Mabel the glamorous Queen of Dogtown

A Historic look at the life of Mabel Fitzwater as uncovered from a Dumpster.

(from the upcoming Women of…….issue.)

Should I call Mabel by the name on her death certificate?  The one left by her late husband Norman Fitzwater, or maybe after her first husband Jennings Stubbs, who was a legend, so much so that she kept his things even after marrying again.   George Gittens, her father left a strong name and she remained proud of that heritage. The Gittens name carries weight in Dogtown with a deep history in the area long before the “dogs” and the Irish.  No, I can’t honor a woman such as her with any man’s name. I dub her Mabel, the glamorous Queen of Dogtown.  

  Discovering history is like looking at a shadow and trying to see the object.  What can we say about a person when what remains are just their possessions, family records and many mysteries.  Mabel was born on May 23 in the year 1904, a mere 10 min walk from the greatest show at the time, the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.  Her family made a fortune during those years having a saloon, hotel and grocer. She disappears from public record until 1937, where she is listed as married to Jennings Stubbs according to Father P.J. O’Connor’s book,  “History of Cheltenham and St James Parish”.   

  Suddenly she is there again in 1941.  A 37 year old mother of 3 girls, taking a punch from a car thief.  She was on her way to her father’s saloon on Manchester with friends and a 1000 dollars.  The man hit her in the face and she pretended to faint, removing the money from her purse.  They stole the car and got away with 5 bucks, abandoning the car blocks away. The story worked it’s way across America making it all the way to the East Coast.  What wasn’t known at the time, was her family had a long history of being stolen from. Her father was in the paper regularly as his employees were robbed quite frequently back during Prohibition when the Saloon became a Grocer, when a piano repair man stole his piano, and a former employee stole payroll.  It was still the wild west in Dogtown and the lower class area attracted crime in Depression era America. This was her tough neighborhood and Mabel came from a long line of strong people.

The Gittins family had come to this country in a sailing vessel from Wales, a trip that took 93 days.  After landing in Florida they proceeded to the Mississippi River up to St. Louis on a steamboat where an ox cart was bought to take them out to what is now Forest Park.   To forge the money they needed in the new world, they built a cabin and established a coal mine.

Several Gittins were born in that cabin at the very spot where the St Louis Zoo is now situated.  Mr. Gittins, his son, and his brother, James Elley, operated coal mines in Forest Park for years building a collective pool of money.   When rich enough, the Gittens moved to Cheltenham. This was just after the Icarians sold a massive piece of land cheaply when they failed in their attempt at a Utopian Socialist paradise.   The Gittens built their grocer, a butcher and a hotel, all with the family name proudly displayed and in 1875, George enters the picture.

In 1895, George William Gittins, opened a saloon at 5867 Manchester Avenue. He became a popular figure in the neighborhood as was the Gittens saloon.   George made a lot more money a few years later when he bought a clay mine on Tamm Avenue. His wealth continued to increase and he became the owner of several other mines in Maryland Heights. Finally in 1910 the business was incorporated under the following officers: George W. Gittins, and his son Albert E. Gittins.

  Mabel was born many years after Albert and lived quite well in the Dogtown neighborhood.  If she fell in love with her first husband and he was added to the business, or he was an existing partner and the marriage was arranged, it is not known, but by 1937, Jennings Stubbs was a partner at the firm and Mabel was working at the old saloon. 

 One strange lawsuit alleges she was selling Alcohol on a Sunday in 1941 at the Saloon on Manchester Blvd, the very spot Nick’s pub currently entertains Dogtown residents.  Apparently a local Commissioner cited her for selling 6 beers and revoked her license. Mabel claims he had no authority to do so, and took it too appeals, seems the post Prohibition years were strange.   Mabel felt she was under attack by the local Catholics, that had been a strong factor during the “dry years” only 7 years before. While she attempted to appeal the decision the saloon remained closed. What is truly a strange fact is the Saloon remained listed as owned by George Gittens well past 1958, despite her name as the only one listed on the lawsuit.   Rough times were in store for Mabel as she is listed as single by 1944. Jennings either passed on leaving her three girls, or left her with the girls. The mystery remains.  

  She met Norman Fitzwater sometime later.   The Saloon was up and running with Mabel at the helm and Norm as the bartender.  They had a boy named George. Years went by and disaster struck again in 1958. It was late night at the bar and 3 men were far too drunk and became difficult.  Norman pulled out a gun from behind the bar and told the men to leave. One man approached him and fearing for his life, Norm fired, paralyzing the man from the neck down.  The Saloon was sued for 60,000 dollars and lost. I believe the bar was finally shut down. Norman and her would enjoy retirement until his death a decade later.   

