Friday, April 27, 2018

I made it to Cairo, but it was nothing like Egypt

When I woke up in Cape Girardeau Missouri not only was it still raining, it was foggy.  When I opened the hotel blinds I couldn’t see my Buick  across the parking lot.
I hadn’t slept well.  I kept waking up wondering where I was and what I was doing.  Seems like I used to adapt more quickly.   

I stayed in a Drury’s Motel, which in addition to offering free breakfasts like all the other mass market  interstate hotels, also provided a free dinner buffet till 10:00 p.m. complete with three free drinks; your choice of wine, beer, or hard liquor.  Pretty hard to pass up.
So Drury’s, who along with their peers were not content with taking virtually all the interstate travelers out of breakfast places like Denny’s, Waffle House, and Bob Evans, was attempting to also steal the night time trade of travelers who might otherwise have flocked to the chain restaurants that surround them.  It wasn’t the best dinner, tacos, salad, and the like, but three free drinks?  Who says no to that, especially when it’s raining?  Not me.  They served Maker’s Mark .  Disturbing trend I’m sure for the restaurant industry.

Although I had not been in Missouri long I headed through the fog back to Illinois.  I crossed the Mississippi for the second time on Route 45, and on the Illinois side headed South on Route 3 towards Olive Branch.
Had I gone but a few miles north on Illinois 3 I could have visited the town of McClure.  But other than saying I’d been there, what would I have seen?  McClure is a town of 400 named after Thomas McClure and his wife Caroline.  Tom used to be the postmaster.  Someone saved the big old McClure house and put it on one of those registers of historic places.  The town still has a post office, but Wikipedia reports “only a few businesses remain.”  I skipped it.

The fog was clearing off but it was still sprinkling rain.  As I went further south water stood in ditches on both sides of the road and you could almost feel the rivers closing in.  I could picture the map and the narrowing spit of land I was driving on, nearly engulfed by water.  I was nearing the very tip of Illinois, defined by the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  There were no intersecting roads.  The land was taking on a swampy look.     
I drove past the Cairo Regional Airport.  The runway was mostly covered with water.  One pickup truck and no planes were parked by the hanger, no longer if ever a bustling transportation hub.  I drove through Klondike, then Future City.  You have to be hopeful to name a place Future City.  It looked to me that hope had faded long ago for that small burg.

And then I came into Cairo.  Cairo is not pronounced like the city at the mouth of the Nile River in Egypt (Kigh’ row) or like your old time corn syrup (Kay’ row).  Locals say Care’ O.  If you want to be hip you say Care’ O too.
The word that best describes Cairo, however you want to say it, is empty.  Aside from my Buick, there were few cars moving about.  The streets were oddly quiet.  I turned down a side street and passed under a sign that said “Cairo Historic District.”  A wide avenue with big houses greeted me.  Some looked good.  Others were abandoned.

Downtown was marked by gaps like a mouth with missing teeth.  I turned again and encountered a gravel road and a wall, a levee if I’m not mistaken, stretching into the distance.  On the wall a painted banner proclaimed  “Cairo Mural Wall Project.”  The project ended after four murals.  Beyond them was a long stretch of bare pockmarked concrete.

The four murals recalled the past.  Lewis and Clark had stayed in the area for four days on their expedition.  Another mural marked geologic periods of the past.  Yet another steamboat traffic and ferries.   None  recorded any part of Cairo’s  last  hundred years.  There’s a reason for that.
 Something happened in Cairo.  Something bad.  In 1969 when I was a freshman at ISU I attended meetings of an organization called “Friends of Cairo.”  The meetings were dominated by African Americans from Cairo giving witness to the racial war being waged in their town.  I was a farm kid from an all white community, but I was learning.  How could I not have known about this till I went to that first meeting?  After almost fifty years, I had to see visit the scene of these crimes. 

In March of 1969 a police car was hit with bullets, a black man’s car had its windows shot out in retaliation, and several white men fired at the predominantly black Pyramid Courts housing project from the Mississippi river levee.  April saw a total of 28 fire bombings including a laundromat, a tavern, a mostly black high school, and the Tri County Health Clinic which was set ablaze twice.  During the second fire, firemen responding to the fire were shot at.  In another incident, white police officers trying to enter the Pyramid Courts housing project to conduct a search for a murder weapon were confronted by 200 black residents and forced to leave.
May of 69 saw 175 national guardsman and 30 state policemen dispatched to aid Cairo’s 15 man police force in an attempt to enforce a temporary curfew.  Police and business leaders testified at hearings in Springfield on the unrest, while the Negro United Front organization protested the presence of members of the vigilante “White Hats” group, predominately white business owners, at those same hearings.  Later that month, gunmen attacked the Cairo police station firing 100 rounds into the building in 15 minutes, while a wallpaper warehouse and the Tri-County Health Clinic were firebombed as responding firemen were fired upon. That time the health clinic was allowed to burn to the ground.

