Voted among the Top 100 Small Towns in the Midwest and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Kimmswick gives the world a slice of Americana.
POSTED BY PINKY
When my sister casually said she was taking me to this charming town not too far from where they lived, I did not expect to be blown away.
I’ve always been fascinated by railroad towns. For one, they remind me of the series of books I read while growing up and the TV show based on it, “Little House on the Prairie”. Okay, that revelation just totally dated me, didn’t it?
Another reason is I’ve often wondered about the history of these towns and the lives of the pioneering men and women who dared to start a new life in relatively unknown territory. What drove them to do it?
One such man was Theodore Kimm.
How a Town was Born
A successful dry goods trader from St. Louis, Missouri, Kimm originally came from Brunswick, Germany. On 04 October 1850, he purchased this tract of land from the family of Capt. George Waters to take advantage of the opportunities brought about by the opening of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain railroad.
Incidentally, my sister and her family live in what also used to be a railroad town that was just redeveloped. I read up on it and when I went out for a run around their neighbourhood one day, I couldn’t help but imagine how it must have been like when the town was new.
Now back to Kimm. Naming the town after himself (and taking the “wick” – meaning “village” – from Brunswick), Kimmswick was founded in 1859, where Kimm served as its first postman.
He laid out the town in a grid-like pattern, subdivided the land, and sold vacant lots to settlers and tradesmen, among whom were German immigrant stonecutters. He built some homes and sold these as well to encourage more settlers to move there.
Because Kimmswick lies on the banks of the Mississippi River, the town also benefited from the stream of day trippers brought there by the steamboats. A nearby mineral spring resort that became a popular destination for people from St. Louis in the late 19th century helped bring in the tourists as well. In fact, even today you can still get to Kimmswick on a riverboat cruise.
By 1867, the town had a steam flour mill, brewery, brickyard, copper shop, wagon maker, blacksmith shop, and stores, according to the Visitors’ Center.
Kimm eventually retired in 1872 at the age of 61, sold all his unsold lots including the family home, and traveled abroad with his wife, Wilhemine. Though they did come back to visit numerous times.
Wilhemine, who died in St. Louis in 1876, was buried in Kimmswick with their only son, Ernest, who died much earlier at the age of 9. Kimm continued to travel and eventually died in Switzerland on the 5th of February in 1886.
As a gift to the people of Kimmswick, he had set aside an entire block for a public park, another piece of land for a public market, and another for a cemetery.
A Second Wind
By the late ’60s, the town had reached its lowest point as the old buildings fell into disrepair after the opening of Interstate 55 (and people’s preference for automobiles as a mode of transportation) practically obliterated all opportunities brought into the town by the riverboats and passenger trains, and forced the homeowners to earn a living elsewhere.
Luckily, the Kimmswick Historical Society, led by 7-Up heiress Lucianna Gladney-Ross, saved the town and began preserving its historic structures. Ross bought some of the homes, leased them to shopkeepers, and helped them redevelop the property.
There are still houses, though, that are presently used as homes. So Kimmswick is a living community. But the town has again become a popular tourist destination, thanks to the homes that have been converted to antique and gift shops, and country-style restaurants.
My sister took me to The Blue Owl restaurant, which was as charming as can be. The servers were dressed in period dresses in keeping with the theme, service was warm and friendly, the meals home cooked, and their desserts to die for. So I could try their specials, I got their Terrific Trio option where you can choose any 3 items among their salads, soups, quiches, sandwiches, and desserts.
The restaurant happens to be the most well-known in town and is the Home of The Famous Levee High Caramel Pecan Apple Pie®. The Blue Owl has been featured on The Food Network, The Travel Channel, The Today Show, and O Magazine (their famous pie was among Oprah’s favourite things!).
Kimmswick hosts several annual events that are famous throughout the Midwest, such as the Strawberry Festival in June and the Apple Butter Festival in October.
The town is also known for its Christmas Festival. If you miss that, there is a lovely store called “Christmas Haus”, which sells holiday decor all year. I spent so much time here, I felt I was in Christmas heaven!
They carried displays of several Christmas themes or looks, each with its own tree, ornaments, and coordinated accessories. They also carried items designed by South Carolina artist, Jim Shore. But mainly it was about putting together whatever looked good and festive for the holiday season. Of course, it didn’t hurt at all that the ladies minding the store were very helpful without being intrusive.
Beside it was a shop called, “Everything Nice”, which I believe shared the same owner as Christmas Haus. Here they sold non-holiday items as well, primarily for the home. The entire 2-storey house was used to display things for the kitchen, the bedroom, the living areas. An extension at the back of the property was where garden and patio accessories and off-season items (i.e. Halloween) were kept on display.
Next Time Around
Oh, there’s still so much more to see in Kimmswick – hopefully for another visit. Aside from the shops I have yet to see and restaurants I’ve yet to try, there’s also the Anheuser Museum and Estate, the farm owned by the last Anheuser to work for the St. Louis beer company, Anheuser-Busch. Or perhaps take a Riverboat Cruise from St. Louis?
For accommodations, there are a few hotel chains just minutes from town, and St. Louis is only a 35-minute drive. But if you’re willing to stay about an hour away, there are B&Bs in a couple of the wineries in Ste. Genevieve (the French settled in Missouri until Napoleon Bonaparte sold it to the U.S. under Thomas Jefferson).
For more information about Kimmswick and everything the town has to offer, check out visitkimmswick.com