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Originally published on Sunday, February 7, 1999.


* Don Wolfsberger's Labadie holdings are on the block, brought on by spats over cats, brats and standing pat. "Own your own town," the ads read, instantly conjuring up a feudal fantasy. "Many people have dreamed of owning their own small compound. That day has arrived with a great opportunity for purchasing exciting key properties of Labadie, Missouri, including all its businesses and houses."
Don Wolfsberger, the St. Louis businessman responsible for the alluring ads that ran in the Post-Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, got queries from Maine to Texas. "One guy from Las Vegas wanted to know whether, if he bought the properties, he got to be sheriff of the town," said Drennan Bailey of Bailey Properties of St. Louis, Wolfsberger's listing agent. Own-your-own-apartment makes you think of unplugging stopped-up potties. But own-your-own-town creates a notion of being boss and benefactor of a whole, functioning world. You get to issue decrees. You get homage from sturdy yeomen. Writing the ad, Wolfsberger took a little bit of poetic license for the sake of marketing his Labadie properties. He doesn't own the whole town of Labadie, an unincorporated settlement of about 250 humans and almost as many cats, situated off scenic Highway T in Franklin County. He does own, however, Labadie's fancy restaurant, Labadie's town hall, some offices, two bed-and-breakfasts and a lovely, fit-for-a laird summer cottage overlooking a lake where he once dreamed of settling permanently. On Labadie's quaint Main Street, he owns three of the five commercial buildings. All of those properties are for sale, ready to be relinquished along with Wolfsberger's dream of buying adjacent properties and converting Main Street into a harmoniously painted, Disneyesque town center with shops, a hotel and a restaurant offering quail and salmon entrees for the carriage trade come for a day to the country. Half quaint, half run-down, the town's direction is uncertain. The would-be laird is pooped. A fair portion of the townspeople are noticeably dry-eyed about his departure. They say, sure, Wolfsberger did some good things. But he acted too much like he owned the town.
The Wolfsberger fantasy East encountered West when Wolfsberger arrived in Labadie. "I think a lot of the friction that developed was just a product of people out here not knowing what to make of Don," said Henry Ruggeri, maitre d' for Wolfsberger's Hunter's Hollow restaurant, which had a dress code that Ruggeri was stuck with enforcing. "Don never has had anything but the good of the town at heart." Wolfsberger, 65, is president of United Food and Packaging, a food distribution conglomerate he built himself by 24-7 attention to detail. He lives the widely traveled but insulated life of the complete executive: townhouse in Clayton, house in Florida, service on various charitable boards and as a fund-raiser for the Republican party, membership in Old Warson Country Club.
He is tall and distinguished looking and meticulous about his clothes. If he were washed up onto a beach after a shipwreck, he'd probably have on a tie and a tweed jacket.
Around 1985, he began to nurture an upscale escapist fantasy of "a second lifestyle in the country, a weekend place with a view of the river where I could do some entertaining that wasn't connected to business."
Searching for that place with Bakewell real estate agent Lani O'Neil, he topped a hill, and there was Labadie's Main Street: a couple of buildings that were vacant except for cats, one with low-income apartments and one with a bar that was opened an hour a day when Union Electric's Labadie power plant changed shifts. O'Neil wanted to restore the building with the tavern in it.
She asked Wolfsberger if he'd be interested in buying the building with the low-income apartments and making a synergistic effort of the rehab. He bought the place without even walking inside, thereby earning the everlasting gratitude of Bob Hughey, the owner and manager of the apartments.
Hughey sees Wolfsberger as the town's savior and a sort of St. Patrick of felines: "If he hadn't come here, this town would still be overrun by bums and cats. I bought my building for $36,000, and I sold it to Don for $36,000, and if I had my way there'd be a statue to Don right here in the middle of Main Street.
