Author tells story of St. Francois County

Thursday, December 13, 2001

Jim Bequette's hometown, Bonne Terre, Mo., was a company town. His great-grandfathers and a grandfather worked in the lead mines. Bequette's father was an accountant for the St. Joseph Lead Co., and his stepfather became its vice president.

Shortly after New York investors bought nearly 1,000 acres of land in St. Francois County in 1864, the St. Joseph Lead Co. became a pioneer in underground lead mining. By World War II the company was the largest lead mining operation in the world.

Unlike some companies that control communities, St. Joe was a benevolent employer, Bequette said.

When the local hospital ended the year in the red, St. Joe covered the deficiency with a check, Bequette said. It built a golf course and bowling alley for its employees.

"We owed everything we had to them," he said.

Bequette's book about Bonne Terre and the St. Joseph Lead Co., "Growing Up in St. Francois County," has just been published by Charleston, S.C.-based Arcadia Publishing. It is part of the publisher's Voices of America series. The book is available at www.arcadiapublishing.com.

The 96 pages provide Bequette's reminiscences of growing up in St. Francois County in the 1950s and 1960s, a chronological history of the mining company along with some 80 archival photographs of the mining operations and present-day photographs Bequette took.

Bonne Terre, phonetically spelled "Bontear" by the postal service until 1876, was a small city of 3,000 during the last half of the 20th century.

"Cape Girardeau was a big city to us," said Bequette, who recalled marching in Southeast Homecoming parades for six years.

He writes fondly of small-town pleasures: civic-minded merchants, town characters who lived in a cave, the police chief who snoozed in his parked car, the huge chat pile that was Bonne Terre's distinguishing landmark and the annual Mother's Club Carnival.

He does not ignore the community's warts -- such as the discrimination he saw -- but concludes that Bonne Terre was an ideal place to grow up.

"You have to get away from it and look back before you can appreciate it," he says.

Bequette, who works at Nowell's Camera Shop in Cape Girardeau, is a photographer and writer who previously published a booklet history of Cape Girardeau.

He wrote this book when he realized nobody had ever written a history about the St. Joseph Lead Co. and Bonne Terre.

"It is a historic community that played an important role in the United States," he said

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