Just an hour southwest of Belleville, down Interstate 55 in Missouri, are a handful of hidden treasures waiting for curious daytrippers to uncover.
While the crafty hamlet of Kimmswick is a haven for tiny shops that sell everything from porcelain teapots to 30 varieties of fudge, most visitors don't know that sitting pretty on the river near downtown is the country estate of the late Frederick and Mabel-Ruth Anheuser. Stone eagles on the fence posts greet you.
West across the highway in Imperial is small but important Mastodon State Historic Site, with hiking trails and a museum that houses the replica skeleton of a prehistoric mastodon whose bones were uncovered there in 1839.
A short jog south on the interstate takes you to Crystal City, Mo. Follow strange directions that lead you closer and closer to the river. Pass over a rusted suspension bridge and into an old underground sand mine, where you embark on a boat tour of an eerie subterranean lake.
Destination: Kimmswick, Mo.
Mileage: 43 miles from Belleville via Interstates 255 South/270 west/55 South
Tourism information: Gokimmswick.com or 636-464-6464.
Hours: Shops and businesses are closed on Mondays; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Kimmswick is so small that once you get there, just park your car. You won't need it for your visit to this compact town of historic buildings that house about 30 shops and businesses in a six-block area. Stop at the Visitor's Center on Market Street and pick up a brochure that tells you about merchants and their goods, then head on your way.
One of the best places to leave your car is the parking lot across from the town's most famous asset: The Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery (blueowl.com) at Second and Market streets.
The restaurant is in a historic building -- a tavern from circa 1900 -- now painted periwinkle blue with crisp white gingerbread trim.
It isn't a day in Kimmswick without breakfast or lunch there. Pie is the Blue Owl's claim to fame, with typically 40 varieties offered daily. Look for fall seasonal flavors, such as Pumpkin Walnut, Butterscotch Pecan and Apple Strudel Cheese pies. A half-salad, quiche and a slice of pie will set you back about $13.
"Oh my gosh, we've been coming here for 24 years, so I bet we've been here over 100 times," said Debbie Teepe, of Wentzville, Mo. She sat outside the restaurant with her famiy, waiting for a table on a Friday afternoon. "We love to come here in November and December for the holiday crafts."
Expect a wait to eat, especially in cooler weather when the eatery's Ms. Mary's Veranda is closed. (A whole pie to take home, depending on variety, will cost about $27.) Take note of the hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays and to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Get there late and your pie choices go way down.
Shopping is the mainstay of Kimmswick and the majority of visitors are women. Renee Courtney, owner of Pioneer House Mercantile at the corner of Fourth and Market streets, has her shop from 1875 filled with everything from lace to Halloween home decor.
Despite the sleepy feel of the town, Courtney said business is good enough that she's expanding.
"In late October, we open a winery," she said. "Upstairs will be the gift shop. We'll bottle our own wine and do custom labels."
A few doors down on Market Street, Cozy Cottage greets you with a pair of striped witch's legs sticking out of a fern planter. It's owner Karla Heyl's nod to girls who just want to have fun and shop in her boutique.
"It's a mix of vintage and new," she said of jewelry, accessories, gifts and artwork.
She's quick to point out the work of Waterloo artist Jennifer Howard, including a shell-covered mannequin head and a pair of clay pots painted with monster faces for Halloween.
Notice tourists eating while they walk down the streets of Kimmswick: Sweets are readily available at spots like Kimmswick Korner Gift Shoppe (fudge), Blue Owl Sweet Shoppe (soda fountain) and Dough Depot Cafe (ice cream, sandwiches, pizza).
Glenna Zerrer, of Elsberry, Mo., cuddled up with her husband, Keith, on a bench outside the cafe.
"I'm inhaling chocolate," she said, grinning as she ate her ice cream cone. "It's our first trip here and we've been camping in Troy and decided to come here."
Looking for a little history? Visit the 1840s log and mortar Burgess-Howe House and Museum and its 1876 cabin. They are open for tours from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays from April through October.
Just down the street is the Kimmswick Historical Society Hall and Museum, open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from March through December.
Fredmar Farms/Anheuser Museum & Estate
Location: Off Front Street, Kimmswick
Hours: 1-4 p.m.Thursdays and Saturdays, April through November. Special arrangements for other days can be made for large groups.
