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.

"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.

Whether the Saugets should feel guilty about their village's peculiar success is a contentious matter, one seeped in the institutional atrophy of a short-lived gilded age gone terribly awry.

Named in honor of the Monsanto Company's founding family, Queeny Avenue snakes eastward from Highway 3, passing the aptly named Dead Creek and Sauget's 1950s-era village hall before T-boning shortly after performing its final function as one of the village's three primary residential streets.

On Queeny the homes are modest and lack any sense of conscious aesthetic unity. Lawns are tidy and pickup trucks oft-utilized, with union stickers proudly displayed on rear bumpers. Out on the sidewalks -- a luxury 'round these parts -- blue-and-white Belleville News-Democrat receptacles await the daily headlines alongside standard black mailboxes with red flags and gold numeric stickers. The Post-Dispatch, it would seem, is not the paper of record in St. Clair County. For many here, the big city across the river might as well be a solar system away.

"There are people on this side who think you need a passport to cross that river," says Cahokia native Bob McDaniel, director of the peculiarly named St. Louis Downtown Airport, which straddles the Sauget-Cahokia border.

"There's no place in the world like Sauget," adds the new mayor, Rich Sauget Jr. "You could have no idea you're living in a metro area. We had an officer drive someone across the bridge the other day, and he was like, 'Oh, wow!' He hadn't been to St. Louis in fifteen years. They think we're on the other side of the world."

Tall, bespectacled and boasting a baby face that contrasts sharply with his prematurely graying hair, Sauget Jr. was the youngest member of the village's board of trustees before being appointed to fill the office of mayor until the next election, in 2005. He was the only resident who expressed interest in the $24,000-per-year job when his great-uncle resigned amid the lingerie scandal; presumably, his candidacy went unchallenged because he was the lone trustee to hold the only credential that's ever mattered in the mayor's office: the surname Sauget.

"Basically, everybody has the perception that we own the town," Sauget acknowledges, not without a tinge of sarcasm.

Rich Jr. lives with his expectant wife and two kids (the third will join the family any day now) in a white one-story house on Ogden Avenue, which intersects the avenues of Little, Queeny and Nickell. That last road, the most southerly of the three, is named for Dr. Lloyd F. Nickell, the original operations manager at Monsanto's east-side plant. According to D.J. Forrestal's Faith, Hope & $5,000: The Story of Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical giant acquired the plant, previously known as Commercial Acid Company, in 1918, instantly doubling its employee rolls and expanding its production capabilities to include sulfuric acid, zinc chloride, chlorosulfonic acid and salt cake, an impure form of sodium sulfate. In 1997 Monsanto spun off its east-side operations into a self-sustaining company called Solutia, with the new entity assuming the role of the chemical behemoth's ugly stepson on the east bank of the Mississippi.

The mayor's younger sister, 26-year-old Annie Sauget Miller, lives "one block over and three houses down" on Nickell and earns her keep doing some marketing for her father's many business ventures and by redesigning the interior of the Oz, one of the two nightclubs opened by her late uncle Vincent Sauget and now operated via a trust set up by Vincent's widow, Charlotte. Rich Sr., patriarch and prominent regional real estate developer, lives next door to his son in a massive, stone-cut edifice that resembles a French country manor, a home in which one assumes his family's European ancestors would have felt right at home.

The first Saugets, Antoine and Victorine, arrived in St. Clair County in 1848, by way of France and New Orleans, with their five-year-old son, Armand, in tow. Years later, with the cooperation of wife Pauline, Armand Sauget would beget thirteen children, among them Leo. A farmer by trade who didn't see much sense in changing out of his overalls before conducting official village business, Leo Sauget would go on to help organize and incorporate Monsanto in 1926 and served as its mayor from then until 1969, by which point the town had voted to rename itself in his honor. While the change in nomenclature was not without a healthy dose of sincere appreciation for the man and his years of service, there are varied opinions as to what really prompted the shuffle. Some say it was intended to eliminate longstanding confusion among postal couriers, while others suspect it was a public-relations ploy by the chemical company to divert regulatory attention at a time when the environmental movement was crawling out of its infancy.