In June a legislative committee in Springfield recommended a 70 man state police force patrol the city, that “White Hats” members not be deputized, and that a federal state of emergency be declared so federal funding for housing and business development could be made available.  No action was taken.
In July, six ministers from the United Front of Cairo, some of whom I had heard speak at ISU, were evicted from Illinois Governor Ogilvie’s office in Springfield where they had organized a sit in.

Finally in October of 1970, after continued shootouts at the Pyramid Courts housing project and three separate automatic gunfire attacks on the Cairo police station, Governor Ogilvie ordered a 24 man state police force and an armored car to patrol Cairo for an indefinite period to stop “indiscriminate gunfire and lawlessness”.  Eventually peace of a kind came to Cairo.
Cairo in 1920 had a population of 15,203.  In 1960 its population stood at 9,348.  Cairo in 2016 had but 2,016 citizens.  Little remains of the town it used to be. 

Cairo is famous for being mentioned in the great American novel Huckleberry Finn.  It was Huck and Jim’s destination after they left upriver on a raft from Hannibal Missouri on their great journey, but fog and the raft’s encounter with a river boat dashed that idea.  Their barge floated past Cairo and were doomed to continue into the deep South. 
Their plan was to pull onto the Illinois shore near Cairo, sell the raft, find passage up the Ohio to states more sympathetic to runaway slaves and in doing so win Jim his freedom as a slave.  Why not try their luck in Illinois?  That was the question literary critics and historians later wondered.  I think Cairo’s history in the late 60’s gives us the answer.  Illinois may have been a free state on paper, but its southern most city offered little sympathy for black people either in Huck and Jim’s era, before the Civil War, or even a hundred years after it. 

Go south of Cairo and you immediately cross a river.
I crossed the Ohio into Kentucky, found myself once again on Route 51, and stopped on a rise past Wickliffe see if I could spot where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. Turns out that rise was the old site of Fort Jefferson, established in 1780, and later used by Union forces in the Civil War.  The fog was gone and the rain was merely a drizzle.  I got out, stretched my legs, and saw clear as day where the Ohio joined up with America’s greatest river.  I think that marks the start of the lower Mississippi.  Barges were tied up, the river was high on its banks, and the current was quietly raging south.  I wasn’t so sure I had picked the right time to be on a route that followed the river.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ferris Wheels and Accredited Professionals

The Ferris Wheel/Jacksonville story, the one the woman in Worrell Land Services wanted to tell me when I was lost on the road trip, can be long or short.  I’m going with short.  It’s interesting for a while, but once you get the idea it’s not. 
In 1893 W.E. Sullivan, owner of the Eli Bridge company in Roodhouse (a railroad town down the road from Jacksonville) went to the Columbian Exposition and rode the first ever Ferris Wheel and marveled at its construction.  He came home and announced to his wife that he had found the single thing to which he wanted to devote his career.  I imagine the conversation went like this.

“I tell you dear, it’s amazing and thrilling.  I could make a wheel that’s portable and take it to people all around the country to enjoy.”
“Really honey?”

“Yes.  I’m convinced.  To Hell with bridges!”
“W.E. don’t say that, we could be ruined!”

But that’s exactly what old W.E. did, went into debt and in 1907 came up with a design, Big Eli #1, you could put on a train car.  Six men could put it together in a day.  It had ten buggy seats and ran off a gas engine.  He set the first one up right there in the park in Jacksonville where a Sullivan built wheel, Big Eli #17, now stands.  In 1919  he moved his company to Jacksonville.  A Big Eli #1 is on display at that factory, still Sullivan family owned and located in Jacksonville. 
In 1955 the same company invented the Scrambler, which some of you may have thrown up on at the county fair after too much cotton candy, corn dogs, and lemon shake ups.  The local Rotary Club takes care of the Big Eli wheel in the park, now owned by the city of Jacksonville, and you may or may not be able to ride it in the summer once in a while.  Don’t quote me.  I’m not going back to look it up.  I already know more than I want to know about Jacksonville and Ferris wheels.

(Except for this.  They no longer have a double Ferris wheel at the Illinois State Fair, which is a damned shame.  If you find a double Ferris wheel within driving distance, let me know.  I love that feeling when the wheel you are riding changes from the top to the bottom, or vice versa.  I’d like to experience that again.)
So there you go.  You learn something every day.  Worrell Land Services is a whole other thing, and not nearly as easily deciphered.  Here’s how they describe themselves on their web page. 

