Meet me in St Louis

 

The seventh-inning stretch was minutes away, but the crowd at the Busch Stadium had itchy feet. Throughout, spectators had been filing to and from the hotdog stands, or making come-hither gestures to the peanut vendor. Everyone was distracted.

It got stranger still when the red-clad St Louis Cardinals supporter beside me pulled out ice-cream from an ice box, before turning the pot upside down. Nothing fell from it. He explained: "It's Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, made right here in St Louis since 1929. The key is to turn it and ensure there isn't any movement. Then, you get a spoon and dig at it like a sculpture."

St Louis is well known for having its name mispronounced: it's Loo-wis, not Loo-wee. But the Missourian city stands out through its trade-friendly, money-spinning location, sitting at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. These two elements once helped qualify St Louis as the all-important "Gateway to the West" and if it later lost out economically to rival Midwestern cities (Chicago is 300 miles away) there is nevertheless steadfast value given to "the firsts" that over the years have given this city eminence.

Charles Lindbergh certainly helped with one. As the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic in 1927 (in a single-engine monoplane from which he could only see out from two side windows) Lindbergh is regarded as a hero of modern aviation. The cash-strapped airmail pilot had turned to friends – particularly the St Louis Chamber of Commerce's Harold Bixby – for financial help to perform his feat. A generous $20,000 came his way, raised by St Louis citizens who become sponsors through Bixby's encouragement. In a show of gratitude, Lindbergh named his aircraft The Spirit of St Louis.

On the morning of the ballgame – having driven the Lindbergh Boulevard into the city centre – I headed for the Missouri History Museum to learn more. The various cabinets contained newspaper clippings, Lindbergh's Flying Cross, his French Legion of Honour medal and flight suit. A replica of The Spirit of St Louis hung from the ceiling.

The 1,371-acre Forest Park, where the museum is situated, is a hotbed of other more modern attractions, including the Muny Theater, known as the "nation's oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre" and the Jewel Box greenhouse, a beautiful Art Deco conservatory. Indeed, the park is itself another of St Louis' "firsts" – it played host to various events in the the 1904 Summer Olympics, the first ever staged outside Europe.

I jumped on the Downtown Trolley, an easy-to-use hop on, hop off bus which passes an array of other city-centre landmarks such as the City Museum and The Old Courthouse, with the aim of reaching the 630ft Gateway Arch, with magnificent views from the top, accessible via tram. Then I opted to board the 19th-century paddle boat which calmly plies up and down the Mississippi. The experience was unmistakably and patriotically Missourian: the Captain punctuating his tales with the 1904 song "Meet Me in St Louis, Louis", which became celebrated in the 1944 Judy Garland musical.

After the game that evening, where the Cardinals had romped to victory in three hours, I felt compelled to seek out Ted Drewes's. Concrete custard as a late-night snack? Yet another St Louis "first".

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