‘The house where Eugene Field was not born’

eugene-field_edited-1A plaque on the Eugene Field House says “the children’s poet” — famous for “Little Boy Blue,” “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” and other works — was born there. The Field House Museum, on its website, says “Eugene Field was born in St. Louis at 634 South Broadway, on September 2, 1850.” And some contemporary news stories also say Field was born there.

But he wasn’t.

A former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter named Robertus Love took the blame for the confusion — a century ago. In letter to the newspaper, published on Feb. 12, 1917, Love wrote: “About 15 years ago I suggested a story on Eugene Field.… My suggestion was approved and I was assigned to get the story. I interviewed several persons who had known Field more or less intimately when he lived here as a young newspaper man. Also I interviewed his guardian, an elderly gentleman now dead…. In reply to a specific query as to where Eugene Field was born, his guardian told me it was the house on South Broadway.”

The University Club raised money to mark the house, Love recounted in the letter. Mark Twain and David R. Francis (mayor, governor, ambassador and World’s Fair impresario) unveiled the plaque that designated the building on South Broadway as the late poet’s birthplace. (Field died in 1895; the dedication took place in 1902.)  Love noted that after the dedication, Field’s younger brother, Roswell Field Jr., came to St. Louis to “hunt for the house where he and Eugene were born. He could not identify even the locality, so changed was it — somewhere north of Eads Bridge, near the river.” Love said he later learned the University Club had clipped his front-page story from the Post-Dispatch “and accepted without question the location mentioned and proceeded to mark the house where Eugene Field, the poet, was not born.”

republic-front-pageThe front-page story to which Love refers was published on Nov. 2, 1900, and was written to coincide with “Eugene Field Day,” an annual tribute by Missouri’s public schools to “childhood’s poet-laureate.” An hour was set aside for teachers to read his work and children to read his poems. A photograph of the house on 634 South Broadway accompanied the story, which noted: “… in this city of St. Louis, stands an old brick house in which was born a poet who was read by millions….”

(Love’s story, it turns out, wasn’t the first to identify 634 South Broadway as Field’s birthplace. On Jan. 22, 1899, the Post-Dispatch published a photo of the building, with the window shutters slightly askew, with an accompanying story: “The place is now a rooming house. There is nothing to distinguish it from any one of eight similar houses excepting this sign on the door: Rooms for Rent. Privilege of Light Housekeeping.”)

The apparent mistake wasn’t rectified until the summer of 1902, immediately after Mark Twain and other “distinguished citizens of St. Louis” dedicated the South Broadway building. Roswell Field Jr., then a journalist living in Chicago, wrote in the Chicago Evening Post about the “unveiling of the memorial tablet” in St. Louis: “There was only one drawback to the complete success of the ceremonies and that seems to have been lost sight of in the other and more important features. It is our privilege to remark — not with the intention of exciting controversy or of suggesting any unnecessary changes in the inscription of the tablet — that as a matter of fact Eugene Field was not born at the house.…”

eugene-field-house-in-the-1930sRoswell Field said he would come to St. Louis to locate the correct birthplace, something that the St. Louis Republic, in a front-page story on June 10, 1902, narrowed to a small block on Collins Street, between Franklin Avenue and Carr Street. The Post-Dispatch, in a story published later that day and headlined “Blunder over Field’s birth,” said it reviewed old city directories and found that Roswell M. Field, the father of Eugene and Roswell and lawyer famous in his own right for representing Dred Scott, lived at 28 Collins Street until 1851. “The directory published at least several months after Eugene Field’s birth gives his father’s residence on Collins street,” according to the news story. (Street numbers by then had changed, so the 28 Collins of 1851 was 918 Collins in 1902, the Post-Dispatch reported. Today, the location appears to be near parking lots north of the downtown casino.)

To compound the confusion, on June 15, 1902, the Post-Dispatch reported that two prominent St. Louisans — Julius S. Walsh, president of the Mississippi Valley Trust Co., and real-estate dealer Ben Von Phul — said the Field family didn’t even reside at 634 South Broadway, but rather at 630. Von Phul, whose family lived by the Fields, told the newspaper: “It was the fourth house in the row — no other. I lived next door and I know.… Gene Field never lived in the second house in the row — the house with the tablet on it.” The city directory for 1854 didn’t provide an exact location for the Field residence, other than to say it was on the east side of Broadway between Cerre and Poplar streets — so there was no record to corroborate Von Phul’s account.06-15-1902-field-didnt-even-live-at-634-south-broadway

For the next 32 years, the building at 634 South Broadway was largely forgotten. In 1923, real-estate developer Con P. Curran acquired the block of buildings that included the house, announced he planned to raze them to build a warehouse, and donate the 1902 plaque to the history museum. The warehouse plan was abandoned, and the buildings remained tenements well into the Depression. To cut the tax bill, Curran announced in 1934 the buildings would be torn down to make way for a parking lot. The Post-Dispatch reported on Feb. 20, 1934: “The smoke-blackened brick dwelling at 634 South Broadway where Eugene Field spent part of his childhood and which has become known as ‘the house where Eugene Field was not born’ in spite of a plaque marking it as the birthplace of the children’s poet, is to be razed to save taxes and provide space for a parking lot.”

st-louis-doesnt-care-editorialPost-Dispatch editorial writer Irving Dilliard swung into action: “The small dwelling on Collins street in which Eugene Field was born was torn down long ago. Now the house at 634 South Broadway, in which he lived from the time he was a year old until he was about 5, is to be wrecked to make room for a parking lot.” Dilliard noted in the editorial published on Feb. 24, 1934 that a Denver home in which Field lived “for only a few months” had been purchased by a wealthy woman and donated to the public library system. “But, apparently, the birthplace of the poet of childhood doesn’t find time for such things. Too bad he wasn’t born somewhere else.”

The editorial was headlined: “St. Louis Doesn’t Care.”

The St. Louis School Board, which had title to the property, rescinded the planned demolition and launched a student campaign to save pennies for the restoration. The board operated the home as a museum until 1968; a private foundation now manages the property, the Post-Dispatch recounted in a “look back” feature in 2011. — © 2017 Roland Klose. All rights reserved.

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The error about Field’s birthplace is repeated elsewhere, including on the site listing St. Louis Walk of Fame inductees:

 

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