots of steaks—these were the days when steaks were synonymous with fine dining. Even Luigi’s Italian restaurant asks ‘. . . you’ve been to Luigi’s for a pizza . . . but have you tried Luigi’s delicious steaks?’

One of my old favorites is the Green Parrot Inn, which was on Big Bend. They featured family style fried chicken dinners. Their ad says they had steaks and seafood too, but I think we only went there on Sunday afternoons for the fried chicken. I also remember Kwan Yin Village, which used to be one of the only Chinese restaurants in the area. They featured Cantonese Cuisine, their ad says, and ‘Oriental Cocktails,’ whatever they are. I don’t recall how long it’s been since we stopped using the term ‘oriental’ to describe everything we think is Chinese.

Places I never heard of include King Brothers Olde Still Room—‘Caesar Salads by Andy Stoehr and music by Jimmie & the Charmettes!’—Gio Fine Foods, which was on Manchester in Rock Hill, and the King Louis IX room, which had special banquet rooms called ‘The Red Room,’ ‘The Executive,’ and ‘The Gay Caboose.’ I’ll just let the last one go without comment.

The last one to close down, as I recall, was the House of Maret, which was at 3811 S. Lindbergh. The ad claims they ‘Proudly Uphold the St. Louis Tradition of Bier Garten.’ It finally closed last year, along with Growler’s Pub, to make room for the new Mellow Mushroom pizzeria.

These old newspapers are always full of fun things which evoke so much nostalgia for anyone who has a few years on them. They will be filed in our historical archives here at the library.


It’s October, and we’re getting ready for Halloween here at the library. Starting next Friday we’ll be playing scary movies on Friday nights. Check our Website for the schedule. It’s mostly older horror films, like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Haunting, although one newer favorite, the spine-tingling The Others, is on the list.

While we’re thinking about horror here in Webster Groves, let’s recall that there is at least one notoriously haunted house in town: the house on Plant Avenue. In our archives we have a copy of the chapter from Hans Holzer’s 1970 book Gothic Ghosts that tells about the various spirits that visit residents of the house, and a copy of an old Echo, the Webster Groves High School student newspaper, that also covers the story.

But of course, this is not the only ghost story in town. Last year Patrick Dorsey published his book Haunted Webster Groves, in which he collects stories from people about multiple ghostly experiences in our city. From hauntings in homes to spectral appearances in places like the Theatre Guild and the Book House, Dorsey has collected a chilling assortment of real-life tales. The blurb for the book says that,  ‘Webster Groves, Missouri is one of the early suburbs of St. Louis, a place with a history that extends back to Colonial times and reaches across the Civil War right through to today. Some who lived that history have evidently remained…’

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

The Juiciest Webster Groves Story Ever

While patrolling at 1 a.m. on a February morning in 1956, Webster Groves Police Sergeant Otto Piffel saw a lone young woman walking towards Highway 66. He stopped and questioned her, but she said she was headed to find a phone to call a taxicab, and she went on her way. A few hours later, around 2:40 a.m., Officer Piffel found a home on Ambergate Drive to be on fire. He radioed an alarm, and broadcast a description of the woman, who was soon picked up by Crestwood police.

Shot dead inside the burning house was Walter A. Siebert, a well-known Republican politician, whose nude body fell through the floor and into the basement while firefighters fought the blaze.

The woman, who was booked as Barbara Simpson, was also known as Jean and a number of other aliases. Upon questioning by police she admitted that ‘I killed him. Isn’t that enough?’ It turned out that her name was June Joy Milton, and she was a 28-year-old divorcee. She had met the 59-year-old Siebert, a widower, a year before and had been seeing him three times a week ever since. They had argued about ‘a traveling salesman,’ Milton claims he threatened her, so she shot him. She spent the next day removing items from his home, including a TV set and his cocker spaniel, before setting fire to the house to destroy the evidence.

Newspapers across the country were enthralled with the story, calling Milton ‘a brunette beauty,’ and ‘a svelte five foot three.’ The articles never seemed to list her age as the same. But the one thing they always reported the same were her declarations of how she was glad she shot Siebert, was glad he was dead. There were also frequent references to the bedroom argument in Siebert’s ‘swank suburban home.’

June Joy Milton was charged with first degree murder and first degree arson. She was subsequently acquitted of those charges, by reason of insanity. No word of what happened to the cocker spaniel.

The initial news article, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for February 13, 1956, complete with a photograph of Siebert and of Webster Groves Firefighters indicating the exact place where the dead body fell through the floor, is in our historical archives.