Rich Sr., Leo Sauget's grandson, moved his family to the village from Belleville, the St. Clair county seat, in 1985. Both Riches played college baseball and football at Notre Dame and are the only known father-son tandem in Fighting Irish history to letter in both sports. Big Rich, a catcher, was up for a cup of coffee in the majors with the Atlanta Braves, though he never got into a game. Fittingly, he first donned a big-league uniform in the visitors' dugout at Busch Stadium, where, he says, the first player to greet him was the great Henry Aaron. Rich Jr. spent a short while pitching in the Chicago White Sox minor-league system before returning to Sauget to work for his father in the real estate business -- Rich Jr. owns a pair of Quiznos Classic Subs franchises and helps his dad manage a portfolio of properties in the St. Clair County area -- and, perhaps more important, to begin a career in public service.

"I always knew I was going to come back," says Rich Jr. "The second I was done with baseball, I started coming around city hall."

Keenly aware of his son's interest in village governance, in 2001 Big Rich essentially bequeathed his post on the town's board of trustees to Rich Jr. after sixteen years of service. It was then that the die was cast: Rich Jr. quietly assumed the role of mayor-in-waiting while his great uncle Paul, son of Leo, wound down his reign. It was an incubation period that was destined to end prematurely.

Everyone assumed it would be Paul Sauget's health -- he has survived four strokes -- that would get the better of him. Nobody thought this shrewd businessman's carelessness with the finances of a village he cared for like a member of his own family would number his days in the mayor's chair.

But this past October 6, Paul Sauget resigned after the Cahokia-Dupo Journal revealed he'd spent an estimated $130,000 in village funds for personal items since 1997. Since January 2002 the now-ex-mayor used his village-issued American Express gold card to purchase $1,131 worth of lingerie from Victoria's Secret, $1,300 in electronic gizmos at Best Buy in Fairview Heights and $1,833 worth of food and spirits at Carmine's Steakhouse in St. Louis, among other alleged indiscretions. Worse still, Betty Long Wilson, the only person charged with reviewing the ex-mayor's expenses and Sauget's village clerk since 1969, herself allegedly racked up some $18,000 in personal expenses on her village-issued card. (Wilson resigned October 3 and was promptly replaced by the police chief's mother.)

"Everyone knew Paul and didn't question what he did," says Rich Jr., adding, "I think there's a lot of confusion pertaining to expense accounts."

While the former mayor would not comment for this story, he has been quoted as saying he thought an expense account meant he had carte blanche to spend as he pleased. The current mayor seems sympathetic to this explanation, however flimsy it may sound.

"From all indications, we're going to get proper restitution," says Sauget Jr. "If we get restitution, it's a dead issue as far as the village is concerned."

St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert Haida has turned the investigation over to the Illinois State Police, where it has attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and remains ongoing. St. Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic, who has known Paul Sauget for 35 years, seems to consider the incident an unfortunate hiccup at the tail end of a banner career in public service.

"Nobody can condone any use of public funds for private service," Baricevic starts off by noting. "Setting that aside, Paul took great pride in his city, absolutely wanted it to work and ran a tight ship. It was Paul's way, and if he believed it was the right way, you'd better get onboard. Tough guy, no nonsense -- but it was always the village first. It was almost a paternalistic style of government. Whatever's involved in this investigation, he did an awful lot to keep a small community together."

Fire chief Roger Thornton puts it more succinctly.

"For people who've never known the man or the family," says Thornton -- who has worked for Paul Sauget on a handful of the ex-mayor's private ventures, including small-scale real estate deals, trucking and landfill operations -- "to say they're a bunch of crooks, that's not true."

