Vignettes from Castlewood

Valued reader Joyce Pharriss provided an invaluable window of life in what would become Castlewood State Park when it still operated as privately owned resorts along the Meramec River.

From the mid-1920’s until about 1961, my mom and dad spent a lot of time on the Meramec River near Castlewood State Park. At some point, several couples–some were relatives, some were friends–went in together to have a clubhouse on the river, not far from Lincoln Beach, that they called the Cheramis.

They pronounced it “share-a miss” in the great Missouri tradition of eschewing French pronunciation (e.g., Ver-sales for Versailles, MO.).

However, they knew that “cheramis” meant “dear friends,” an appropriate name for a place that brought good friends together.

They may have got the name from my uncle (my dad’s oldest brother), who had been in France in World War 1 and knew a little of the language.  He was one of the group who were part of the Cheramis in the early years.  Others involved from the early days and for many years thereafter had been friends with my dad in North St. Louis and, like him, were active in the Turners Hall near Hyde Park.

There was a sign on the front of the clubhouse with the name Cheramis on it.  All the clubhouses had cute names, but I can’t remember now what the others were called.  Someone with many childhood memories of the Cheramis reminded me recently that one was called Bluebeards.

My mom and dad probably started going out to the river (that was the expression we all used, “going out to the river”) before or soon after they were married in 1925.  They and the others would have been in their twenties then.  I never heard them talk about taking the train out from the city, as so many people did on the weekends.  Instead, they probably drove out in their Model T’s and Packards.

They went because that was where the action was for the young people in St. Louis in those days.  They went for the dances at clubs, the parties at the clubhouses, and for Lincoln Beach – to swim, picnic and canoe. Later, they often reminisced about those days, about Prohibition, making home brew and going to a speakeasy, and it sounded as if they had a great time.   Maybe there were resorts or homes where the wealthier lived near the Meramec in those days, but my folks and their friends were working class people who found Lincoln Beach a place to enjoy themselves in the summer without spending a lot of money.  And, from what I was told, they kept going out there during the 1930’s, the Depression years, even after some, like my mom and dad, lost their factory jobs.  I guess it was one place they could afford to go, and everyone stuck together and enjoyed the camaraderie and had fun on the weekends.

My own earliest memories of going out to the river date to around the end of World War 2.  I can remember going with my parents, aunts and uncles and their friends from the Cheramis to what I think was once called Halls’ Tavern and later became Ray and Lil’s. They were an older couple who had a big parrot, a Macaw, I think, that sat on a stand and squawked and talked a little.   They served fried chicken and hamburgers, sodas, beer and stronger stuff. There was a little dance floor in the area between the long bar with stools that ran across the right side of the room, and the dining tables and chairs that were along the left side by a bank of windows. There was a big jukebox shoved against the wall to the left of the front door that was fed with nickels and quarters.

I don’t know why the structures out at the river were called clubhouses, because they weren’t really clubs, but that was how everyone referred to them.  “Let’s go out to the club.”  I don’t know who actually built the Cheramis, whether my dad, uncles or other men who were friends of theirs, did.  I don’t know whether it was built by the late 1920’s or if they all went in to buy it already built.  I don’t know if they owned the land it was on or if they leased it, but someone told me recently that she thought the land was leased for $1.00 a year.  I wish I’d asked more questions before they were all gone.  All I know is, it was part of their lives and mine, too, for a long time.

Although my memories of the Cheramis date back to when I was a little kid, in the 1940’s, the sharpest are from the 1950’s, when I was a teenager and was allowed to have friends join us out at the river on the weekends.  For a while during the late 40’s, my folks were probably too busy to even get out to the Cheramis very much, having just gone into the grocery business and into debt to do so.  But others, friends who had been in the Cheramis from the beginning, kept it going during that time.   Over the years, though, the original group that regularly went out to the Cheramis changed as individual lives took different turns—a relocation away from the St. Louis area, a divorce, a death, the demands of jobs, family pressures, or a move to another clubhouse.

In the 1950’s, my folks headed out to the river every weekend in the summer time.  They’d close their little grocery store on Saturdays in the summer at 5 or 6 p.m. and by 7 or 8 p.m., we’d be at the Cheramis.  Others would already be there, having arrived on Friday after work or earlier on Saturday.  Everyone stayed until dusk on Sundays and then headed back home for the next workweek.   Some spent their vacation weeks out at the river, but my mom and dad never took that much time off.

