story by Jim Auckley, photography by Chris Auckley[Missouri Motorcycle Rides: From St. Louis to Frankenstein was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the May 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
The crack of the bat and the smell of yeast are never far away in St. Louis, a vibrant city-kingdom of baseball and beer. The National League Cardinals’ new stadium is commonly sold out for home games. The historical site of the nation’s largest brewer, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, is just south of the stadium. This is my favorite ride because it is such an easy escape from the metro area into a lightly populated rural setting with fun roads and little traffic. Wineries and German food are an added treat.
The road to the hamlet with the ominous name, Frankenstein, follows the Missouri River valley from St. Louis in the east to the state capital, Jefferson City, on the west, via highways 94 and 100. The near-midpoint town of Hermann is about 50 miles from the western edge of the metro area, with the ride from Hermann to Frankenstein and Jefferson City adding another 70 miles. Roundtrip total is about 220 miles. The trip courses through a region marked by the large-scale settlement of immigrants from Germany in the 19th century, a flavor it retains to this day.
From St. Louis I access this ride by traveling west on Interstate 64 (locally Highway 40). After crossing the Missouri River at Chesterfield, watch for the off-ramp for Highway 94 and turn west on 94. This highway is on the north side of the Missouri River. Traffic is generally light on this trip; watch for the occasional bus full of wine tourists.
Highway 94 first sweeps an area known as Weldon Spring, which includes two large tracts of woods, fields and ponds dedicated to outdoor recreation. The rolling two-lane soon becomes curvaceous. The Katy Trail, a biking and hiking path on an abandoned rail bed, parallels the highway in places.
Take this trip in early June, before the heat and humidity of a typically oppressive Midwest summer and you will smell newly mown hay, see small groups of colts milling in fence corners and, if you look down at the shoulders of the road flowing past, patches of purple and orange wildflowers. Maple trees atop the limestone bluffs are a prism of color in fall.
My first stop is 18 miles on Highway 94. In 1980 the settlement of Augusta (pop. 218) was designated the First United States Wine District. Before the Civil War, Missouri was a major wine producer, an enterprise that saw a rebirth 50 years ago. There are a half-dozen wineries here. A recommended bottle to take home is Augusta Winery’s Seyval Blanc. Most of the Augusta wineries are open daily throughout the year.
The historically German town of Hermann is 35 miles west, an enclave of good food and locally produced wines. The roads on this trip (sometimes in the hills atop the river bluffs, sometimes in the floodplains in the valley) alternately twist and turn, then break out in fast straightaways. The scenery varies from pastoral (hilltop pastures, sprawling corn fields) to forest in places where trees seem to press both sides of the road.
German settlement in the region reached its zenith from about 1840 to 1860. Many hillsides proved fertile ground for vineyards, and some envisioned a new “Rhineland” that would stretch from St. Louis to Jefferson City. The region is home to settlements with names like Holstein, Hamburg and Starkenburg.
Highway 94 reaches a north-south road at Highway 19. I turn left, or south, here and within a minute cross the bridge to the south side of the Missouri River and into Hermann (pop. 2,700). There is lodging, food, a museum and as many as 10 wineries.
Stone Hill Winery, with a scenic view of Hermann, is listed on the National Historic Register. I like to take home a bottle of Late Harvest Vignoles. My favorite eatery in Hermann is the Vintage Restaurant at Stone Hill. It has great atmosphere and the conventional menu includes German food. I recently had a meal of sauerbraten, spatzle (dumplings) and German potato salad. The restaurant also has German-style smoked knackwurst, pork cutlets (schnitzel) and bratwurst.
I like the uphill trek to the county courthouse overlooking the river. Catfish anglers launch their boats at Hermann’s nearby Riverfront Park. I see a Missouri River passing that was once a wide, wandering watercourse. During the last century it was reduced to a barge canal for a form of commerce that, alas, largely no longer exists. The Lewis and Clark trip to explore the Louisiana Purchase would have been stymied by the “modern” river’s swift current.
I take Highway 19 south of Hermann a short distance, then turn west on to Highway 100. Some 15 miles of undulating riding lay ahead before the road dips into the floodplain for a 10-mile stretch of mostly straight riding that allows “airing-out” a warm engine. An aging powerplant rising out of the cornfields here looks like a great setting for a sci-fi flick.
The road climbs back up into the hills before coming to a junction with county road “C.” Turning onto “C” is my favorite part of the trip, narrow blacktop with awesome “twisties” and hill country scenery. There is a second-gear turn at the corner of the Frankenstein Catholic church. It takes but a moment to ride through a town that time seems to have forgotten. Only about 30 people live here. The town has nothing to do with the monster of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, or Universal Studio’s 1931 black-and-white film that fascinated graybeards like me in the early years of late-night television. Rather, the town is named after an early settler.
I turn left at the intersection of county road “A,” then enjoy a few more miles of sporty riding before joining Highway 50 at Loose Creek. From here it’s a 10-mile stretch of superslab into the state capital at Jefferson City.
Bisecting the heart of Jefferson City on Highway 50, I turn right (north) on Madison Street. Madison’s Caf… is several blocks up its namesake street, a pleasant eatery with Italian specialties. There is a parking garage across the street. Within three blocks of the restaurant, and overlooking the Missouri River, visitors can catch tours of the Governor’s Mansion and the State Capitol. Ask for directions to Central Dairy for legendary ice cream.
I complete the Frankenstein loop by crossing the river on Highway 54 at Jefferson City (back to the north side of the river) then quickly turn east on Highway 94. Much of the road is in the floodplain, but there is a great eight-mile stretch of hill riding near the little town of Portland. It is 50 miles back to the junction with Highway 19 where I previously made the turn to Hermann; I stay on 94 to return to St. Louis…probably with a nice unopened bottle of wine in the saddlebags from Missouri’s Rhineland.