Cost: $5. For group tours, call 636-464-7407. The grounds are open to the public from dawn to dusk.
The most prominent residence in town is a big white unpretentious house. Built in 1867, it sits at the south end of town on the Mississippi River.
Michael Erbschloe, the city's economic development director, said that in the late 1800s, "people who had money came to Kimmwick. It had hot springs and was sort of a resort area. The train ran from St. Louis and there was a station in town. This was one of many country homes built along the river for the wealthy."
Bought in 1916 by the Anheuser family, it was their summer estate until 1943, when Frederick and Mabel-Ruth Anheuser moved in and named it Fredmar Farms. (He was the great-grandson of Eberhard Anheuser, the original owner of the brewing company that became Anheuser-Busch.)
The house has been remodeled and modernized inside and out, having lost much -- but not all -- of its Victorian attitude to knotty pine paneling and wall-to-wall carpet.
Frederick, the last Anheuser to work at the brewery, retired as a vice-president and died in 1984. Mabel-Ruth followed in 2000. She bequeathed the house and 23-acre property to the city, along with $1.5 million for its upkeep.
It's easy to imagine guests standing on the expansive back lawn with the river just a stone's throw away. The waterway is quiet and tree-lined here, a barge quietly sliding by, its pilot waving.
Inside, artifacts and other memorabilia from the family and brewery are on display.
On a side table near the main staircase are some of Mabel-Ruth's hats and evening bags. Formal gowns and other clothing are arranged on the wall going up the stairs. Her portrait hangs in the library above a fireplace.
Outside the front door is the Buttercup Riding Arena. Frederick owned a tack company after he retired from the brewery and Mabel-Ruth was a champion equestrian. The working stables, now used by disabled riders, are named after Mabel-Ruth's favorite horse, Buttercup Meyer.
Upstairs, antiques are scattered throughout, including a pair of 1904 hand-carved World's Fair beds in a guest bedroom.
While there has been extensive remodeling, the house still retains a bit of mystery 145 years later.
"We've been told this bedroom is haunted," said Connie Schmidt, city councilwoman. "I won't stay here after dark by myself."
Destination: Mastodon State Historic Site
Location: 1050 Charles J. Becker Drive, Imperial, Mo.
Miles: Less than 3 miles from Kimmswick; about 40 miles from Belleville
Hours: Park open 8 a.m. until dusk year-round. Museum: 9-4:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 4:30 p.m. Sundays; until Nov. 14. Nov. 14-March 14, check for more limited days and hours.
Museum fee: $4; under 15 free.
Offers: Museum, picnic area, youth-group campground, three trails, including one for handicapped use.
Information: Mostateparks.com or 636-464-2976
Leaves are turning. Temperatures are comfortable. It's a great time to discover the 425-acre Mastodon State Historic Site. Hike one of the trails, picnic at the park and visit the museum.
The site is almost directly off Interstate 55, but you have to pay attention: When you make the turn off Interstate 55 South at exit 186, you briefly follow Imperial Main Street, then West Outer Road. That there are two park entrances on the left at two stop signs on the outer road. The first at Seckman Road will take you to the picnic area and the hiking trails. The second is Charles J. Becker Drive, the road to the museum.
Set back in a copse, the modern museum tells the natural and cultural story of the oldest American Indian site in Missouri's park system.
The area gained fame as one of the most extensive Pleistocene ice age deposits in the country, called the Kimmswick Bone Bed, when bones of mastodons and other now-extinct animals (think giant sloth) were first found there in the 1800s. (The bone bed cannot be seen.)
The full-size replica of a mastodon skeleton gets the most attention from visitors at the museum, but make sure you stop and touch a real mastodon tooth to get perspective: It's about the size of a toddler's head.
Check out the collection of arrowheads and spear points, too, and don't miss the 15-minute movie that talks about the discovery of the skeleton and the train that brought World's Fair visitors in 1904 to see the bone bed.
In 1979, scientists attracted scientific interest worldwide when they excavated a stone spear point made by hunters of the Clovis culture (14,000 to 10,000 years ago). It was found near mastodon bones and likely was lost during hunting. This was the first solid evidence of the co-existence of people and these giant prehistoric beasts.