He cleaned up this town and put this place on the map." Originally, Wolfsberger thought maybe he'd fix up the building he bo ught from Hughey as an antique store, "but people kept coming up to me and telling me they needed a place where they could eat." (They meant a place that was open for breakfast and had meatloaf plate dinners.) So, obligingly, he started renovating for a French restaurant with a requirement for jackets and ties -- in a town where most people aren't even laid out wearing a tie. Hunter's Hollow, his restaurant, was done in forest greens and rich reds, with wild fowl on the menu and wild fowl in bubble glass frames hanging on the walls. Wolfsberger built an addition, exactly matching the existing storefront's exterior on the outside, that could seat 150 for dinner.
And he went from being a workaholic to a playaholic. "He just poured money into the place," said Steve Homire, who owns Labadie Market, a gas-and-groceries place across the way. The town's residents were dazzled and grateful. They assumed there must be no end to Wolfsberger's wealth. When he gave $200 to a drive to raise a statue for Junior Phillips, Franklin County's only Congressional Medal of Honor winner (he was killed at Iwo Jima in World War II), half the people were pleased, and half felt he'd slighted their local cause and should have paid for the whole thing.
In 1987, while his own restaurant was still being finished, Wolfsberger leased the building restored by Lani O'Neil and Sarah Bakewell and put another restaurant in it, decorated with fishing gear and wooden fish, offering reasonable prices and no dress code. The place filled up with diners, many of them grateful townspeople. Wolfsberger hired as many of his employees as possible from the town itself.
An early shadow fell across this rural Happy Valley when Wolfsberger removed a couple of buildings on Main Street that residents were attached to. Longtime residents watched him dislocating history, and they began to get upset, but Wolfsberger went ahead, convinced they'd get over it as the pace of life pushed them on to other, fresher crises. Of course, the pace of his life took him beyond the upset a good deal faster than the pace of their life took them. "One building I bought from Ron Scott, I wanted to save it; I still have the plans, but there'd been just too many cats living there," Wolfsberger recalled during an interview. "It was so rotten, part of it fell in on the carpenters I hired to fix it. It had to go. I think the townspeople were pretty upset at the time, but now that they've seen their property values go up, they're happier."
He bought some small, run-down homes on one of the hills encircling the core of town and refashioned them as bed-and-breakfasts, decorated right down to the patterned wallpapers with the themes of fly fishing and foxhunting. "He went just all over the country getting the props and ornaments and furniture. He really has a good eye for color," Lani O'Neil says. "He was particular about everything."
And when his restaurant was finished, it was Wolfsberger who had the genius and the dollars to promote Labadie.
Once, since the restaurant was Hunter's Hollow, he staged an exhibition of horses jumping fences in the middle of the street. He held summer music festivals. For six years, on Bastille Day, July 14, he threw a public picnic with kiddie rides. Meanwhile, he made the restaurant a gathering place for his Republican and golfing chums, spending one evening after another glad-handing the dinner crowd. "I have my own table right over there, and I loved talking to people," Wolfsberger says, pointing. At that moment, he is at Hunter's Hollow having lunch, a glass of pinot grise and one quail the size of a golf ball. "That's all you get for lunch. We worked on the size of these portions." He studies a guest's salad bowl. "That romaine looks nice, doesn't it? I made them change from that variegated stuff.
You should look at our guestbook. We've had people here from all over the country."
But from the beginning, few of the townspeople dined there.
The dress code, insisted on by the perfectionist Wolfsberger in his pursuit of total ambiance, was misread by the townspeople as a deliberate rebuff of their trade.
