A Short History of Oakland
Oakland, arguably one of St. Louis County’s best-kept secrets, is a small city of approximately 1550 residents. Its 7.5 miles of tree-lined streets are nestled between Webster Groves to its east, Crestwood to its south, Kirkwood to its west, and Glendale to its north.
Oakland is a community of great architectural diversity. Not only will you find homes designed by such modern day architects as Harris Armstrong, Robert Schutt and Paul Marti (all of whom are current or former Oakland residents) but also turn of the century houses and arts and crafts-styled cottages.
Oakland was incorporated as a village in 1920. Almost one hundred years earlier, Missouri became the 24th state. Public land was surveyed and then opened to settlers. In 1824, Irish immigrants William Higgins and his son-in-law Bernard Gilhuly owned most of what is now Oakland. These original landowners were shopkeepers living in the City of St. Louis and never dwelt on their wilderness property, although they may have leased it to tenant farmers.
Most Westborough golfers probably don’t realize their fairways were once part of a plantation owned by Thomas Berry, a former Virginian who bought the property from Higgins’ heirs and moved his slaves and his extended family here in 1833. Their “Mansion House” stood near the present Westborough club house. Berry’s holdings stretched along the west side of Berry Road from Shady Creek in Glendale down to Big Bend.
The cholera epidemic and Great Fire of 1849 tempted those with means to move their families from St. Louis to the safety of the countryside. By 1853, the Pacific railroad reached newly incorporated Kirkwood and the commuter age began – on a small scale. Former Kentuckian Henry Clay Hart owned much of the land between Sappington and Holmes and lived on what is now the front lawn of Ursuline Academy. Hart was a wealthy lawyer who rode the train to work in St. Louis. Hart’s slaves toiled on his farms.
After the Civil War, several African Americans who had served in the Union Army bought property along Madison Avenue on both the east (Oakland) and west (Kirkwood) sides of Holmes Avenue. They were soon joined by former slaves, many born in Kentucky. Descendants of these “Kentucky Town” settlers still live in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.
At least six small lakes dotted the landscape in the 19th century; only Ursuline pond remains. Early residents harvested ice to preserve food in the days before refrigeration. There was a deep pond stocked with bass by the Fach family at the southwest corner of Bethesda Dilworth.
Between 1862 and 1910, land between Berry Road and Sappington was owned by a succession of highly successful entrepreneurs including New Englander Hudson Bridge who made his fortune manufacturing cast iron stoves. Bridge became president of the Pacific Railroad and was a founder of Washington University. The Bridge family lake was near the site of the Kirkwood Early Childhood Center. Later, George Myers, co-founder of Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company turned the Westborough land into an enclosed deer park. On what is now Woodleigh Cove, Myers built Stancote, an imposing thirty room mansion of granite and limestone for his only child, Georgie Myers Church. In the front yard was a large pond on the east side of Sappington, a sister to Ursuline Pond.
After the tragic suicide of Georgie’s young husband, socialites James L. Blair and his talented wife Appoline moved to Stancote. A disgruntled former employee revealed that Blair had embezzled funds from clients to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Blair died from a self-inflected head injury in January, 1904. After the second suicide, the public whispered that the residence was haunted and called it “Hoodoo House.” A fire destroyed the magnificent Stancote in 1912.
One of the oldest extant residences in Oakland was built in 1896 for Trustin Boyd, founder of Boyd’s Department stores. His wife had jet-black hair and was known as “The Crow.” Their house on Fortune Lane was dubbed “The Crow’s Nest.” By 1900, parts of the old estates had been subdivided for middle class houses and the area was soon populated with professionals, shopkeepers and craftsmen. George Robinson, a co-founder of what became Ralston Purina, moved the 1904 World’s Fair Nevada House to his six acre lot on Schultz Avenue.
In 1912, the Oakland/Glendale area was still unincorporated. Neighboring Kirkwood and Webster Groves threatened to annex it and area residents joined to form the Village of Glendale, which was mostly in Oakland. The new municipality between Berry Road and Holmes Avenue included the land between the Kirkwood-Ferguson trolley tracks (just north of the current Glendale City Hall) and Big Bend. The original Board of Trustees for Glendale met at the residence of Howard Nichols on E. Monroe Avenue. The Nichols’ residence, built in 1902, was enhanced with elements from the World’s Fair West Virginia Building.
By 1920, tension between North and South Glendale fractured the young town and 92 of the 96 voters south of Lockwood chose to incorporate as the Village of Oakland. In 1946, the village became a fourth class city.
For more detail see Oakland: A History of the People & Their Homes, which is available for sale at local booksellers.