Stop at the Callison Memorial Bird Sanctuary next to the museum to sit a spell and watch for butterflies and birds.
Trails range from half of a mile to 3 miles, with flat easy walking on the Wildflower Trail to some steep inclines on the Limestone Hill Trail.
Crystal City Underground Complex
Location: 700 Crystal Ave., Crystal City, Mo.
Mileage: About 50 miles from Belleville
Information: crystalcityunderground.com, Tom Kerr, 314-581-2582. Also by appointment for large groups.
Barge tour: $20/$10 ages 4-16; 7-11 p.m. Friday, 1-11 p.m. Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays.
Disc golf: $5 per 18-hole course. 2 courses.
Sand volleyball: $5 per person, open play.
Live music: 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Two spotlights illuminate the blackness. There are no stars above. Youare underground. You're tooling along on a pontoon boat, weaving your way around massive stone columns. Underneath you is a 150-acre lake so clear you can see the sandy bottom 40 deep.
A chilly half-hour later, you're back at the dock, still underground. Nearby, a band is warming up on stage. A group of teens heads off through a warren of 30- to 40-foot-tall arches to play disc golf in the dark, with LED-lighted Frisbees aimed at lighted baskets on poles.
A sandy walk will take you to a bar with tables and chairs. You're still underground. Bring a sweater. It's always a chilly 60-something degrees.
It's all part of what has to be one of the most unusual sports and entertainment venues in the bi-state area, the Crystal City Underground.
Tom Kerr, of St. Louis, bought the former sand mine five years ago. In February, he opened up part of it to the public.
Just getting to the venue is an adventure. It doesn't show up on maps.
"Don't rely on your GPS to find us," said Tom. Best to go to the website for directions. They involve following a fenceline that takes you to a gate, a road, then one very old bridge over Plattin Creek. The bridge, says the website, has been deemed safe to drive across.
"That's a good thing!" said John Waldmann, of St. Louis. He, his 6-year-old son, Tai, and his mom, Nancy Breier, also of St. Louis, checked out the bridge as they waited for the cave to open at 7 p.m. on a Friday. "We had a coupon for this and thought we'd come and check it out," said Nancy.
The bridge leads into a winding one-lane cave for just a minute, then you exit and find yourself back out in the open, in a large parking lot. Leave your car and head for the giant mine opening.
John gave his Cardinals jacket to his son as they boarded the "barge" for the lake tour. There are tables and chairs and a bar on board. Elvis crooned out of the boat's speakers that night.
Over the decades, water seeped up from the sand and created a lake underground in the cave, Tom explained.
"We've found frogs, crayfish, minnows; turtles and snakes hybernate in here," he told them. None were seen that night.
"Aren't you glad I made you do this?" Nancy asked her son as they spotted an old wagon wheel at the bottom of the lake.
He nodded and grinned.
"We occasionally see a piece of something from the sand mine operation," said Tom.
Done with the boat trip, the group headed back to a main "road" in the cave with less sand on it. It made for easier walking.
When Tom first considered what to do with the space, sand volleyball seemed like a natural for the underground caverns.
"It's such fine sand, too. Crystal City got its name because glass was made here."
Then he got the crazy idea to install a pole vault area.
"The record inside the cave is 17 feet, 6 inches," Tom said. Area high schools have been using it to teach the sport. "There's plenty of height overhead and no worries about wind and weather."
He said it was a great place to work during the summer. And now that October is here, expect that he and his staff will come up with a few spooky ideas for Halloween season. After all, it's dark and you're in a cave.
But, nobody will be climbing out of the lake to frighten barge passengers -- even though he thinks it would be a cool idea.
"The water is 43 degrees. Even that's too cold for a zombie in a wet suit."
Events this fall in Kimmswick:
Oct 13 -- 2012 Witches Night Out
Oct. 20 -- Goblins Day (Family trick-or-treating, pets included)
Oct. 27-28 -- Apple Butter Festival
Nov. 10-11 -- Deer Widows' Weekend
Nov. 17 -- Christmas Open House
Nov. 30/Dec. 1, 2 -- Christmas Cookie Walk
Go to Gokimmswick.com for more information.