Cairo, Illinois: The Short Happy Life and Lingering Death of a Small Town

Cairo, Illinois: The Short Happy Life and Lingering Death of a Small Town
Going Home to Cairo, Illinois

Part I: Going Back to Cairo, Illinois

In at the birth, in at the death, my friend.

I was not in at the birth of Cairo, Illinois. That happened long before my time. Nor was I in at the death. That occurred after I left. But I was there for much of what happened in between. To tell you about that time, I will have to embark on a journey I never expected to make, to a place I never thought to see again, and to share a story I never meant to tell. I will go back to Cairo, and I am inviting you to come along with me because it is not a trip I want to take alone. I think you will find the journey interesting.

Cairo, Illinois in its glory days

Cairo, Illinois in its glory days

Going Home to Cairo, Illinois

 Going home. It’s a popular theme among writers. The second Mrs. DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca dreamed of going back to Manderly, her husband’s ancestral home. Horton Foote gave Carrie Watts, who was living the twilight of her life trapped in an apartment in 1940's Houston, Texas with a controlling daughter-in-law and a hen-pecked son, her fondest wish-- A Trip to Bountiful, the small Texas town of her youth which she still refers to as "home." Sam Cooke wrote a song about home and set it to the music of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” It is a song sung mostly at funerals.

"Goin' Home"
Goin' home, goin' home
I'm a goin' on,
Quiet like, some still day, I'm just goin' home.
It's not far, it's just close by,
Through an open door
Work all done, care laid by
Going to fear no more
Mother's there, expecting me
Father's waiting too
Lots of folk gathered there
All the friends I knew.
That morning star lights the way,
Restless dream all done,
Shadows gone, break of day
My real life just began
I'm a-going home.

Author Tom Wolfe wrote a novel about wanting desperately to leave his small-town home, then spending a lifetime wondering how to go back, only to conclude:

Don't you know you can't go home again? You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."  Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

You Can’t Go Home Again

Since Wolfe wrote these words, “you can’t go home again” has come to mean that once you have left your small backwater for a big, sophisticated city you can never go back. Attempts to relive youthful memories will always fail. I know that this is true. My small town, as I knew it, no longer exists. The streets I walked are empty—businesses having packed up and closed their doors years ago. The schools I attended are gone. And, even if I made the trip, I would have no place to stay. The house I lived in has been torn down. There are no hotels, motels, or quaint bed and breakfasts. There is…nothing. But it is not this nothing place that I want to show you. I want to show you the city of my youth and of my memories—to paint a portrait of the colorful life and sad death of a small town in Illinois.  Cairo.

Gateway to Cairo, Illinois

Gateway to Cairo, Illinois

All Aboard for Cairo, Illinois

 Emily Gibbs, the deceased young heroine of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, is sitting beside her tombstone with others  who have also passed on. She decides she wants to go back home for one day, because she knows this is possible. Her mother-in-law advises against it. But Emily is determined. Mrs. Gibbs cautions her to choose an unimportant day—the least important day in her life will be important enough. She chooses her twelfth birthday. The visit is unbearably sad, and Emily leaves abruptly. Going home was not what she thought it would be.

Like Emily, I am determined to go back, and I will choose an unimportant day for our journey--an ordinary day in 1948.  We will go to Chicago’s 12th Street Station and climb aboard the Illinois  Central train the Panama Limited, leaving at 8:00 a.m. for the five-hour trip south. Once aboard, we’ll look out at the mostly flat prairie land and listen to the conductor call the stops: Homewood, Kankakee (he always called out that name three times), Champaign, Mattoon, Effingham, Centralia, Carbondale, and, finally, Cairo.

The Panama Limited

The Panama Limited

When we reach  Mattoon, we’ll probably be hungry enough to amble back to the diner for lunch. The food is good on this train, so we’ll splurge and order baked, deviled crab meat and a salad with the chef’s special dressing: chopped celery, dill pickle, green peppers, pimiento, green onions, hard boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and chili sauce. The salad was a favorite with diners for years.

The dining car on the Panama Limited, 1940s

The dining car on the Panama Limited, 1940s

By the time we finish, we will hear the call, “Cairo”; and we will get off the train. Standing on the platform, we will pause, close our eyes, and if we listen very carefully. we will hear the voice of Billy Murray, perhaps the greatest singer of the acoustic recording era, singing “when you drop off at Cairo, Illinois . We're home.

Billy Murray, 1916

Billy Murray, 1916

Out in Cairo, Illinois where the sun beats down with all its might,
Out in Cairo, Illinois where the big red moon shines every night,
Where the balmy breezes are blowing,
Where the rippling waters are flowing,
To my native land, if you are going,
Don’t forget to take in all the sights
When you drop off at Cairo, Illinois.
The delegation at the station will meet you,
You’re bound to like each Cairo girl and boy.
Each native manner is so hale and hearty,
It’s like a family party.
Down where the Ohio flows to the Mississippi,
You’ll find a new kind of joy.
A brand of sunshine you will find,
That's hotter than the Egypt kind,
When you drop off at musty, dusty, Cairo, Illinois.

 

Cairo, where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi

Cairo, where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi

Now,  it's a short drive south to Cairo.

Next: A Day in My Home Town

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