 When one lays out Mabel’s things it feels like stepping into a museum.  An archaeological dig that attempts to tell a story through each item, here are some signifying aspects.

  •   Her clothes are all from the 1970s and in near perfect condition.
  •   The popcorn, whiskey, food products were also frozen in time.
  •   I found “filled in” crosswords and two very well used dictionaries.
  •   The Catholic hymnals however were new as if never opened.  Rosary beads missing the cross, also like new.
  •   Her taste in books was classic fiction. 
  •   The postcards are to “Grandma” from her son and grandchild, she kept them as treasures.
  •   Hardware box was full of vintage items.  Dated around the time her husband Norman died in the 1960’s.
  •  Paperwork shows she returned to live with Dad for awhile in 1966.  
  • The sunglasses were well worn and the dresses were high end.

It is the details that paint a picture of a woman who lived an interesting but stationary life.   The “good” daughter who is married to her father’s business partner. The widow who mourned her husband’s early death and ran a bar alone in a close knit Irish neighborhood.  She wasn’t overly religious but she went to church. When did she meet the poor Irishman, Norman? I imagine she is happy for while. Those are the days she has frozen in time.  She was a familiar sight behind the bar with pant suits, sunglasses and completely in control. Did she know her regulars names? Mabel was the tough business owner who could take a punch, throw a punch and fought corrupt laws intended to squash the freedoms her ancestors traveled to America for.    Mabel loved Norman and found happiness with the War Veteran and a union laborer.  

   The children grew up as children do and move away.  Norman passes on in 1966 and she is alone in the tiny house on a hill.   She remains a survivor and keeps on going, outliving them all but she never leaves the neighborhood.   Her joy is found in the postcards from Florida, Maine and her Grand daughter. She shuffles the house in slippers carefully maintained and cleaned.  Those suit pants fill out but she dry cleans them and watches the world go by faster and faster. Mabel likes her nice things, but she also likes way cigar smell still lingers on old clothes.  She keeps the hand-painted things from her Granddaughter Amy and the books she reads are smart but whimsical. She keeps dresses with sizes too small, and is ready for a return to the “way things were”.    Mabel dreams.

    Can you see her, in the 1970’s era light blue pant-suit?  She walks to the liquor store on Tamm ave. after church and waves to familiar people on porches.   Her white vintage sunglasses reflect the shotgun houses, and the hills of Dogtown. She knows every corner and remembers smells from when the mines and the rail roads left black soot on the windows.  She has heard all the World’s Fair stories and walks to the zoo grounds where her ancestors pulled out coal and bore children. She survived the Depression, when the bodies of workers crossed the landscape and prohibition almost killed her family.   She walked these streets during two World Wars and participated when the men were gone and women took over. She saw “white flight” as the old southern racism ran rampant, while her Irish neighborhood with its ancient Catholic customs and parades remain the same as if stuck in a time warp.  She doesn’t like K-mart down the road, and wears the same clothes she did when she was surrounded by life and purpose. Mabel comes from a long line of strong people and her family is her strength. She is the last of the wild women of Dogtown. 

 Mabel has two points of reference online, a lawsuit and a death.   All we have to know her by is what was left untouched for 18 years after her death.   Three bags of trash left in a dumpster, when the house was sold. Who lived there for those years, and why did her things sit untouched for so long?    There is little that is certain except taxes, real estate sales, deeds, and a mystery of why she never left. What would Mabel say about herself? She wasn’t a classic beauty, she had wide hips and her father’s face.  She might have been smart, but it didn’t matter, she was a house wife slated for a life of child rearing. Mabel was your average American woman, who wanted more, and was thankful for what she had. Yet there is more under the surface.  A yearning for a life she never had. That big what if……  

      This is the non-scientific part of Dumpster Archeology.  The feelings, those metaphysical magnetic emotions shining out from the Dumpsters that speak to me of a woman who fulfilled the American Dream and wanted more.  Perhaps she wanted one more moment of spotlight, to be called interesting, smart, desired and maybe even glamorous. Can a woman be both strong and want attention from those she loves?    To be a Queen for even one day? Dogtown never had a Queen, this little hamlet of space nestled between Forest Park and South City. So I declare without any attempt to find competition. 

Mabel is the Glamorous Queen of Dogtown!

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