Saturday night entertainment for the Bauer family in the 1940s was driving around Belleville in their station wagon.
“Especially in the summertime, when it was hot, you went for a ride,” said Mark Bauer, 74, a retired sheet metal worker. “You didn’t have air conditioning back then.”
Each family outing ended on the Belleville Square, where Mark’s father bought the Sunday paper from a newsboy on the corner and hot tamales from a man with a push cart.
Mark also remembers Belleville’s many parades, including those at the end of each school year with hundreds of children.
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We are trying to get a glimpse of life in Belleville back years ago, as seen through the eyes of the people who lived here.
Carol Kirby on library project
“I played slide trombone in the band at St. Mary’s School,” said Mark, now president of St. Clair County Genealogical Society.
Mark is one of seven senior citizens who have been videotaped telling stories about the good old days as part of Belleville Lives, an oral history project of Belleville Public Library.
The edited videos are 30 to 60 minutes each. They can be viewed at the library or on its YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChu_gPDDSbhV62P49_uwL7A.
“We are trying to get a glimpse of life in Belleville back years ago, as seen through the eyes of the people who lived here,” said Archives/Reference Supervisor Carol Kirby, 65, who’s spearheading the project.
“(That includes) places they remember, what their neighborhoods were like, restaurants where they ate or shops they frequented.”
An added bonus of Belleville Lives is that it preserves memories for descendants of the people being interviewed.
Library officials would like to continue the project, but they need equipment and expertise. Lindenwood University students filmed and edited the first set of videos.
“We were really grateful for what they did,” Carol said. “They did an excellent job. The videos are very professional.”
Belleville Lives is similar to StoryCorps, a storytelling series on NPR. Betty Bauer, Mark’s cousin-in-law, was the first participant in January. She frequently visits the library to do genealogy research.
“I have pictures of my great-great-grandfather, but there are very few stories to go with him,” said Betty, 70, of Shiloh.
His name was David Mann, and he was only 16 when he fought in the Civil War. Betty is a retired hospital chaplain.
“My great-great-grandchildren will not only be able to see me, but hear me tell my stories (through Belleville Lives),” she said. “That’s what’s important to me. It’s my legacy.”
In her interview, Betty talked about being born a week before Christmas. Most new mothers stayed in the hospital for two weeks at that time, but hers insisted on going home early. The family put Baby Betty under the Christmas tree in a wash basket as if she had been delivered by Santa Claus.
My great-great-grandchildren will not only be able to see me, but hear me tell my stories.
Betty Bauer on her interview
Betty also told of commuting to a job in St. Louis in the early 1960s and watching construction of the Gateway Arch while crossing the Mississippi River bridge.
“I saw the final piece as they were raising it up to put it in,” she said. “I didn’t see them put it in because I had to be at work.”
Jean Thouvenot, 74, of O’Fallon, shared her memories of growing up on South 23rd Street in Belleville and attending Union School.
One of her biggest influences was Charles Nichols, who taught sixth grade and served as principal. He also was mayor of Belleville.
“He brought in a French teacher for a couple of weeks for the kindergartners,” said Jean, a retired dental assistant. “He thought learning another language was good for young children.”
Jean also remembers Nichols taking fourth-graders on a field trip to see a cyclotron (particle accelerator) at Washington University.
“I had never seen a place like that,” Jean said. “When I got home, I told my mom that I was going to Washington University. She said, ‘Girls don’t need to go to college,’ and that we couldn’t afford it. But I proved her wrong.”
Jean attended Belleville Area College for two years, got a full scholarship to Wash U and earned an education degree, graduating with honors.
Like Betty, Jean sees her Belleville Lives interview as a way to supplement photos with information for her descendants.
“My grandparents died when I was about 11, and I was too young to ask questions,” she said. “There’s so many things I wish I knew. We have pictures, but they don’t tell the whole story.”
Carol is optimistic that the library will find a way to continue Belleville Lives and invites senior citizens to sign up to be interviewed. She will provide a list of questions.
“This project is so special to me,” she said. “I personally lost my father 46 years ago and my mother 30 years ago, and it was with great sadness that I recently realized I don’t even remember the sound of their voices.”
Want to help?
- If you have equipment or expertise you would like to contribute for Belleville Lives, call Carol Kirby at 618-234-0441.