The New York Yankees lost to the Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, and so John "Vito" Parisi decided to move from his native Bronx to the city by the river. Parisi, then fifteen years old and an orphan, ended up settling in East St. Louis and taking a job across the Mississippi as a bellhop at the Missouri Athletic Club for a dollar an hour.

"I thought just like New York City," reminisces Parisi, now a 54-year-old Sauget police officer, "that east side was just as good as west side."

On a cold, damp Thursday morning, Parisi is guiding the department's lone K-9, Officer Bear, through an obstacle course at Paul Sauget Field on Little Avenue. Across the street is Sauget Field (hold the Paul), a meticulously manicured ballyard with bullpens, a green outfield fence, grass between the baselines and a raised pitcher's mound. So spiffy is the field, in fact, that it served as the minor-league Gateway Grizzlies' home park in 2001, the team's inaugural year. The following year, the ballclub, owned by a group of investors headed by Rich Sauget Sr., moved into a $6.6 million, 5,000-capacity, village-owned ballpark -- complete with two hot tubs behind the right-field fence -- near Sauget's eastern boundary. The team's on-field manager during that 2002 campaign was none other than Rich Sauget Jr., who voluntarily gave way to ex-Cardinal pitcher Danny Cox before the independent Frontier League franchise's 2003 campaign.

His shaved head glistening in the cold December rain, Parisi, a ringer for towel-chewing college basketball coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian, methodically guides his canine partner up a tall white wall on the course, made possible through a grant from Solutia. Officer Bear (short for Barry), is widely regarded as the most accomplished K-9 in a part of the country known as a hotbed of police-pooch proficiency. Although Parisi claims the ten-year-old Belgian Malinois -- who resembles a skinny, mini German shepherd -- has "lost a step" in the past few years, Barry placed ninth in the 2002 K-9 nationals in Florida. The dog routinely dominates bi-state competitions, evidenced by the row of trophies facing the village hall from the front window of the Parisi residence on Falling Springs Road.

In the field, both Parisi and Barry are headline-grabbing stars. A former member of the Metropolitan Enforcement Group (MEG), a state narcotics unit with offices in southwestern Illinois, Parisi garnered national attention by going to prison undercover to coax a confession from accused murderer Lloyd Perkins, who was charged with killing Richard Stephenson in his Fairview Heights home in 1984. Parisi joined Sauget's force in 1987. The dog, meanwhile, made America's Most Wanted for apprehending Detroit cocaine kingpin Dean Parker with a chomp to the back in a wooded area in East St. Louis, after the fugitive fled his vehicle at the end of a high-speed chase in September 2001.

But on a regular basis, it is at the nightclubs on Highway 3 where Officer Bear is at his most effective, says Sauget Police Chief Pat Delaney.

"The best thing about him is the bachelor parties," asserts Delaney, who began his career in his native Washington Park before becoming Sauget's chief in 1984 at the ripe old age of 26. "We get 'em every weekend. They're great for business, but 75 percent of the time you've got an issue. But when that dog gets out and he's leaping six feet in the air, people's attitudes change."

A tall, energetic man with a penchant for distance running, Delaney is a rabid Green Bay Packers fan who makes an annual pilgrimage to Lambeau Field's frozen tundra and sports a green mailbox in front of his Upper Cahokia Road abode that proclaims, "Go Pack Go!" An Illinoisan through and through, he roots for the Cubs over the Cardinals, and for the Bears in all instances when Brett Favre is not the opposing quarterback.

Delaney initially viewed the Sauget post as a stepping stone but ended up, he says, "falling in love with the place." While his force of 15 full-time officers might seem exorbitant for a town of 249, it can hardly be considered as such when you factor in the estimated 6,000 visitors who pile into the village's clubs on weekend nights.

