This week's blog concludes Sam Blackwell's look at the community of Smelterville.
Published July 9, 1993, in the Southeast Missourian:
Howard C. Tooke, previously a member of the Cape Girardeau City Council in 1968 and who became mayor in 1970, sits in front of his closed lumber mill on the river. (MELINA A. MARA ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
FLOODS DASHED SMELTERVILLE'S CHANCES FOR ANOTHER COMEBACK
Twenty years ago, on the heels of a campaign to rid the city of substandard housing, the Mississippi River washed away much of what was left of Smelterville.
The river reached an all-time high of 45.6 feet and remained in dwellings longer than in previous floods. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development came in to provide flood victims with temporary housing of up to a year in duration. The Small Business Administration also made low-interest loans available with the first $5,000 forgiven.
When the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1974 placed restrictions on building in flood hazard zones, Smelterville's chances of making one more comeback were dashed. Though the city later succeeded in getting the courts to modify requirements for building in a flood zone, the cost remains prohibitive.
But for many who called Smelterville home, the will to stay already had receded with the flood waters.
Juanita Ratliff, who had operated a family grocery store in Smelterville since 1950, was one who left with the flood, later re-establishing her store further north on Sprigg Street. "The first (flood) that year wasn't too bad," she said. "The second time we had to move everything out. The mud was knee-deep."
But the record-breaking flood of 1973, then only the most recent of increasingly frequent runs of high water during the last half of the 20th century, was the culmination of an erosion of the community itself.
Smelterville, now known simply as South Cape, was once loosely defined as the area bounded by South Sprigg Street and the Mississippi River on the west and east, and by Boundary Street and Cape LaCroix Creek on the north and south. It was a hard scrabble community of people who knew only too well what it meant to lose the little they had.
Time after time they saw their deteriorating houses inundated, each flood making it harder and harder to regroup and remain.
In 1966, a citizens group presented a survey of the city's substandard housing to the city council. It found 86 houses had outdoor toilets, 58 had no inside running water, 102 had no bathtub, 140 heated water either on stoves or outside, and 132 used either coal or wood for fuel.
That is not to say the people of South Cape threw up their hands. A clean-up project in the summer of 1967 blossomed into an organization called the South Cape Community Action Progress Center. The center, directed by Louise Wren and located in Smelterville, received donations from businesses and individuals all over the city and turned them into help in the form of firewood, rehabilitated refrigerators, listings of employment, materials for renovating houses.
The center, which ultimately grew into the current Civic Center, also provided weekend recreational programs.
Wren says both black and white people used the center. "We were there for the people. We listened. That's the main thing."
Thereafter, the city enacted a nuisance abatement ordinance in an attempt to rid Cape Girardeau of the increasingly ghetto-ized conditions in Smelterville. "There were a lot of alleys down there, a lot of dumps," Wren said. "The city was helping us clean them up."
The ordinance gave the city power to rehabilitate or raze substandard houses and charge the cost to the property.
Forty buildings in South Cape were condemned in 1968, and subsequent years saw more condemnations.
"Nuisance abatement provided incentive for people to move out," said Howard C. Tooke, who was elected to the council in 1968 and became the city's mayor in 1970.
The city's action was accompanied by a call by community activists for low-income housing.
"Smelterville was a cancer on the city. We did need something," said Tooke, who was one of the few members of the city council who responded favorably to the idea.
But he also had reservations. "When they talk about public housing," he said, "they want free public housing."
Annie M. Williams, who raised seven children in Smelterville, opposed public housing but admits that living there was a challenge. "We learned to cope with it," she said. "Us blacks didn't have anywhere else to go."
She said people got along, no matter how fractious the debate became over how to improve the living conditions.
"We may fight each other but we'd fight for each other," she said.
When an opportunity arose, she moved out to a house on South Benton Street. Her old house on Pecan Street eventually was razed.