"He just didn't seem like he wanted us there," said Bob Brinkman, who retired from Jefferson Smurfit. He says he got steered away from Hunter's Hollow one afternoon when he approached wearing blue jeans. "Really, I just wanted a look inside, being a country boy. And my jeans were clean," he added defensively. Parking and potholes
Shrinks tell you it's not the big things that wear out a marriage; it's the little grievances on both sides. Years after Wolfsberger relaxed the dress code, the townspeople were still brooding over what they perceived as his snub of them. "People just got the feeling he thought they weren't good enough for his restaurant," said Edna Dutton, a longtime Labadie resident. Another point of contention: Plenty of people got told not to park on Wolfsberger's parking lot adjacent to Steve Homire's gas-and-grocery. The gravel space had always been the natural pull-up place for the big trucks going back and forth to the grain farms and the Labadie power plant, an ex-officio municipal parking lot. Now, when a truck pulled in, someone wo uld emerge from Hunter's Hollow -- not Wolfsberger, but an employee delegated to deal with the offenders -- and tell the driver to move his vehicle. "Just last fall, my husband parked there so he could dash into Steve's for a soda, and someone came out of Hunter's Hollow and told him to move," said Judy Newman, whose husband, Marvin, is one of the county's major grain farmers. "He was only going to be stopped there for a moment." The real reason for the policing of the lot was the pothole problem created by the big trucks. "It just gave Don fits seeing the mudholes," said Mel Gianino, a former employee. "He kept filling them and refilling them. And no one ever offered to share in the costs of putting more gravel in. They thought Wolfsberger was so rich. He was running a business, not a charity." Small towns have a mass suggestibility. Once again, Wolfsberger's perfectionism translated as high-handedness, an impression he unwittingly fostered by sending employees to deal with the country folk who were illegally parked.
"I have a lot of businesses to look after in town," he pointed out defensively when his social error was pointed out. Kitty litter bitterness Like spores on the wind, the stories of his territoriality and haughtiness wafted from person to person. Meanwhile, Wolfsberger was engaged in catfights with a neighbor who lived behind his elegant French restaurant in a worn, clapboard bungalow. "She has so many cats," said Bakewell agent Lani O'Neil of the neighbor, "that once she asked me if she could rent my building that's adjacent to her house so her cats could live in it. I told her no and put a lock on the door." Having so many cats created a problem with kitty litter disposal. The neighbor's favorite place to deposit the stuff was at the edge of her property, along the border she shared with the Wolfsberger's beloved restaurant. Although Wolfsberger had
erected a seven-foot privacy fence as a buffer, the rising noxious gasses were still strong enough to flatten souffles. "I tried to buy her out," Wolfsberger recalled. "I think we went up to $70,000 for that place."
No dice. "We got some help from the health department," said Henry Ruggeri. "She's not putting it right along the fence anymore." Then, the grandson of the founder of the famed old Ruggeri's restaurant on The Hill in St. Louis emitted a tiny, involuntary moan. "I've got my tomato and herb garden out back. I can't tell you what the smell's like in summer." (Rochelle Kuster, Franklin County's environmental health specialist, said she was not permitted to divulge information about the cat scratch incident.) The bratwurst bombshell Finally, there was the bratwurst breach, which some people say solidified animosities.
In 1993, Wolfsberger ceased to operate his second restaurant, the one with the reasonable prices and no dress code. Problems with staffing seemed to him insurmountable. Subsequently, the owners of the building -- Lani O'Neil and Sarah Bakewell -- sold the lease to a threesome who renamed the restaurant the Hawthorne Inn. Right away, the Hawthorne became the social and political center of townlife. In 1996, when the citizens of Labadie decided to organize a town picnic, naturally the first business people asked for a contribution were the owners of the Hawthorne. They said they'd provide bratwurst. "I was on the food committee, and naturally we hoped they (Wolfsberger and maitre d' Ruggeri) would want to be involved, too," said Marilyn Heisel, a longtime Labadie resident and civic leader. But the townspeople delayed inviting Ruggeri to participate until a couple of months before the event. After a period of chilliness all around, the upshot was that not until the day before the picnic did Wolfsberger connect with Heisel about contributing food -- buffalo bratwurst. "When I found out that the Hawthorne was already bringing bratwurst, I didn't want to compete," says Wolfsberger. "All I did was ask him to call the Hawthorne and work with them so we didn't have a bratwurst avalanche," said Heisel. "It was a cooperative effort. He didn't want to cooperate. He was very abrupt." Still injured, Ruggeri insists, "They didn't ask us to any meetings until a month before the picnic, and the only reason they thought of us at all is because they were afraid we'd close our parking lot. Of course, we didn't." Amazing how the fate of a town can hinge on squabbles over who provides bratwurst for the town picnic.