Each of Sauget's nightclubs caters to its own unique niche of clientele. The Diamond and PT's are part of a national chain of nice, clean gentleman's clubs. The former caters more "to couples," says Delaney -- touching on the swiftly evaporating stigmatization of the strip-joint genre in an age of envelope-pushing sexual liberation. PT's pulls in a more masculine, blue-collar crowd, by virtue of its "sports cabaret" theme.

Oz and Pop's 24/7, where shirts remain, for the most part, on, are both owned by the Vincent Sauget (Rich Sr.'s late brother) branch of the family. Delaney says the former establishment draws a "hipster, retro crowd," while Pop's is a 24-hour venue that plays host to medium-capacity rock concerts from the likes of Marilyn Manson and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and, true to its name, never has a last call.

Taken together and bolstered by a liquor store and perhaps the most starkly utilitarian off-track betting facility in the free world, the Highway 3 nightlife quadrangle has given little Sauget a national reputation for unfettered frolic.

"I go out of town, and people know where Sauget is," Delaney confirms. "They couldn't name a street, but they know where Pop's is. Twenty-four-hour liquor near a big city -- that's unheard of."

Pop's is able to rock around the clock because Illinois state liquor laws permit each municipality to enforce its own closing time. Sauget simply doesn't have one, in large part because of the buffer provided by Highway 3 and its towering row of hard industry.

"There's such a separation between residents," Rich Sauget, Jr. explains, noting that the paths of villagers and strip-club patrons cross infrequently, if ever.

Chief Delaney relishes his department's close working relationship with the clubs, the first of which -- Oz -- opened on the Yellow Brick Road in 1980. Be that as it may, Delaney landed his job after a prominent St. Clair County attorney charged in 1983 that the Sauget Police Department's relationship with the club operators was a little too symbiotic. Back then it was just Pop's and Oz down by the river; PT's opened in '84, with the Diamond following in 1990.

It was in 1983 that attorney Clyde Kuehn, who had earlier served as the St. Clair County state's attorney and is now a judge with the Appellate Court of Illinois' Fifth Judicial District, began filing a series of federal civil-rights lawsuits on behalf of clients who claimed to have been beaten by Pop's bouncers while Sauget police officers stood by and watched. Kuehn alleged that the Sauget Police Department not only turned a blind eye to the bouncers' tough-guy behavior, but that they also brought trumped-up charges against the alleged victims to provide a further layer of protection.

Kuehn's cases never went to trial. The village and the nightclub settled each and every one of some 37 cases out of court. Chief Delaney reports that the average settlement amount was "in the ten-to-fifteen-thousand-dollar ballpark" and that the village had an insurance policy that defrayed most costs.

"I didn't lose a one of 'em," Kuehn recalls. (According to Sauget village records, one case was dismissed). "[The altercations] were all happening at three or four in the morning, when bars shut down in St. Louis, which Sauget invites. Some of my clients -- you could see they were people who had drinking problems or were not the nicest people in the world."

Kuehn believes the police department and clubs have cleaned up their acts considerably under Delaney's watch.

"I think that everything changed in the process of the litigation," says the judge. "Their dockets dried up; you didn't see people getting charged. There was a definite change in policy and attitude by bouncers. Otherwise we would have kept getting referrals."

Before the proliferation of nightclubs, Sauget "was a pretty sleepy town -- you had Jim's Pub, the Highway 3 plants, and that was about it," says Delaney, whose grandfather played minor-league baseball in the St. Louis Browns organization before working for Monsanto until his retirement in 1978. He died in 1979, his left eye having been long left sightless by way of a nasty corkball incident.

Jim's Pub is no more, but the plants thrive still, a testament to Sauget's unflagging commitment to putting industry above all other concerns -- social, environmental and legal repercussions be damned.

"Basically, the only reason why Sauget was ever built was so Monsanto could get a sewer," imparts Sauget Jr.

