Day 465: Little Egypt

Southern Illinois is often called “Little Egypt,” and, indeed, it has many Egyptian associations. It has towns named “Thebes” and “Karnak,” and, although it is consistently mispronounced, one called “Cairo.” There are several stories about how the association between southern Illinois and Egypt came about. One is that food shortages in the north in the early nineteenth century caused northerners to come south to buy grain in the manner of the Old Testament account of the sons of Jacob. A second is that the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at the southern tip of Illinois somehow resembles the Nile delta. A third is that one of the belly dancers who performed as “Little Egypt” at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was a southern Illinois native.

Laetitia decided to bring her group to Thebes. Thebes, Illinois bears little resemblance to the Egyptian original, except that it is also on the east bank of a river, the Mississippi. It is a town of around 500 people. Abraham Lincoln once practiced law here. Its proximity to the Mississippi River also made it a great area for bird watching. The Mississippi Flyway is a major migratory route for birds because it lacks obstacles, such as mountain ranges, and provides food, water, and cover throughout its entire length.

Laetitia’s group spent most of the day at Horseshoe Lake Nature Preserve. The natural area surrounds an oxbow lake, created when the curvature of the meandering Mississippi River became so pronounced that the water broke through, forming a new straighter and shorter channel. Eventually the ends of the abandoned meander loop filled in so the lake that is no longer part of the river.

At happy hour in an area bar, Laetitia heard some gossip about a local bird-watching group who seemed to get their ideas from stereotypes in British comedy. They went around in tweeds and pith helmets with oversized binoculars and, according to the conversation, “put on airs.” They became the subject of the limerick of the day.

The Bird Watchers’ Circle from Thebes
Who led tours to watch phoebes and grebes
Viewed themselves as elite
But to folks on the street
They were arrogant, tweed-wearing dweebs.

Day 464: Unction in Junction

Laetitia and her group left Marion and drove over to Cave-in-Rock State Park. The cave is shallow, with a large opening, facing the Ohio River. During the nineteenth century, it was a haven for river pirates, who preyed on river traffic, often using women to beckon the river boaters to the cave so they could be robbed and often murdered.

Next the group went to Junction, Illinois, which is a small town of about 140 people near the Saline River. The river was named for a salt marsh located near its mouth. Salt was essential for preserving food, and this area supplied the mineral to much of the Northwest Territory. Junction’s most famous landmark is the Crenshaw Mansion, built in 1842 by John Crenshaw, who owned slaves who harvested salt from nearby saline wells. In addition to owning slaves himself, Crenshaw captured free blacks and sold them back into slavery.

Afterward the group moved on to Old Shawneetown. It claims to be the oldest town in Illinois, rivaled only by Prairie du Rocher over on the Mississippi River. It was an important Northwest Territory government center following the Revolutionary War. The first Illinois bank was chartered in Shawneetown in 1812. There is a local legend that the founders of Chicago sought investment from the bank to build their new city and were turned down because the site was not on a major navigable river.

Old Shawneetown was a wild place in the 1950s and 1960s, close enough to Fort Campbell, Kentucky to attract “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division to cross the river for a wild weekend. Laetitia’s Uncle Ralph had been there a few times when he was a young man. He had a story about going into the men’s restroom at Bishop’s Tavern and finding the stool ripped out and everyone using the hole in the floor as a urinal.

Laetitia went to happy hour at one of the Old Shawneetown bars, where she heard some gossip about a local lothario named Brad. It became the limerick of the day.

With cloying words oozing with unction
And sadly bereft of compunction
Brad sought to beguile
With his winning smile
The ladies from over in Junction.

Day 463: Marion Librarian

The area between Carbondale and Cairo (That’s “kay-row” if you’re a native) abounds with scenic wood hills—mostly oak and hickory—and sandstone cliffs. Laetitia and her group began their day at Giant City State Park, named for its sandstone bluffs, with narrow paths in between resembling city streets. They had lunch at the Lodge, famous for its fried chicken. They made an additional stop at Ferne Clyffe State Park, a lovely natural area of woods and sandstone near Goreville, before driving to Marion, where they were spending the night.

There is a small subculture throughout much of the English-speaking world that is focused on the preparation and consumption of roadkill, that is, animals found dead on roadsides after being hit by cars. There are cookbooks with roadkill recipes, and even a song calledRoadkill Stew. Although some suspect that the topic is more about humor and urban legend than practice, certain states—West Virginia, for example—have laws on the books making it legal to take home and eat roadkill. Laetitia’s group ended the day at a motel in Marion, Illinois. Laetitia heard a story at happy hour about a Marion fellow named Mel who was jilted by his girlfriend because he liked roadkill food. It became the limerick of the day, even though Laetitia wasn’t convinced of the gossip’s veracity.

Young Mel loved a lady in Marion
Who worked as a public librarian
But his love went to waste
She abhorred his keen taste
For dumplings with fresh roadkill carrion.

Day 462: Purloin in Du Quoin

Leaving Flora, Laetitia and her group went to Stephen A. Forbes State Park, near Kinmundy, Illinois for some hiking and wildlife watching. The park was named after Stephen Alfred Forbes, a Civil War veteran who was a founder and first director of the Illinois State Laboratory of Natural History. Later they stopped at Salem, Illinois and visited the home of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson. He was a religious zealot who was an avid supporter of prohibition and a staunch adversary of evolution, serving as prosecutor in the 1925 Scopes Trial. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was charged with violating a Tennessee law that made the teaching of evolution illegal. Famous Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.

The group went on to Du Quoin, where they were spending the evening. Illinois has two state fairs: one at Springfield and one at Du Quoin. For many years (1957–1980), a trotting horse race called the Hambletonian was held at the racetrack on the fairgrounds. The track features car races as well.

Few would go to southern Illinois for its food, but an acquaintance had told Laetitia about an unpretentious restaurant on U.S. Highway 51 that had great barbeque. She made arrangements to meet the group there for dinner. She told them that afterward they would go up the road to the Black Top Polka Club near Du Bois, a place recommended by her Uncle Ralph.

Having finished that, she went to a local bar for happy hour. Laetitia based the limerick of the day on some gossip about an amorous magician whose lack of restraint wore out his welcome to perform at the local high school.

A magician who came to Du Quoin
From the ear of young Gwen pulled a coin
Then one from her nose
Then her pantyhose
As her virtue he tried to purloin.