The Biltmore Club in Fenton: Gangsters, Gambling and Gin
“In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
“Anything Goes,” by Cole Porter
As previously reported in our article on Jelly Roll Hogan, St. Louis and its surrounding counties were notoriously mobbed-up during the 1920s and throughout that failed social experiment called Prohibition. Stories abound in regard to shady characters and their actions to cash in on the loopholes of the era, along with the rampant graft and corruption. However, some stories also exist about the places the infamous frequented for fun.
The Biltmore Country Club opened its doors in 1929 as a casino for the well-heeled that needed a well-concealed place to spend the money they were bringing in. The club was built in Fenton on the border of Jefferson and St. Louis counties; in fact one of the lingering stories about the club is that, if it was raided by one of those counties, the patrons would be instructed to move to the other side of the building, out of the raiding jurisdiction.
Actually, a good deal of the early history is sketchy and difficult to put together since the whole thing was kind of on the hush-hush. The club was opened by Jimmy Miller, boss of the 4th precinct in the city and justice of the peace. Miller spared no expense in the construction of the club at a cost of $250,000 (over $3.5 million in current value) as he planned it to be a posh getaway for high-end clients, decked out in tuxedos, diamonds and furs.
In 1933, the ownership was taken over by one Harry E. Belford, aka “Hickory Slim,” a bookie and close friend of Al Capone. Not much is found on the Internet about Mr. Slim as, I’ve mentioned before, a low profile was pretty much de rigueur for the bootleg entrepreneurs of the day. Though Prohibition ended in 1933, gambling was still very much against the law and so the new owner purportedly had club employees with machine guns in each of the towers at the front of the building to welcome unwelcome guests. Capone was rumored to be a frequent guest and had ties to St. Louis’ all-Sicilian Green Gang.
When Jimmy Miller died in 1946, the ownership passed to Red O’Donnell, a Chicago businessman who made a flashy exit from life in the form of a heart attack and the crashing of his pink Cadillac into the trees outside the front gate of the club.
In 1951, Ed and Marie Campbell of High Ridge bought the club and announced that its gambling days were over, stating that “the only bones to roll will be chicken bones and T-bones!” The Campbells had moderate success and sold the club to Don Winter in 1972. Winter sought to bring in a younger crowd and made the venue into a live music and prom destination. During the ‘70s, the club, now dubbed a banquet center, hosted a great number of dances featuring St. Louis rock bands like Hot Shot and 96 Proof. Many of our readers might have memories, possibly somewhat hazy, of this era in the club’s history.
The Biltmore burned down in 1979 and it has been said that fire fighters saw oil or gas in the runoff water as they fought the blaze. Whether or not that is true, the fire was believed to be arson but no one was prosecuted. Mr. Winter chose to raze the building and sold the land instead of rebuilding. Today, the only vestige of the Biltmore Club is the name it gave to the office and shopping complex that now stands on the historic piece of land.