Another reason, says Andrew Theising, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), was so the chemical giant could escape St. Louis city's pesky nuisance laws. Embedded in the 1914 city charter was a provision that empowered St. Louis health officers to restrict, fine or close business operations deemed to cause excessive noise, pollution or other annoyance.

"First, it effectively segregated industry into certain parts of the city," Theising writes in his Made in USA: East St. Louis, a recently published chronicle of the rise and fall of East St. Louis and the metro east's industrial age. "Second, it motivated nuisance industry to escape regulation. One way of doing this was to create an industrial suburb."

Herein Sauget epitomizes the wave -- or, as some would argue, plague -- of industrial suburbs that incorporated around East St. Louis during what is considered to be the region's golden age, from 1890 to 1919. Throughout those three decades, industries pursued a strategy of industrial decentralization, an about-face to the trend of centralization in big cities and first-generation industrial suburbs like East St. Louis that had dominated the 40 years prior.

During this period, National City, Granite City, Monsanto (Sauget), Alcoa (now Alorton), Wood River, Roxana and Hartford were all incorporated.

"The metro-east's industrial suburbs were created by national capitalists to take advantage of the region's strategic location on the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, to avoid or minimize municipal taxes, and to circumvent policies unfavorable to corporate interests," Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, a former colleague of Theising's at SIUE, writes in America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915. "Industrial capitalists either located in an existing small town they could dominate, constructed their own unincorporated town, or incorporated a town they created."

Sauget fits this last classification to a tee. And it's the sort of setup Theising believes is "parasitical" at its core. Over a veggie sandwich at Kopperman's Deli in the Central West End, the author and professor, who lives in Des Peres, nods in affirmation when asked whether the west side's answer to Sauget's original incarnation as Monsanto would be for Anheuser-Busch to draw up a set of boundaries and incorporate its main brewery as the city of Budweiserland, siphoning employees and tax dollars from the city of St. Louis while leeching off its social services.

"Sauget has no hospital, no cultural institutions," Theising points out. "St. Mary's Hospital is a great asset to East St. Louis, but it's nonprofit. East St. Louis still has to provide services -- fire, roads, et cetera."

Theising's point is that Sauget relies on its less affluent but more diversified municipal neighbors to keep its residents' wounds bandaged and their bellies full, without bearing its fair financial load when it comes to street-level services necessary to support such infrastructure. An exception to this parasitical modus operandi has to do with schools: Sauget hasn't got a single school within its city limits; instead, village residents pay taxes to support the Cahokia 187 school district, where their kids attend classes and on whose board the current mayor sits. But when a fire or fight breaks out at one of these learning centers, who you gonna call? Not Sauget Village Hall, save for select few incidents when its cops and firefighters are called upon to provide backup support to the presiding jurisdiction.

If Sauget owes a social and economic debt to the likes of East St. Louis, it shoulders an even bigger environmental burden, Theising argues.

"Sauget is a haven for industry -- not just any industry, but industry with externalities like noise, smoke and pollution," says Theising. "They pollute the ground in East St. Louis, but so do others. I don't know that Sauget has any obligation to East St. Louis, but the industry located within Sauget may have obligations."

Kathy Andria, president of the American Bottoms Conservancy, is less forgiving.

"I think it's hard to say a town has blood on its hands, but I think they are extremely culpable," says Andria, whose five-year-old East St. Louis-based organization works to address environmental and conservation concerns in the riverside communities of southwestern Illinois, collectively referred to as the American Bottoms. "Monsanto was more culpable first -- it was there before Sauget was there," Andria continues, her facial and vocal expressions tinged with disdain for the neighboring fiefdom. "They [Sauget] are certainly extremely culpable in what they've allowed to let happen. It's a very cozy relationship between village and plants. I think they make no effort to get controls on facilities. These facilities are putting millions of toxins, hazardous emissions and environmental releases into Sauget and its surrounding communities."

