The Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant in Crystal City has been gone more than 25 years. The sprawling plant site is an empty field, the noon whistle no longer marks lunchtime, and the trains and trucks no longer bustle in and out, bound for all corners of the world.
In most areas, it’s almost as if the plant never existed, but there’s still a place to find artifacts from the time when Crystal City was a company town – The Fay Oakes Little Scout House, perched on a small, wooded lot near Crystal City Elementary School.
The three-room bungalow celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.
Although it’s no longer used for Scout activities, the house remains a repository of memories for several generations of Jefferson County Girl Scouts and their families.
Linda LaBrier Wall, 61, of Festus spent many hours there with her mother, longtime troop leader “Tiny” LaBrier.
“We had bunking parties, camped in the yard, had meetings in the house,” Wall said. “It was a huge part of my childhood.”
The Girl Scout House was built in 1931 at the behest of the late Fay Oakes, wife of the late G.W. Oakes, who was the PPG superintendent at the time.
“She felt the town’s girls needed someplace special, someplace that would be their own to meet and enjoy,”
said their granddaughter, Christine Thuesen Reifsteck, 73, of Crystal City.
The first Crystal City Girl Scout troop had been registered by 1926, and by 1929, there was a Brownie troop as well. Mrs. Oakes was a leader, along with the late Bess Hughes, Matilda Forgey, teacher Ethel Holdinghaus and school Principal Estella Bailey.
“The house was designed by (the late) Jimmy Robinson, who also worked at Pittsburgh,” said Reifsteck, who was a Crystal City Girl Scout in the 1950s.
Robinson also designed and built the well-known ‘gingerbread house’ on Mississippi Avenue, she said.
The Girl Scout house “was built by Pittsburgh carpenters, using packing cases that had come from Belgium with materials for the plant,” Reifsteck said.
The little house became something of a pet project for workers and craftsmen from the glass plant. In addition to the framing and siding, the plant was the source for chimney brick and pavers, and a backyard firepit is made from kiln bricks from the factory furnaces.
The Girl Scout symbol, the trefoil, was incorporated in many areas. The fireplace sports plastered trefoils on its front facade and hand-carved ones on its mantel, while the handcrafted ironwork chandelier and wall sconces are shaped like the symbol.
“The little house was very special because it had a fully equipped kitchen, a modern bathroom and radiant heated flooring,” Reifsteck said. “It was dedicated in October 1932, and PPG gave it to the Scouts; it was wholly owned by the Crystal City Girl Scout Council.”
The house was rededicated in the 1970s and named for Reifsteck’s grandmother.
Currently there are more than 100 Girl Scouts in Jefferson County, with active troops in Arnold, Barnhart, Cedar Hill, Crystal City, De Soto, Festus, Herculaneum, High Ridge, Hillsboro and House Springs, but none have a little house like the one in Crystal City
“I’m not aware of anything like it in any other location,” said Kelly Daleen, chief marketing and communications officer for Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri. “It’s definitely unique.”
By the early 1960s, the Girl Scout house had attracted the attention of higher-ups in the organization, prompting a change in ownership. Reifsteck said she clearly remembers when the Scouts officially turned the house over to the Crystal City School District.
“It was a difficult situation,” she said. “The St. Louis Girl Scout Council wanted the house for themselves and were more or less threatening to take it over. They planned to have people come from St. Louis to use it for retreats, overnights, that kind of thing. By gifting it to the school, it literally saved the house for future Crystal City Girl Scouts.”
The new ownership was a good fit; the school had used the house for classroom space at several points over the years.
“My sister went to kindergarten there,” said former Crystal City Girl Scout Mary Nausley in a Facebook post about the Girl Scout house. “The next year was my turn to go to kindergarten, and I was so excited. But then I was disappointed they moved my class to the school building.”
Even now, the school insures and maintains the property.
“It’s not being used for anything at this time,” said Vickie Eisenbeis, secretary to the Crystal City School District superintendent. “A couple of years ago the shop class put on all new siding, did some repairs. So I guess that’s something we have used it for, as training.”
Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, the building was vandalized, and the school installed new windows as part of the repairs. At the same time, outside contractors were hired to remove the building’s finish flooring after it was found to contain asbestos.
Any further plans for the Girl Scout house are a low priority for the district right now.
“With three superintendents in three years, and then the whole COVID thing, frankly, it’s not on the front burner,” Eisenbeis said. “But it’s definitely something we want to look at, and a decision will be made at some point as to the best use.”
Whatever that decision might be, hundreds of former Girl Scouts will continue to view the building with sentimental fondness.
The legacy of ‘Miss Ethel’
Many Girl Scouts remember the troop’s longtime leader, ‘Miss Ethel’ Holdinghaus.
“I swear, she wore the same uniform she had in the 1920s,” joked Reifsteck. “She was an absolutely no-nonsense person, and she was tough. She taught Missouri history and citizenship to freshmen. But she was such a dedicated Scout leader.”
Former Crystal City Girl Scout Nancy Althauser Mills said in a Facebook comment that she also remembers Miss Ethel’s reputation as a devoted but strict leader.
“When we had Senior Girl Scout bunking parties, my mom would say, ‘Don’t make me turn Miss Ethel’s picture around!’”
Darlene Beckemeyer Wehner, another former Crystal City Girl Scout, also commented on the Facebook post.
“I loved Miss Ethel and all my leaders, and I thought the Girl Scout house was awesome,” she said. “Great memories!”
Several former Scouts were impressed with the radiant floor heating, even though it was difficult to regulate.
“Before it was disconnected in the ’60s, we actually fried an egg on that floor during a sleepover,” Reifsteck said.
For many years, Scouts and their families took care of the maintenance and improvements to the building.
“A lot was done by the Scout dads,” Reifsteck said. “I doubt the school had to pay for much of anything besides the insurance for a long time.”
The house has seen several Boy Scout service projects through the years as well.
“My son stripped and refinished the floors as an Eagle Scout project in 1980,” Reifsteck said.
Other members of the community pitched in as well.
“Gail Schmitz and I were leaders, and we wanted to do a cookie sales fundraiser,” Reifsteck said. “We talked to Jim Kottmeier at the local lumberyard, and he came with two of his guys. They brought materials for two picnic tables and put them together for us right out in the yard.”
Reifsteck said scouting was an important part of many girls’ lives.
“I was active in it through my senior year in high school,” she said. “One of the best things was that it was a mixture of social classes. A girl might grow up without a lot of money, but Scouts gave her a way to connect with others and have experiences she might not otherwise have been able to afford. I still run into people I grew up with and was in the same Brownie troop with. It’s just nice.”
Reifsteck said she hopes to stir renewed interest in preserving the unique history of the building.
“I hope they can find some use for it. It really is such a charming, sweet little house.”
Longtime Crystal Citian says Girl Scout house has historical significance
Dick Cook, 80, grew up in a house on Mississippi Avenue in Crystal City, and its back yard is just across the alley from the Girl Scout house.
“I was playing there in our yard, and I watched the kindergarten teachers come over and hide Easter eggs,” he said. “Then they went back and brought the morning class students over to have an Easter egg hunt. This was about 1943, 1944 – I wasn’t old enough to go to school yet.”
A fast learner, he knew just what was going on, then, when the teachers made a second hiding trip in the afternoon.
“Once they went back to the school, I went over there with my Easter basket and loaded up,” he said. “I made a couple of trips before my mother caught me.”
He made up for the childhood mischief over the ensuing years.
“Ethel Holdinghaus was the first Scout leader, and she entrusted me as a neighborhood boy to keep watch on the house and make sure everything was OK,” Cook said.
“I had reformed by then,” he joked.
Cook grew up to be a longtime Crystal City teacher and coach, raising a family in the Crystal City home where he still lives. He said the Girl Scout house deserves recognition for more than just its own history. “So much history of the town, the plant, the school is tied up in it,” he said. “It would be nice if we could put together an effort to preserve it.”