Funky Town

Smokestacks, strip joints and a seriously solid tax base: Welcome to Sauget, Illinois

Considering the tunnel vision of most west-side warriors who briefly board Route 3 en route to the Yellow Brick Road -- an aptly named stretch of pavement that guides cars westward off the highway to the nightclubs Oz and Pop's -- it would be easy to miss the nondescript green sign that displays the approximate population of the village of Sauget, Illinois: 200. If the placard does happen to draw notice from a bleary-eyed passerby, his first instinct might be to assume this figure stands for the cumulative population of strippers writhing the night away at PT's Sports Cabaret or the Diamond Cabaret, the nearby pair of topless cabarets that help draw some 6,000 visitors to Sauget's quadrangle of excess on any given weekend night.

Indeed, to the temporary nocturnal transplants who cross the Poplar Street Bridge after closing time in St. Louis, Sauget (pronounced so-ZHAY) is little more than a hoosieriffic hamlet of hedonism, a place to pay to see pliant flesh and imbibe straight through into Sunday brunch. If, on the way home, a Brick Road patron is coherent enough to take note, his visual and olfactory senses will be confronted by an imposing landscape of heavy-metal industry, a functional monument to an age when this eastern bank of the Mississippi was not just St. Louis' back shop, but America's. Big River Zinc, Solutia, Ethyl Petroleum, Occidental Chemical Corp. (OxyChem), Flexsys America, Onyx Environmental Services, Cerro Copper Products: a pungent Highway 3 strip that plays host to some of the biggest chemical industries in the United States. All are tucked neatly into tiny Sauget's four square miles.

Still no sign of the alleged two hundred townsfolk.

Sauget mayor Rich Sauget Jr., with his village's lifeblood pumping away in the background
Jennifer Silverberg
Sauget mayor Rich Sauget Jr., with his village's lifeblood pumping away in the background

"Two hundred forty-nine people?" says American Bottoms Conservancy president Kathy Andria, quoting Sauget's actual population per the 2000 census. "Who are they? Where are they? Why are they living there?"

To such queries, all too familiar, Sauget's fire chief utters his stock reply.

"Mainly, everybody views this as being a chemical town," says 42-year-old Roger Thornton, who grew up in the village he still calls home and was a member of its board of trustees before becoming chief of Sauget's full-time crew of fifteen firefighters in 1991. "A lot of people don't realize there's a residential town here -- a quiet, peaceful, secure place. It's a place where you can let your kids play outside."

Next to the railroad tracks on Upper Cahokia Road on an unseasonably balmy December afternoon, Thornton is proven right. But barely. Past the broad brick rambler that houses deposed ex-mayor Paul Sauget, the straight-talking, 78-year-old village patriarch who has come under legal fire of late for environmental and fiscal indiscretions involving toxic waste and women's underwear, a small boy in camouflage trousers and sunglasses hangs a left off Samantha Drive on his dirt bike, presumably bound for Cahokia, where village residents must travel for sundries.

"To get a loaf of bread, you have to go to Cahokia," confirms the new mayor, Rich Sauget Jr., age 30.

In this regard the town epitomizes the industrial suburbs that proliferated around East St. Louis shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Originally incorporated as Monsanto in 1926, the village changed its name in 1968 in honor of its first and only mayor, Leo Sauget. Leo's son, Paul, took over as mayor in 1969, three years before his father's death. And now, as his great-uncle struggles with legal and health problems, along comes Rich Jr. The village of Sauget has never had a mayor not named Sauget.

If ever there were a modern-day fiefdom, this is it. And until Paul Sauget allegedly used his village credit card to purchase some slinky lingerie for his live-in girlfriend -- along with $130,000 of personal items and excursions over a period of seven years -- it was a fiefdom that operated behind a veneer of tranquility, its residents willing to cope with blue-collar noise and pollution in exchange for free cable television, top-flight city services and crime-repellent police protection -- a pivotal factor given Sauget's geographic proximity to its infamous neighbor to the north, East St. Louis.

Tack on the village's (and Paul Sauget's) recent struggle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and you have a municipality that appears to be getting its comeuppance -- a notion that no doubt coaxes perverse pleasure from the borough's detractors, who view Sauget as a shameless, parasitical haven for industry that plagues the health of adjacent downwind townships.

But the natives are hardly restless. Ensconced in simple, Rockwellian homes with kitschy yard ornaments on roads named for early Monsanto corporate executives, village residents treasure their quaint little town and the family that presides over it. And those who would like to take Sauget out back and shoot it for the sins of its past need only look to the village's eastern prairie to know that provisions have been made should there come a day when the likes of Solutia (which recently filed for bankruptcy) can no longer pay the freight. An airport, a minor-league ballpark and a handful of new warehouses reveal that Sauget may once again be a step or two ahead of the industrial ghosts that haunt its impoverished metro-east brethren.

Next Page »