Indeed, Sauget boasts the four biggest polluters -- Big River Zinc, Ethyl Petroleum, Solutia and Cerro Copper Products, in that order -- in St. Clair County in terms of environmental releases, according to the nonprofit Environmental Defense, a national environmental organization founded in 1967. Toss in OxyChem (seventh), Flexsys (eighth) and Onyx Environmental Services (eleventh), and the village whose population is but a fraction of the county's total wins the pollution batting title by a landslide. Big River Zinc "is among the dirtiest facilities in the United States," Andria notes of the electrolytic zinc refinery, which Environmental Defense ranks in the top 10 percent nationally for environmental releases.

When hazardous emissions enter the southwestern Illinois air stream, the wind carries them toward Rush City, an East St. Louis neighborhood that Andria and her charges have been canvassing of late to gauge the level of heart and lung problems among residents.

"We haven't found many healthy people," Andria reports. "They almost all have something that's primarily related to air pollution. They say that everybody in Rush City dies of cancer."

Still, Andria stops short of pinning all fault on Sauget.

"The village does not have enforcement powers as such," she points out. "That's on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. EPA."

Does Sauget bear some responsibility for the environmental and economic challenges East St. Louis faces today? Like Andria, the city's mayor, Carl Officer, says there's plenty of blame to go around.

"I don't know if that can be laid solely on the government body," says Officer, a mortician by trade who recently won back the post he'd held back in the 1980s. "I'd be prone to say the U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA would be more responsible. My personal opinion is that most elected and appointed officials just don't grasp the full extent of those issues as pertinently as they need to. You have to rely upon EPA technicians to help you. Without state and federal regulators, their hands are tied. I do think the industries in Sauget -- just like some in my community -- they've had some problems. But I've found that most of them, when you really get down to it, would work toward trying to solve those problems."

A variety of factors have combined to force the metro east down the plank from industrial haven to dilapidation in the past half-century: freight trains and river ports giving way to interstate superhighways and ocean transport, loosened international trade and labor regulations, technical innovation and heightened environmental regulations among them. But while industry no longer teems within the borders of towns like Granite City, Alorton and, to a more dramatic extent, East St. Louis, Sauget has not as yet seen its gilded age come to an end. With their village's industrial aromas clearly discernible in the cool morning air, Sauget residents continue to face each day assured that the fragrant cloud carries a silver lining.

"It's unusual that Sauget has so much activity," observes SIUE's Theising. "It's been speculated that if those industries move out, they're going to have to clean up. So, therefore, they stay."

A straw poll of the two most currently prominent Saugets, the Riches senior and junior, reveals one glaring factor that has allowed the village to maintain a competitive advantage while its neighbors struggle: location. But to limit the explanation to geography would be perilously simplistic, as all American Bottoms communities can lay claim to that particular positive trait.

"This village has always been an industrial area. We try to keep up with their business but stay out of their business," Rich Jr. elaborates. "If a business comes in and says, 'I want to build here,' we can give them an answer real quick and stick to it. All the village board members live down the street. There's not a lot of red tape."

Sauget's father, a calm, confident man who is widely credited for having saved Touchette Regional Hospital in Centreville from closure two years ago by personally appealing to the Illinois legislature for emergency funding, points to continuity of governance, along with the village's commitment to synergistic interaction with its industrial tenants.

"The reason behind my grandfather [Leo] becoming mayor was that he was dealing with the Queenys," Sauget Sr. says, referring to Monsanto's founding family. "There was a consistency between [Leo] and Uncle Paul. Business knew they would be treated fairly, and business wanted to locate here."

And from the start, the village courted business aggressively, as evidenced by this newspaper advertisement from its pioneer days, back when town and company alike were still called Monsanto:

"Monsanto, incorporated as such on August 14, 1926, is a typical industrial center, comprising not only factories, but a subdivision of small homes for employees. Covering 1.65 square miles, Monsanto is ideally situated. It is governed by a President and six Trustees, men who are eager to make the district attractive to industries. Being self-governing, its tax rates are low and there are no burdensome 'nuisance' taxes."

