Lavencour Michau • 1825-1901
Oak Hill Cemetery • Maryville, Mo.
Lavencour Michau was a highly regarded, reserved businessman who helped build the town of Maryville, Mo. While other markers at Oak Hill Cemetery in Maryville rise to the skies, the Michau plot is partially walled off, a stately in-progress approach that proudly declares the patriarch’s name and fits the wealthy pioneer.
"As a man among men, Mr. Michau has made for himself a record of which his family will always be proud," a mourner said at his funeral. "His life may be described by that one word in which all true men delight: It is honor."
Lavencour Michau was born Dec. 14, 1825, in Carondelet, Mo., which is now part of St. Louis. Antoine “St. Amant” Michau and Marguerite Meimier had married about 12 years earlier; Lavencour was the youngest of their nine children.
St. Amant Michau and his family moved to the St. Louis area in 1800; he was 8 years old. Nine years later, St. Amant was working in John Maclot’s shot tower in Herculaneum, Mo. — the first successful shot tower west of the Mississippi River. Shot towers were designed to produce lead balls used in firearms. Molten lead was dropped through a sieve high in the tower, solidifying and forming a sphere as it fell. The partially cooled balls were caught at the floor of the tower in a water-filled basin. The size of the shot was limited by the height of the tower — a larger ball needed to fall farther to cool.
Shot production was a profitable business in the quickly changing territory. The Missouri Fur Co. was organized in St. Louis in 1809; the abundance of pelts played a key role in the development of the upper Louisiana Territory. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, prominent members of the company, had finished their exploration of the Louisiana Territory in 1806. The first shocks of the New Madrid earthquake were felt in December 1811; despite its name, the War of 1812 lasted nearly three years; the Missouri Territory was organized in June 1812; steamboats first arrived in St. Louis in August 1817.
Saugrain Michau, the eldest of the Michau children, was born in Carondelet in 1814. Missouri became the nation’s 24th state in 1821. Lavencour, the Michau’s youngest child, was born in 1825.
By all accounts, the Michau family was wealthy and well-respected. On July 10, 1826, St. Amant was one of 12 Carondelet citizens to sign a deed that transferred more than 1,700 acres of the Carondelet Commons south of the River Des Peres to the United States government. Two days later, the first military troops arrived at the new post, which in 1827 was formally named Jefferson Barracks. Jefferon Barracks would play a key role in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and in training soldiers for World War I and World War II.
In 1832, Carondelet moved to establish a formal government and was incorporated as a town. St. Amant presided over the town’s five-man board of trustees in 1836. He opened his own shot tower in 1843 south of St. Louis in a bluff above the Mississippi River. When he died in 1845, St. Amant had lost most of his money by paying debts his friends had defaulted. Those losses would stay with Lavencour, then 20, and his brother Alfred. Friends later said the brothers agreed they would never co-sign notes for others, and that Lavencour decided then that he would, within 35 years, earn back his father’s fortune. Lavencour would retire in 36 years, with thousands more than his goal.
After the death of his father, Lavencour went to work in the shot tower St. Amant had owned, earning 25 cents a day (equivalent to about $5.75 today). St. Louis businessmen Ferdinand Kennett and John Simonds opened a shot tower in 1849, and Lavencour became a silent partner in the venture. Lavencour’s mother died a couple of years later; his oldest brother Saugrain died in 1856.
What drew the Michau brothers to northwest Missouri is not clear. Nodaway County and Maryville, the county seat, were organized in 1845. The area was previously inhabited by the Ioway, Sac and Fox, and Pottawatomie tribes. The county was named for a river of the same name; “Nodaway” has been attributed to a Pottawatomie name meaning “placid.”
In 1845, James Vaughn opened the area’s first goods store in Maryville. August Gamarsh opened a general store in 1846 and remained in business for a few years before moving to St. Louis. Alfred Michau traveled to St. Louis with Gamarsh, and returned to Maryville in 1851.