Now, from looking at a Castlewood State Park map, I think I’ve located where the Cheramis was.  I doubt anything of it is left now, except maybe some concrete piles where the stilts that held the clubhouse up would have been set.  If you look at the map…

http://mostateparks.com/sites/default/files/Castlewood.pdf

…you’ll see that Kiefer Creek Road comes south and goes under a railroad trestle.  Notice The River Scene Trail that heads west.  There is a loop that veers left off the main trail and runs south, parallel to the bend in the river. Along that trail about an inch and a half down, is where I think the Cheramis may have stood, on the left side of a very narrow little road.  Maybe the old road is the trail now.

From North St. Louis, we used to drive out Manchester Road and then head south onto a two lane paved road.  We’d eventually pass what I think was then Halls’ Tavern (or Ray & Lil’s) on our right.  An old abandoned gas station was on the left.  We’d go under the railroad tracks and turn right onto a gravel road that ran parallel to a corn field on the left.

We’d then drive just a little way before reaching a narrow muddy or dirt road (depending on weather) with ruts for tire tracks.  We’d turn left onto this dirt road, driving along the lower side of that cornfield and then past it, as the road narrowed further and woods and weeds were on either side of us.  It was a bumpy road, bumpier still if our  wheels came out of the ruts many other cars had made by going back and forth.  If we met another car coming from the other direction, one would need to move off the road into the weeds so the other could pass.

We’d drive a little way on that rutted road, passing clearings where clubhouses stood on the right side, up close to the road.  You couldn’t see the river from the car, as it was down a slope below them. There were little patches of woods between each clubhouse.

Before reaching the Cheramis, you passed at least one other clubhouse on the left side, and like the Cheramis, it sat back from the road, perhaps 25 yards or so. It was up on stilts and was separated from the Cheramis by a swath of woods.  Driving past those woods, you arrived at the clearing where the Cheramis was and turned left into the yard and parked on an angle, your car facing to the right towards another wooded area.   Across the road from the Cheramis was another little two-story clubhouse set close to the road, and if you kept going, you’d see another clubhouse farther on down the road.

At LincolnBeach 1920s

The front yard of the Cheramis was dirt and gravel.   There was a volley ball/badminton court there and off to the side, a horseshoes court.  There was a brick barbecue pit off to the right of the cabin.

The area underneath the cabin of the clubhouse (which sat up on stilts) had a concrete floor, and it was screened in by the ‘50’s. There was a big sink in the back on one side, for cleaning fish.  On the other side in the back, there was an enclosed shower stall.  There were coolers for drinks, folding chaise lounges and chairs, a couple of card tables, and all kinds of recreational equipment, such as racquets, oars, fishing poles, water skis, inner tubes for floating the river, tools, etc. Everyone sat under the clubhouse in the summer playing cards (poker, gin, canasta) or were out front playing badminton or volley ball.  A radio was always set to KMOX for the Cardinals’ games.

There was an outhouse in the back of the clubhouse, set several yards down a path into the woods.  It was a terrifying place, inhabited by large fat hairy spiders and an occasional bat or snake. None of us kids wanted to linger there.

You got into the cabin itself by climbing the stairs on the right side of the structure. At the top, you entered through a door onto a screened-in porch area that circled the living quarters on three sides.  On the side you entered, there were two big picnic tables with benches. The tabletops were covered with oil cloths.  On the front side, facing the river, were roll-away beds and army cots, along with stacks of linens, blankets and pillows, all lined up ready for bedtime.   On the far side, the porch was used for more sleeping space and storage. The porch could sleep 10 to 15 or more.  The snoring and wheezing once everyone settled down was amazing.

CheramisDock1920s

From the porch, you could walk into the living quarters.   There was a little sitting room with a couch that made into a bed and a couple of easy chairs and an old stove for heat on chilly mornings early in the season.  Off this room were a small kitchen with stove, a fridge and sink; and a small bedroom with lumpy, squeaky old bed and antique dresser/mirror.  There was also a little closet-size bathroom with sink and toilet. I think it had been added in the 50’s. The sitting room had windows along its walls that opened to the porch on the river side.  The bedroom and kitchen had windows that opened towards the back woods and the outhouse.