Most of the industrial boomtowns made similar claims around the time of the First World War, but none of them have been able to sustain them in spirit and practice the way Sauget has. For its doggedness, Sauget's tax coffers have been consistently rewarded like no place else. Sauget collected $3.21 million in property-tax revenue in 2002, the vast majority coming from its industrial tenants. By comparison, neighboring Cahokia took in $1.2 million, East St. Louis $1.1 million and Centreville $351,000, according to Dina Thurlow, tax extension supervisor for St. Clair County. Throughout the halcyon days of environmental deregulation that lasted well into the latter quarter of the twentieth century, such affluence -- Sauget ranks among the state of Illinois' richest municipalities in terms of annual tax base per capita -- permitted the village to enjoy an existence as a virtually nettle-free utopia, whose citizens are showered with free cable, trash pickup and sewer services.

But then a drop of dioxin touched off a chain reaction of environmental litigation that nags the village and its heavier industries to this day.

In 1987 a St. Clair County jury awarded $16.25 million in punitive damages to 65 plaintiffs, all residents of Sturgeon, Missouri, who claimed to have suffered ill health effects in the wake of a 1979 train wreck that spilled 22,000 gallons of Monsanto-produced wood-preservatives that contained a thimbleful of the carcinogen dioxin. Though the verdict was later reversed on appeal, it marked the end of the longest jury trial in U.S. history and placed a big fat target on the back of Sauget and its peculiarly impressive collection of long-tenured polluters.

The sleeping giant known as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had awakened and, one by one, the EPA began slapping the plants on Highway 3 with lawsuits and fines, with settlements often exceeding the million-dollar mark. Everyone's hands were dirty. The zenith came in January 1999 when the federal government filed a lawsuit demanding that Paul Sauget, the village and several of its industrial heavy hitters clean up and fiscally atone for toxic contaminants that had wound up in Dead Creek. Paul Sauget was implicated for his alleged role in the operation of three landfill sites his father owned near the Mississippi River tributary, described by former state attorney general Neil Hartigan in a 1993 Belleville News-Democrat story as "the most toxic waste site in Illinois."

By the time court proceedings began in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis this past October, all the big dogs, including Monsanto and Solutia, lay down, admitting liability and pledging to pay any cleanup costs associated with the contamination of Dead Creek. Shortly after the trial opened, Judge G. Patrick Murphy found the village of Sauget liable under national Superfund laws for pollution in Dead Creek, noting that the village operated a sewer system that discharged into the creek at a time when hazardous substances were dumped there by companies who'd already admitted culpability in the case.

Paul Sauget refused to succumb, alleging that it was his late father, Leo, not he, who bore responsibility for operation of Sauget Company landfills. The government disagreed, alleging that Paul was his father's right-hand man at the dump sites.

"It's a pretty bad case, obviously, because we wouldn't be involved if it wasn't," says Karen Torrent, the U.S. Department of Justice's lead attorney in the matter. "Historically, if you look at general industrial activities in the area, that reflects the nature of the hazards in the area. I don't believe at the time that there were restrictions. I don't think the state, at the time, had a lot of teeth that would prevent activities that occurred there."

Eventually the feds cut a deal with Paul Sauget that essentially passes the buck to insurance companies Sauget claims fully covered his and his father's private interests. The insurance companies claim otherwise, says Sauget attorney Bernie Ysursa; that conflict forms the crux of an imminent round of legal wrangling in St. Clair County Court that will determine whether the settlement goes through.

Couple the ex-mayor's legal entanglements with Solutia's recent bankruptcy filing -- which, according to company spokesman Alan Faust, is not expected to have an impact on operations at the Sauget plant in the near future -- and the village sits at a precarious crossroads like none before it, one that threatens the very industry-town tenets upon which it was founded.