Worrell Land Services has built a reputation as a leader in rural real estate and farm management in Central Illinois. Satisfied clients attest to our expertise in the following areas:

·        Farm management by accredited professionals who run the day-to-day farming operation, maximize income potential and simplify life for landowners. Our team manages every detail with care, as if it were our own land.

·        Agricultural, recreational, residential and commercial real estate services by a brokerage and auction team with decades of proven results.  We leverage our strong relationships within the local communities and agri-businesses to connect buyer and seller in a way that helps both achieve their goals.

·        Appraisal services that equip landowners with a fair market value for their property.

·        Professional consultation with land experts who listen carefully to each individual need and help landowners make sense of all the options.

At Worrell Land Services, you aren’t just a number.  Your story is unique, your legacy important. Whatever season you’re in – from wrestling with the emotions of selling the family farm to searching for your first home – we can help.  Contact us today to let us know how we can serve you during this season in your life.

I know it’s just promotional material, probably ghost written, but I take stuff like that seriously.  Not once in their self description do they mention farmers.  There’s farm managers, accredited professionals, land experts, land owners, brokerage and auction teams-but no farmers.  How could farmers possibly be left out?
And excuse me, but whenever I see the phrase “this season of your life” I assume that season is winter, and refers to old people.  I could be over sensitive, as I’m going to turn 67 later this year, but I think this is a pamphlet clearly written for people like me.

Who do I mean by ‘people like me?’  Baby boomers who grew up on small farms, left, and never went back.  Farm kids who learned how to make a living some other way because small farm life went away. 
Between 1950 and 1970 the number of farms in the U.S. declined by half and the number of people living on farms dropped from over 20 million to less than 10 million.  My family was part of that decline.

Maybe you and your siblings still own the farm.  Maybe everyone moved away.  Even if they didn’t chances are none of you is working that farm.  It became too small.  The scale and the economy of farming squeezed many of us out.  And so in this “season of your life” something has to be done.  You and your brothers and sisters can’t pass the farm on to all your kids, a big group of far flung cousins. There’s too many of them to share decision making and receive slivers of income from a small acreage. 
Besides that the asset, the land, is very valuable.  Ironically while farm income remains stagnant the price of good Midwestern farm land remains high.  Farmers at the end of their working years find themselves land rich and cash poor.  It costs more than ever, the margins keep getting smaller, commodity prices stay low, and individual farmers assume both more risk and more stress. 

That’s where the nice conference room down the hall at Worrell Farm Services, the one with the soft leather like chairs comes in.  You sit down with a “land expert”, put your family in the hands Worrell Land services, and figure something out.  Either you sell the farm right away or you let them manage it and it’s sold later.  Either way Worrell Land Services, and others who put the business into agri-business, are sure to have a profound effect on America’s landscape.
When this change takes place who buys the land? Who farms it next?  I have a sneaky feeling the farms in the pictures lining the hallway of Worrell Land Services are quickly reduced to an Excel file in the hard drive of an “accredited professional”, and when that file is opened and glowing on a computer monitor the numbers point the way.

If you think guiding a self driving car by GPS through city traffic is doable, think what a snap it will be to remotely drive one combine through an empty forty acre cornfield?  Everything suggests farming is going to an even bigger scale.  What does the future hold for the farms that crowd the two lane roads I travel on my way south and east, and the families that now own them? 
You can learn a lot of things on a road trip, even if they’re just questions.  I find questions about the past easily answered, while answers about the future escape me.  That’s just how it goes.  

Monday, April 16, 2018

Road Trip-Leaving Illinois

(from previous post) I had breakfast at the counter and brought in the Atlas in to peruse.  By the looks of it all the other diners were  having the buffet.  I knew what I wanted before I sat down.  Fried mush with eggs.  As I waited for my order to come up I opened the road atlas to Illinois and looked at where I might go next.  The Dixie was as far as I’d figured it out.
In my mind this road trip was a river run.  I wanted to follow the Mississippi, more or less, skip New Orleans and cut over to Pensacola where I would join Ottawa friends flying in for a four day golf trip.  Though I was going south and east in the end, I first wanted to get to America’s big river.  I found McLean in the atlas and considered my options.  Then breakfast arrived.

The mush wasn’t that good.  Identical oblong patties, fried too long and tough, suggested frozen patties.  They looked like those bad slabs of so called hash browns.  However the eggs were good.  Nice runny yolks like over easy should be.  I had to remind my young waitress to bring the milk, which happens a lot.   They pour your coffee right away and forget you want another beverage. 