To get to the river, you just walked across the road, went down a few steps that were carved out of the slope, and there was a short plank walk to the Cheramis’ dock.  The dock was made of worn wood planks that together measured about 8’ x 8’ in size.  There were usually a couple of boats tied up there or pulled up on the shore.  People sat on the dock to fish or went out in boats to fish.  Usually, the men ran a trot line from the dock over to the opposite shore that they baited at dusk and checked on in the morning. Or maybe it was vice versa.  Sometimes, there were enough fish on it to have a fish fry.  (I thought it was called a “trout line” until I looked it up as I wrote about it. That’s the way everyone at the Cheramis pronounced it.)

By the mid-fifties, one of the regulars then in the club had bought a snazzy motorboat, so we kids could water ski and race up and down the river.  But our preferred mode of navigation was floating in inner-tubes down the river, which we shared with water moccasins, turtles and fish.

OnMeramec1920s

Paddling in a southerly direction off the dock, we’d eventually get to a gravel bar on the other side of the river, pull out, hang out, then start back.  Paddling north from the dock would take us up to what was left of Lincoln Beach on the other side of the river.  I was always fascinated by that place because of the stories I’d heard, but by the 50’s, although there was still some sand there, it was weed-strewn and sad.  It was hard to believe that, back in the 1920’s, hundreds of people had gathered there on summer weekends.

The Meramec flooded every few years, and there were times when the Cheramis, despite being many yards from the river and up on stilts, filled with muddy water.  Once the waters receded, everyone would go out and shovel out the mud and debris, clean the walls and floors, replace what was ruined, air the place out, and continue to enjoy going to the river on summer weekends.  But it always had a damp, musty odor.

Like all teenagers, my friends and I liked to get away from the adults when we were out at the river, and after we had cars, we’d would go to the stock car races on Saturday nights that were, I think, near Valley Park in those days.

The last time I was at the Cheramis was August 1959.  My mom and dad let me and some of my girl friends use it for an overnight outing. We decided that evening that we’d like to swim and, despite the late hour, drove to Castlewood, where we found a way to get into the big spring-fed swimming pool, well after closing hours.  We had the pool all to ourselves!

Aunts G&B on Meramec 1956

And then, about 1961, after four decades of going out to the river, my mom and dad and the others who were regulars then gave up the Cheramis.  My dad was in poor health, so my parents sold their store, retired and moved to the Lake of the Ozarks in 1962.  I don’t know what happened to the Cheramis after that or who may have inhabited it beyond that time.

These are my personal recollections from spending time out at the river, both as a little girl in the mid-‘40s and as a teenager in the 50’s.  And they’re what I remember of the stories I was told about the Cheramis and Lincoln Beach before my time.

I reconnected recently with someone who spent a lot of time at the Cheramis as a child.  From our email exchanges, I now know there are many more personal stories to be told. I hope they’ll be shared on St. Louis Patina.  They’re a little bit of history that might make a visit to Castlewood State Park all the more interesting.

Revised 2.4.15

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Doug Schneider says:

    The stock car races were probably at Lakeview Speedway in Valley Park.

    1. Bob says:

      It was Lake Hill Speedway in Valley Park

  2. Tom Maher - Kirkwood MO says:

    The racetrack was called Lake Hill Speedway which, as far as I know, is still there. There were plans to redevelop the site which fell through during the recent recession. It is an odd, landlocked, property, however.

    My Dad was friends with the owner of Pfitzinger’s Mortuary in Kirkwood, which provided the “ambulance” service in the ’40s and ’50s; we would ride in the back of the hearse and get in free.

    Lincoln Beach was one of the hot spots for young people in the ’20s and my Mom spent many a weekend there (I think the revenuers left it alone…). My reaction to it in the ’50s was the same as Ms. Pharriss. Mom was saddened, of course.

    GREAT story by Ms. Pharriss!

  3. CfR says:

    What an excellent account of a place that I have come to know very intimately – though it wasn’t until the early ’90s that I started going. There are old, worn-out concrete structures, foundations, and random embedded concrete chunks all over that park. I would love to be able to go back and explore that place in it’s heyday.

  4. MODiesel says:

    Historicaerials.com has an aerial of the cabins/clubhouses that Ms. Phariss describes. If you compare with the 2012 aerial you can slide back and forth to see exactly where the clubhouses would sit today. As she notes, it appears to be right along the current tail around that peninsular section.

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