Elsie Sterling was another Smelterville resident who moved out in the late 1960s to inch a bit farther north. But the 80-year-old Sterling, former supervisor of the city's Head Start center, was behind the push for public housing. "I still am," she said.
"It was such poor living conditions for people."
Smelterville long suffered from benign neglect, she said. "The people were satisfied and didn't say anything, and the rest of the city didn't bother either."
Until the bulldozers began knocking down some of the houses, the city government also ignored Smelterville, Sterling said.
"It was a sore thumb. But they didn't do anything about it. I guess it was because we didn't fuss like we should have."
In 1970, a chain of events pinned to the issue of substandard housing led to the worst racial unrest in the city's history.
In May, members of the United Front of Cape Girardeau and the South Cape Community Progress Center were staging sit-ins at the city manager's office to protest an agreement that had been reached with the city's newly reactivated housing authority. At least, that's one version of the situation.
"We were trying to ask questions," Wren said. "That's how the arrests came about."
She was not involved herself. "I had to stay at the center."
The groups charged that the agreement was so limited in terms of units provided and occupant qualifications "that it is unworkable and amounts to nothing more than rhetoric."
During one sit-in, six people who refused to leave City Hall at closing time were arrested. The following night, about 150 people came to the city council meeting to demand that charges against the six be dropped.
One of the group's spokesmen, Bobby Williams, was one of those who had been arrested. He announced that the group would stay there all night. Reportedly, statements were made that the council members would not be allowed to leave. The council agreed to drop the charges.
The following day, the council members issued a statement saying they did so "under threat of violence."
In a referendum two months later, city voters nixed the city's plan to build 175 federally financed low-rent units. The measure lost by 169 votes, the third such loss for public housing in 10 years.
The date was Aug. 5.
Tooke, who was out of town the night of the raucous city council meeting in May, said he became the focal point of enmity when he refused to allow the issue to be returned immediately to the ballot.
On Aug. 21, the saw mill at the M.E. Leming Lumber Co. in South Cape was set afire, along with two garbage trucks in another area of the city. Tooke was the president of the lumber company.
The former mayor, who blames the act on "the activists," says he was not the enemy in the public housing issue.
"I was on their side."
Arson also claimed a number of abandoned houses in Smelterville that year. The fire department investigated 20 cases of arson between May and September of 1970.
The conflagration at the saw mill signaled the end of the unrest in the city, Tooke says, with most whites and blacks angered by the act.
Tooke, who served on the council from 1968-86, says his role in the affair "made my reputation." He received 125 votes when elected the first time in 1968, he pointed out, and was re-elected with 3,000 votes.
If there ever was hope for Smelterville, it hinged on protecting the land from the Mississippi. The levee system that guards downtown Cape Girardeau was designed in the 1940s and consisted of five "reaches." Only two of the five, consisting of the downtown flood wall and the earthen levees extending to the north, have been activated.
At various times it was been suggested that Reach 4 should be built to protect Smelterville. But when the system was developed, the Corps of Engineers said the benefit-cost ratio of Reach 4 would not justify it. The Corps proceeds with projects only if the benefits exceed the costs.
Tooke says there is little chance of the Corps ever taking on the project unless a public entity were to be involved, such as the city or the housing authority.
With calls for public housing being heard in the city again, Tooke says Smelterville can serve as an object lesson.
"Smelterville is an example of what low-income housing will develop into if not properly financed. The area deteriorated and it's beyond help now."
From Wren's point of view, Smelterville symbolizes the city's continuing failure to respond to a real need.
"People just wanted housing, decent housing.
"They knew it could be done," she said. "It just never happened."
Virden Brown, 87, has lived in Smelterville on and off since moving here from Gideon, Missouri, in 1927. A welder, he also operated a bait shop and grocery store. He says the city never has paid much attention to the area: "They're stingy." (MELINA A. MARA ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
SOME FIND IT HARD TO LEAVE NEIGHBORHOOD
Many people who left Smelterville migrated north to South Cape Girardeau streets that the river couldn't reach. Others said they were leaving for good only to land nearby years later. And a few Smelterville residents have kept their feet stuck firmly in the Mississippi mud.
