While Clayton was incorporated into a city in 1913, its presence was established long before it became official. Born out of the separation between St. Louis city and county and the need for a new county seat, the city took roots in 1877, when Ralph Clayton donated 100 acres of farmland and the Hanley family added four more. The fact that 36 years passed before Clayton became an official city was especially intriguing to Mary Delach Leonard when she wrote Clayton, Missouri: An Urban Story, just in time for the centennial anniversary. “You look at that, and wonder why it took so long for Clayton to become a city. But when you learn about the history, you discover that there was this group of people who just knew how to get things done, so they didn’t feel the need to establish an actual city with a mayor, etc.”
Clayton, Missouri: An Urban Story shares the rich history of the metropolitan hub through words, photographs and facts. The book, published by local Reedy Press, is a project of the Clayton Century Foundation, and Leonard was approached to produce the text after members saw her previous work on Animals Always: 100 Years at the Saint Louis Zoo. Also having written a number of historical anniversary articles while at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Leonard took on the project as chance to tell another interesting story. “It’s always fun to look at a place like Clayton and wonder how such a unique city happened,” she explains.
With the help of her daughter, Melinda Leonard, Leonard dove into research. A valuable resource came in the form of Dickson Terry’s 1976 book, Clayton: a history, an extensive look at the city’s formation, including interviews with close descendants of the original founders. Leonard also spent hours looking up documents and old newspapers like the Watchman-Advocate on microfilm. Time spent exploring the city helped her appreciate the individual neighborhoods surrounding the business district. “The neighborhoods have these great park-like settings, and some of that goes back to the landscape architects and early designers who came up with the plans to accentuate the land and its beauty,” Leonard says. “And today, the community has done a very good job of preserving the neighborhoods and walking the line with urban development.”
In particular, the Hanley House caught the author's attention. “It’s such a city treasure in the middle of the community, and you can walk from it right into the central business district. Its preservation speaks to the ability of the people to work together and make things happen.”
As Leonard details in the book, that is exactly what occurred to spur the formation of Clayton as an official city. When community leaders found out in December 1912 about plans for neighboring University City to annex Clayton, action quickly was taken to stop the potential loss of their identity and tax base, Leonard says. By April 1913, Clayton was its own city. “Right after that was World War I, then the Depression, then World War II. The fact that they made this move and then the city was able to come into its own during such a rough period of American history shows the spirit of the community.”
Leonard hopes that spirit is conveyed in the book, as the project was approached as a museum exhibit in book form with an overall view of the city’s history. “We tried to do a mix of then and now. It doesn’t delve into every issue, but it might whet your appetite and encourage you to learn more about Clayton and how it came to be.”