If I was doing the Route 66 trip I would follow I 55.  There are preserved stretches of Old 66, scraps of pavement really, and old roadside attractions, scattered along the way.  But I took 55 to Springfield so many times over so many years I dreaded the thought.  Why could I not have lived in the days of self driving cars when I was making all those trips to the Capitol to find money and promote good policy for troubled kids?  I’d been down that road too many times.  I nixed that idea.
What’s best on these trips is a good old two lane state highway, or any road actually with a line painted down the middle.  Those roads have less stop signs and are more likely to be somewhat direct.  They’re slower, but unlike the interstate you can pull off and walk into real country, meet real people.  And if this really was a river run, why not get to a river and follow it to the Mississippi? Look there I thought.  Route 136 would take me to Havana on the Illinois River.  From there I could get on 78 and parallel the river to Alton, cross into Missouri at St. Louis, then hug the river going south.  Perfect.

Something was drawing me to St. Louis and I wasn’t quite sure what.  I celebrated a wedding anniversary there, which one I couldn’t tell you, in an old historic hotel years ago and have fond memories of that great, but not too big, American city.  Plus, I’d get to see the Mississippi River where it is joined by the Missouri but before the Ohio River kicks in.  It’s a magnificent river, the Mississippi, and between St. Louis and just below Cairo it changes dramatically.
I paid for my breakfast at the Dixie, put the decal on the Buick, and headed west on Route 136.  If I’d ever been west on that road I don’t remember it.  As much as I like to go down familiar roads nothing beats discovering new places.  I went through San Jose, which in the pattern of Illinois towns named after other more famous places is pronounced “San Joes”  in the unlikely event you might confuse that little Midwest town for its more famous namesake in California, or Costa Rica.  Similarly, my neighbors in Marseilles take pains to say “Marr Sales”, so you don’t mistakenly think you’re in a Mediterranean port on the coast of France. 

I met up with the Illinois River in Havana, pronounced just like the capitol of Cuba.  Havana looks to be doing pretty well.  New stores and well paved streets.  I worked with a good guy from Havana and have lost touch with him since I retired.  In the event he still reads this blog, I hope you’re doing well Greg. 
As I got closer to the river, irrigation equipment started showing up.  That’s not common in Illinois, and indicates not a lack of rainfall but soil that doesn’t hold moisture well.  Sandy most likely.  You get down to places like Manito and Spring Lake where they grow melons and stuff and you figure the ground is changing.  It’s more expensive to farm irrigated ground.  Given the prices farmers get for grain these days and the cost of growing it I honestly don’t know how they’re making it.

Route 78 took me to Bath.  I was interested in Bath, because my brother takes his boat down there from where he camps across from Kingston Mines.  He talks about it from the perspective of the river.  There’s the famous Bath Ditch, and a restaurant on a barge in the river, or is that in Liverpool?  I’m not sure he’s seen Bath from the road.  Bath may have seen better days, or not.  I’m no authority.  But Bath is low lying, and it looks like floods may have taken their toll on the town’s real estate.  Just guessing but I bet you can buy a house very reasonably in Bath.
Bath bears little resemblance to Bath England just as I doubt Liverpool resembles that famous British town on England’s Atlantic coast.  310 people live in Bath, and it appears the town is most famous for its Redneck Fishing tournament.  I’ve reviewed it online and it is not your average contest.

In this non angling contest fishing poles are not allowed.  Loud flat bottomed Jon boats with outboard motors troll the muddy water while contestants line the boat with large dip nets.  They are after Asian Carp, an invasive species that threaten native fish populations in the Illinois River and elsewhere throughout the country.  This is not a catch and release tournament.  The object is to get as many of these big ugly fish out of the water as possible.  Did I say they drink a lot of beer at the Redneck Fishing Tournament?  It’s a colorful event.
From Bath I veered away from the river through the towns of Chandlerville, Virginia, and finally Jacksonville.  I got goofed up there.  Determined not to use my smart phone to bail myself out, why I’m not sure, I took some kind of alternate route, looped around the main drag, ended up losing Route 78 and unable to find Rt. 267, the road I wanted to take south. 

I don’t try to figure out what I do wrong in those cases, I just plow on.  I stopped for a very old fashioned thing, to get directions, at an office where I saw a guy getting the mail from a mailbox on a post by the street. I was stopped at a light.

You can get the mail with purpose, in a hurry, on your way to doing something else.  Or you can get the mail for a diversion, searching for something to do.  This guy was obviously in the latter category.  He leaned against the mailbox, flipping through the envelopes, checking out the cars, smiling and waving at folks he knew.  As he sauntered across the street into his building I followed him. 
It was the office of Worrell Land Services, which told me nothing.  All I wanted was directions.  Any competent English speaker, or even someone speaking Spanish slowly, would do.