On March 13, 1851, Alfred, 27, married Nancy Jane Saunders, 19. In 1856, Lavencour joined his brother and the two began building a very successful grocery. In 1860, Alfred and Nancy were living in Maryville with their two sons, John, 8, and Eugene, 2; Alfred’s brother Lavencour; and two slaves, Mary, 38, and Vina, 4.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed the state to enter the Union as a slave state. By 1860, Missouri’s population was 1,182,012; there were 114,931 slaves, mostly in rural areas. Nodaway County had 5,252 people; 127 were slaves. St. Louis was the state’s largest city; St. Joseph, 45 miles south of Maryville, was the second. (St. Joseph also was one of two endpoints for the Pony Express, which provided fast mail service from Missouri to California from April 1860 to October 1861.)
Missouri declared itself neutral in 1861, but the Civil War still split the state. The first major battle of the war west of the Mississippi River was Aug. 10, 1861, near Springfield, Mo., at Wilson’s Creek; it was a Confederate victory. There were other skirmishes across the state throughout the war. The largest was 1864’s Battle of Westport at Kansas City; it was a Union victory. The war ended in 1865; Missouri was the first slave state to emancipate its slaves.
On Oct. 29, 1863, Lavencour, 38, married Amanda J. Wheeler, 21, in Maryville. The next year, Alfred and his family moved to St. Joseph. Lavencour bought out his brother’s interest in the Maryville business in 1872 and took on a new partner, John Lieber.
In 1868, Amanda Michau helped found the First Christian Church of Maryville; the church has moved, but remains active today. Lavencour and Amanda had five children: Ida, born in 1863; Ferdinand, 1868; Beatrice “Dollie,” 1871; Bessie, 1876; and Gertrude, 1880. Ferdinand Kennett Michau was named for Lavencour’s friend in St. Louis, Ferdinand Kennett. Ferdinand Michau died in 1874 of cerebrospinal meningitis; he was 6 years old. He was the first to be buried in the family plot at Oak Hill Cemetery in Maryville.
Lavencour’s investments paid off. He retired in 1881 at the age of 56, and his business and real estate investments had made him quite wealthy. In 1890, he built a new home at 219 W. Second St. in Maryville, naming it Terrace Place after his parents’ home in Carondelet. About a year later, he built the Michau block on Main Street, which was home to several stores and the Nodaway Masonic Lodge. Neither the home nor the business building remain today.
Lavencour was often seen about town after he retired. “He failed scarcely a day from coming uptown and spending a little time about his splendid business house,” a mourner said at his funeral. Lavencour also enjoyed spending time with his grandson, Ferdinand Townsend, son of daughter Ida Michau and Edward L. Townsend, and named for Ida’s brother.
Lavencour died of pneumonia the night of Oct. 26, 1901; he was 75.
"Our little city and this community owe a debt of gratitude to this man," a mourner said at his funeral five days later. "His successful business talent contributed large in Maryville’s early history toward making it a popular business center, and in these latter days of its life his buildings have perhaps added more than those of any other man, to the beauty and good appearance of our little city. But above all this we are grateful for his example of business habits and integrity thoroughly mastered — says one of our leading business men of him — ‘He had thoroughly learned the art of attending to his own business.’ "
His obituary in the Nodaway Democrat valued his estate at $150,000 ($3.8 million today). Some said that figure should have been much higher; the St. Louis Globe-Democrat placed that number at $300,000 ($7.8 million today).
"Mr. Michau was the architect of his own fortune," the Nodaway Democrat obituary reads. "In his dealings with men, he was honorable. His word was made absolutely good. His every habit was that of promptness. He did not crowd men who were using his money, and in throwing off odd amounts. He liked his friends and would never put any obstacle in they way of those whose ways he might not like. He was quiet, not given to finding fault or complaining. In short he possessed many admirable traits of character, and was a man of strong determination and will power."
Amanda Michau died July 7, 1932. She is buried beside her husband and son Ferdinand. Great-granddaughter Yvonne Townsend (daughter of grandson Ferdinand Townsend and Lillian Bohner) and daughter Beatrice Michau Williams also are buried in the family plot.