Rich Sauget Jr. is all too aware of the feeling of immunity lost on the eastern side of Highway 3, and he becomes noticeably more relaxed as he pulls his black sport utility vehicle over the crest of Curtiss Steinberg Road en route to Downtown St. Louis Airport. The airfield, which deals mainly in corporate and charter flights, is the third most trafficked in the St. Louis region, and fast gaining on Spirit of St. Louis airport in Chesterfield, according to airport director Bob McDaniel.

Founded in 1929 as Curtiss-Steinberg Airport, the facility has undergone several name changes over the years, settling on Downtown St. Louis Airport in 1999 to emphasize its proximity to the Gateway City. Its major tenants include Midcoast Aviation and a helicopter manufacturer whose chopper was responsible for recording the aerial footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

To the west of the airstrip lies Sauget Business Park, described by Sauget Jr. as "the future of the village." At present, the 21-and-a-half-acre swath of prairie, annexed by the village in 1995 and still somewhat pastoral, contains the Grizzlies' stadium, a Volvo truck manufacturer and a handful of light-industrial and warehouse tenants.

"You can drive through communities ten times our size and they aren't doing as much business," says a visibly excited Sauget.

The notion of staking a town's commercial future on an endeavor as blasé as a business park seems relatively uninspiring. But considering Sauget's track record and the promotional firepower assembled behind the endeavor, the mayor's excitement becomes more understandable.

Perhaps the greatest cog in this machine is ArchView Economic Development Corporation, a fledgling nonprofit founded by Rich Sauget Sr. Its stated mission: to build a strong economic and social environment in Sauget, Cahokia, Centreville, Alorton and Dupo.

The organization may be new and progressive-sounding, but the central focus is vintage Sauget.

"We see the biggest health issue in this area as employment," asserts Bob Klutts, CEO of ArchView and executive director of Touchette Regional Hospital, on whose board Sauget Sr. sits. "We'll never change the makeup of this area until we get people employed. No matter how hard we work on the health status, it's employment that makes the biggest difference. If we can get Johnny's dad a job, a whole lot of positive things can happen. If Johnny's dad doesn't have a job, he probably doesn't have healthcare."

But despite ArchView's avowed scope and Rich Sr.'s résumé of regionalism, Centreville Mayor Frankie Seaberry sees the nonprofit as a mere lead blocker for the village of Sauget's eastward expansion.

"Rich's dad is taking us to court; they're suing us for control of a road that's been in Centreville ever since it was formed," Seaberry notes. She's referring to Mousette Lane, a key access road for Sauget's business park and stadium off Interstate 255. "They [ArchView] don't include us on anything. They are Sauget, as far as I'm concerned."

Sauget Jr. maintains that Centreville's annexation of the road several years ago may have been illegal, and that the village can justify its right to Mousette Lane by virtue of the road's impact on the baseball stadium.

Of course, if the business park development goes swimmingly, Sauget will remain, first and foremost, an industrial suburb grounded in turn-of-the-twentieth-century decentralization. And it will do nothing to alter the view of SIUE's Andrew Theising: that industrial suburbs like Sauget exhibit a general disregard for human beings.

"Industrial suburb government is not founded on the social contract," Theising writes in his book, invoking seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. "Specifically, this means that industrial suburb governments are established for the single purpose of protecting business interests, not for the general welfare of residents."

Face-to-face at Kopperman's, however, Theising is a realist when it comes to Sauget's place in the regional fabric -- to a point where he recognizes the village and the metro east as a necessity, if not a particularly palatable one.

"Those are all Missouri plates," he explains, referring to the massive parking lot that plays host to the vehicles of Sauget's nightclub patrons. "Those are the same people who say, 'We can't have that in St. Louis County.' Every major city has to have a place where you put your smokestacks, your strip clubs and your drug dealers. St. Louis County has a very strong moral obligation. I'm not sure St. Clair County has one -- and it was all designed that way."

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