I encountered two women behind a counter in a large, very quiet office.  They both came up to greet me.  Sometimes you wander into places where you immediately sense there is not enough to do.  This was one of those places.  Both women were equally attentive, wide eyed and smiling.  They might have spoken at once, but I think one of them beat the other to it.  Their eagerness was a little intimidating.
“How can we help you?”

“I’m just lost.  I thought I was going to intersect 267 which would take me to south to Greenfield but I got off track.  Where would I find that?”
The face of the woman standing fell.  She was clearly disappointed. 

“I’m not from here so I can’t tell you.”
On the other hand the woman on the left grew pretty animated.

“I can tell you!  Which way are you headed?”
“I’m in your parking lot.  I’ll go anywhere you say.”

“Well, you want to take a left out of our parking lot, head back east, and follow this road down to the city park.  You’ll see a Ferris wheel there.  Do you know the history of Jacksonville and Ferris wheels?”

I hesitated to answer.  Avoiding long conversations about things I don’t care about is not my strong suit.  I hate to be rude.  But in this case I had to pee like a racehorse.  As much as I would have liked to hear about the Jacksonville Ferris connection, which was not much at all, I had no time to listen.
“I don’t know the Ferris wheel deal, but I’m afraid I will have to hear that story another day.  I’m behind schedule as it is.”

I had no schedule. 
“Oh, of course.  Well you turn left and go let’s see, how many blocks?”

She began counting blocks silently on her fingers, starting with her thumb.  She started over.  Then she exploded with a shout.

There was a long pause, then a muffled reply from down the hall.

“Six blocks, then turn right, that’ll take you right to Greenfield.” 

She flashed a huge smile.
“Thank you very much.  You’ve been a big help.”

She stuck out her hand, I extended mine and she shook it vigorously, for a little too long. I got the slightly creepy feeling she would have hugged me if a counter hadn’t separated us.
“Do you folks have a bathroom I can use?”

“Of course.  All the way down the end of the hall and right. You can’t miss it. Light switch is on the right.”
I turned and hustled down the long hall.  On my way back I noticed picture after picture of small farms, sets of  buildings from an aerial view.  Some looked like our old farm, buildings in poor repair, while others looked pristine and newly painted.  Old pictures I guessed.

I passed a nice looking conference room with plush leather looking chairs, and a big office with the mail fetcher sitting motionless behind a big desk, his face illuminated by a computer monitor displaying an Excel spreadsheet.  He looked positively bored.

On my way out I grabbed a pamphlet, thanked the ladies again, and followed their directions.
267 south to Jacksonville takes you through what some would call a big empty part of Illinois. To me it wasn’t empty at all.  Sometimes it seemed like the road intruded on what would have otherwise been a giant fallow prairie waiting to sprout.  Past Woodson there was only Greenfield, Medora and Brighton as far as towns, between Jacksonville and Godfrey.  Otter Creek runs through there.  It’s Macoupin County I believe.  Nice farms.  Little to spoil them.  The Buick was humming along.  The sun was shining though clouds were moving in.  This is what I was looking for; big quiet country.  It’s a place where you can think.  I still hadn’t turned on the radio.

As I got close to Alton and the river, everything changed.  The city emerged.  I knew upriver the Illinois, which flows through my town, had joined the Mississippi.  It is hard to find an old bridge on a small road to take you across the Mississippi.  I got sucked into traffic and was thrown onto a modern bridge across the river before I knew it.  Unlike old bridges,  new bridge construction creates solid side walls that make it hard to see the river.  I wanted to gauge the flow, see what was floating down, but I was going too fast and my view was obstructed.  Sometimes you have to drive rather than gawk.  All I could see was that it was wide.
No sooner had I gotten across the Mississippi river and into Missouri than I was heading up and over the Missouri River, which looked equally big.  With both the Illinois and the Missouri emptying into the Mississippi the volume of water had to increase significantly.  After a quiet ride through farmland I picked up a sense of energy.  Maybe it is the confluence of all those rivers, but it felt like there was a lot going on in St. Louis, and somehow that energy made itself into the Buick.

It started to sprinkle.  I was in the midst of rush hour traffic.  To be expedient, and get out of town as quickly as possible, I stayed on 55, forsaking 61, the two lane which might have taken me south more slowly, past Festus and Crystal City.  Somewhere in there the sprinkle turned into rain. I stayed on 55 till Perryville, then took 61, a two lane, down to Jackson and pulled in for the night at Cape Girardeau.  Long day.