St. Joseph’s South End smells like money. That’s what the people who live there used to tell visitors.
The acrid smell of livestock and manure came from the stockyards and meat-packing plants, which made up the financial foundation of the southern part of Buchanan County.
The smell meant steady jobs for the Polish, German, Ukrainian and Mexican immigrants and the African-Americans living there.
“They had no choice but to smell it, so they had to call it something,” said J.L. Robertson, owner of Rupp Funeral Home — a South Side institution. “It’s what built the streets in the South Side; it built a lot of families and a lot of small businesses.”
The Armour, Swift and Seitz packinghouses were family-owned businesses. The Polish and Ukraine immigrants with their churches, schools and businesses made up the neighborhoods.
Many of the businesses are South End-grown, with family names like Helen Wrinkles pharmacy, Stevenson Family Pharmacy, Kovac’s Grocery Store, Betty’s Cafe, Dan’s New and Used, and Marek Catering and Deli.
The Bucket Shop, Hoof and Horn, The Spot Cafe, Pizza Royal, and Lake Contrary are, or were, also South Side institutions.
Many people came to the South Side and never left. Forever South enders.
“They brought their families and they stayed put. They had great pride in the neighborhood,” Robertson said.
And they created a culture.
It’s been defined as blue collar culture with a credo of hard work and a close-knit community.
For some, Betty’s Cafe is considered the city hall of the South Side. Politicians, educators, a little bit of everybody comes to the small King Hill Avenue diner for home-cooked meals. It’s a place where people share tables and conversation, said owner Pat Peek. She feels it is indicative of the South End culture.
“I love the South End because people are friendlier in the South End,” Peek said.
Whether it’s real or perceived, there’s a rough edge to South End as well.
“If it’s South Side baseball, you know you’re a tough baseball player. You’re just a little tougher,” Robertson said.
He added that St. Joseph police might see the South Side as a sleeper community. There are no more problems there than in any other part of the city, but the residents sometimes deal out their own justice.
“You know, if somebody is stealing decoys or something like that from a farm, somebody is going to find out who did it and more than likely they will know. And they will go to that person’s front door and say ‘hey you better put the decoys back or I’m going to do a little kicking or I’m going to do a little calling, (and) I’m going to do the kicking first,’” Robertson said.
When it comes to race relations, many see the South Side as more southern than northern in sentiment. Moses Hicks, a longtime African-American South Side resident, said he can remember a sign hanging right where King Hill and Lake Avenue split that read: “South End: South of the Dixie Line.”
Many Ku Klux Klan members — including the local leader — lived on the South Side, he said.
“All of your prominent taverns and some of your grocery stores had signs over the doorway ‘no niggers or Mexicans allowed’ all that kind of stuff,” Hicks said.
Luckily, he said that sentiment isn’t as prevalent today.
Perhaps the reason the South Side has a different feel than other parts of the city is because in the late 1800s it actually was its own province or township.
In 1887, a J.L. Byrne owed much of the land before it was bought out by the St. George Town company.
It became St. George or Georgetown — a self contained community three miles south of St Joseph proper, according to the book “History of Buchanan County.” It was bordered by Cherokee Street on the south, Division Street on the north, William Street on the east and the railroad tracks at the edge of Missouri Avenue.
The city of St. Joseph annexed that part of the city in 1900. Georgetown became just a part of South St. Joseph.
South End was still a self-contained and thriving community. P.J. Kovac, a businessman and City Council member, remembers when it had five pharmacies, several grocery stores, hardware stores, bakeries, dry cleaners and many bars and restaurants.
“You used to (not) have to leave the South End to buy anything you wanted,” he said.
That all began to change by the early 1980s, Kovac said. Packing houses closed, businesses left, and so did some of the people. He counted about 30 business that have gone.
Kovac’s grocery stores were a South End staple dating back to 1941, when P.J.’s grandfather opened a small store on Mason Road. The company recently sold its grocery store in the King Hill shopping center — where it had been since 1974. Now an Apple Market, the store is still locally owned.
“I think when Wal-Mart started opening and getting popular, that was probably the downfall of the small businesses and small shops,” Kovac said.
As a result, South End has lost much of its culture and identity, he said. But it’s not just the South End — it’s happening in communities in other parts of the city and country.
“I feel like that’s sort of starting to fade away where people feel they’re more part of the city than they are just one part of town,” he said. “It’s been a good run, but South End businesses are really struggling anymore. Things are changing fast now. It’s a different economic environment and a different world.
It may have lost some of its spark, but the South Side could be poised for a comeback. The St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce cited its revitalization as one of the area’s success stories of 2015.
R. Patt Lilly, chamber president and CEO, called it “a year of reinvigoration” in a recent St. Joseph News-Press article.
South Side businesses that grew in 2015 included:
Albaugh LLC, a global manufacturing company with a South Side production facility, which completed an $8 million dollar expansion project.
ByoZyme, another global business with a South Side location, which began a $1.255 million warehouse and dock addition on its present facilities.
Nor-Am Ice and Cold Storage LLC, which completed an $8.5 million expansion project.
Daily’s Premium Meats, partially owned by Triumph Foods, also continues construction of a plant to produce other meat products and will employ more than 200 additional workers.
Other businesses like Sealed Air Corp. and Protein LLC also are expanding and making improvements to create more jobs, proving the South End is not dead.