Virden Brown is one who sometimes leaves but always comes back to Smelterville. He moved here in 1927 from Gideon, hoping to help build the new Mississippi River bridge.
That didn't work out, but he did find other jobs, both on the railroad and as a welder. Brown, who is 87 now, worked in Kankakee, Ill., for 18 years, then moved back to Smelterville during the Korean War. He operated a bait shop and a small grocery store here.
Brown is not happy with how the city treats Smelterville, pointing out a clogged culvert that backs up water into his yard.
"The city doesn't do nothing down here," he said. "They take a load of gravel and fix two or three streets with it. They're stingy."
The neighborliness of days gone by in Smelterville is hard to find these days, Brown said. "Nobody bothers nobody, but nobody helps nobody."
Life has changed considerably for Brown since his wife died two years ago.
"Since I lost my wife I just run around and try to keep in a cool place," he says. "It's kind of hard to stay home; we were together 57 years."
Brown's neighbors across the street are Ike Renn, his wife Amelia-Kay and their two children. Though he grew up in Smelterville, they've only been living here this time for five months.
He'd like to leave (they did temporarily when the floodwaters began rising a few days after this interview), but can't afford to. Together, their income amounts to just over $800 per month plus food stamps.
She likes Smelterville. "To me it seems like country."
But she wishes the city would do something to control the flooding. "They ought to forget the bridge and build a levee down here for the poor people," she said.
Marks on a shed on one of Carl Ford's lots keep track of the comings and goings of the river. The top one to date is the 45-0 registered in 1973. It only takes 39 feet to reach his yard.
Ford, who has lived in the house for 26 years, was fashioning a makeshift table he hopes will keep some of his belongings above the impending high water.
When it comes, he said, he will pull his two boats to the bottom of the Sprigg Street hill and park himself there in his camper.
"I stayed there six weeks in the last flood," he said.
Ford, a retired truck driver who lives here with his wife Betty, dog Buck and cat Goldie, says the reason they stay is simple:"I can't afford to go nowhere else. Here you can own your own property."
Pete Cooper was 15 when he moved to Smelterville from Ancell. He and his wife Waneta raised a family of six girls here. Their first house consisted of four rooms with holes in the walls patched with cardboard.
He says it has always been a safe place. "I don't take my car keys out of my car or van."
She misses the days when more people lived here. "I don't know why they got rid of those houses," she said. "People were all neighbors. They helped each other."
Like most of the remaining Smelterville residents, the Coopers now live in a tidy bungalow that could be found in many other Cape Girardeau neighborhoods.
Larry Maglone, a friend of the Coopers, grew up in Smelterville but no longer lives here. Though the rents are cheap - $175 gets you into the ballpark - there are downsides other than the flooding.
"These old houses are not insulated. It costs so much to heat them," he said.
Though Smelterville at one time was about half black and half white, no black families currently reside here. No one seems to know why.
The community seemed more welcoming back then, residents say. "My mom would set an extra place in case a hobo would come down the tracks," Maglone said. "And blacks and whites lived side by side."
He remembers being treated for a boyhood ailment by a black woman. "She was a seventh daughter of a seventh son. She breathed in my mouth and it cleared up."
A sign in front of Alan Niswonger's house offers crappie jigs for sale. Niswonger, 35, lives in the house his grandfather built in Smelterville some 60 years ago. He'd prefer not to stay - "The foundation has crumbled and the floors have dropped out" - but one thing keeps him here:"cheap living."
"...If I got a chance to get out of here I'd probably take it," he said.
Not everyone feels that way. Why else would they stay in a place where the Mississippi annually threatens to evict them?
"It's home," says Joe Kitchen, who grew up in Smelterville, moved away but still operates a garage on South Sprigg Street.
"It's home," says Waneta Cooper.