The $500,000 comeback The reason all these jousts ended up being significant is that in the last two years, Wolfsberger wanted to expand his Main Street holdings, and a good part of the town was now as wary of him as a fox in a henhouse.
Wolfsberger theorized that the number of visitors he could draw to the place would increase in direct proportion to the amount of fantasy and novelty he could offer. He wanted shops with, maybe, glassblowing and ironworks. He wanted a big dream to mitigate the reality of battling over placement of kitty litter. He wanted the enchanting gingerbread house at the corner of town to convert into a hotel.
No dice. He offered $100,000 to Edna Dutton, who owned the place, suggesting he might come up a little. Then he waited like a catcher behind home plate to see what sort of figure she'd pitch him in return. "Five hundred thousand dollars," she announced, beaning him. And though he continued to send her materials in the mail, bought antiques from her, had one of his employees plant a garden for her in back of the house, she never seriously negotiated. "Really, I just didn't want to sell," she said. "What's money? Wolfsberger came up to see me a number of times.
He was a perfect gentleman -- although he never would sit down and have coffee with me, never mind how many times I asked him."
The Schultzes stand firm Next stop for Wolfsberger: the home of Herbert and Ethel Schultz. If anyone had ever owned the whole town, it was the Schultz family, who ran the general store and the railroad depot hotel in Labadie's glory days. Now elderly, the Schultzes, brother and sister, still own the vacant depot and some overgrown property beside it. Wolfsberger longed to restore the depot into some sort of craft place. Once again, money seemed without its usual power to accomplish all things at a stroke.
The Schultzes grumped about some trees Wolfsberger had planted along the border of town as a beautification project. The two old people liked to sit on their porch and watch the Chevies go by, and the trees blocked their view. More importantly, one of the buildings Wolfsberger had torn down years before, figuring the resentment would die down, had belonged to their grandmother.
They had no intention of letting him loose on any other property of theirs to do what he regarded as improvements.
Ethel Schultz and Wolfsberger met across a gulf of incomprehension. Every detail of restoring and decorating that Wolfsberger lavished attention on, Ethel failed to appreciate. Every little corner she was attached to, Wolfsberger dismissed. They may as well have been from different planets. "We just don't need the money," she said, explaining her refusal to a reporter. She peered out from the murky depths of the farmhouse with twinkly eyes. "We don't need the money. Wolfsberger has made all our property values go up."
Wolfsberger says wryly of his lukewarm reception by the Schultzes, "I think Herbert Schultz has Jimmy Hoffa's body buried over there. He won't open the door more than this much." Pluses and parting shots Stymied in further development in Labadie, missing his wife, Joyce, who now spends the entire winter in Florida, Wolfsberger put his properties up for sale. He says he would be willing to stay involved as a detached partner, "but I don't want the day-to-day headaches anymore. I want to travel. I want to golf." As Labadie loses its biggest booster, the reaction is mixed. "Don is a fine man. Every time I asked him to give to something, he would," says Gene Scott, Franklin County commissioner and lifetime Labadie resident. "But he's lived such a privileged, fantasy life, he just didn't know how to deal with ordinary folk." Mel Gianino insists the town will regret the departure. "Look what he did for us, and that's just a part of what he would have done if he'd been able. The way he loved this town!" One of the possible buyers for Wolfsberger's holdings is Henry Ruggeri, with financing from a group of investors. Ruggeri says that if his group purchases the holdings, "many of the ideas Don had for further development here will be ideas we go ahead with, ideas for more craft stores with glass-blowing and ironworks." "We don't need that," responded Steve Homire, owner of the gas-and-grocery. "What Labadie needs is a barber shop and a place to eat th at's open for breakfast." *** 'Own Your Own Town' The town: Labadie, Mo., settled in 1855 Population: approximately 250 Location: On county highway T, in eastern Franklin County, about 30 minutes west of I-270 Property that Don Wolfsberger has for sale: two bed-and-breakfasts, one weekend home on 10 acres, one restaurant seating 150, one upscale country market, one office building, two open lots. Total area involved: about 12 acres Price: $1.9 million for the package. No individual sales. Listing agent: Bailey Properties of St. Louis (647-0224)

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