The Hewer of Cairo
Wandering through the sleepy ghost town of Cairo, Illinois today is not too different from admiring old Egyptian monuments from ancient times. The old customs house along the river, once a hub of merchant activity, is now a museum of local history. Most of the buildings downtown are abandoned and boarded up. Flood damage from recent years is still visible.
A bronze monument downtown, made for the World’s Fair in Saint Louis in 1904, is called “The Hewer.” It’s a dedication to the people of the town who fought to save lives and property from flood. The figure on the monument is hewing wood to drag ashore to help build a barricade against the encroaching waters. I have noted before that a certain mentality prevails in a population that relies on a dangerous and unpredictable river for their sustenance and prosperity. They tend to develop ideas about a temperamental god of Fate who must be placated but also accepted as inevitably chaotic. The river made Cairo, Illinois rich, but strangely the enduring city monument is of a man, naked against the raging elements of nature’s angry god, working his mind and body in a heroic effort to save his town from this very same river. It reminds me very very much of Moses and his love/hate relationship with Yahweh.
Actually, hewer even sounds like a King James kind of word. (And as I perversely giggle, it also reminds me of a line from the Tom Waits song “Come On Up to the House” – Come down off the cross/We can use the wood.)
I’ve always been fascinated by the odd coincidences of history, which leads me to think free will isn’t a very strong factor in human affairs. When something is going to happen, it finds its way. How often has a breakthrough discovery or brand new idea occurred to several people at the same time? And what’s even more bizarre are the nearly identical lives certain people live, without intending to.
I think about this a lot, and one of the reasons I chose to have a “Time” category for a blog about ideas and stories held in common by many people, is that this notion of repeated history seems to have a lot to do with people having similar dreams or stories, as if this groupthink somehow precipitates the periodicity of historical events.
Southern Illinois is a rural region that has been known as “Little Egypt” at least since the early 1800’s. It isn’t hard to envision the reason for this. The triangular area is flanked by the life-giving waters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, which fertilize the alluvial soil. At the southernmost tip just a short way downstream lies Memphis, named after Memphis, Egypt. Memphis, Tennessee even has its own pyramid by the riverside. And on the Illinois side lies Cairo (pronounced KAY-roh), once a hugely prosperous river town. Southern Illinois University, the major college of the area, has the Saluki for a mascot. A Saluki is an Egyptian greyhound.
Cairo, Illinois became prosperous for similar reasons that Cairo, Egypt became a huge capital. The Illinois town was a port of call, which means ships coming through the Gulf of Mexico could bypass customs in New Orleans and travel up the Mississippi River to Cairo before declaring their goods and paying duty on them. So Cairo, Illinois was growing fat off the merchant trade, simply by situating itself as a middleman on the river.
When people decide a place reminds them of another place, do they begin to re-create history? Is something set in motion beyond the intent of the people, or do people create their own story subconsciously?
What we know is this: Southern Illinois became the breadbasket of the state, rather ironically, since outside of the alluvial plains of the bordering rivers the area has poor soil compared to the north section of Illinois. In the 1830’s, severe weather in north-central Illinois destroyed the crops, compelling merchants to come down to Southern Illinois to buy grain. Some have noted the similarity of this story to the Biblical story of famine in Palestine causing the Israelite nomads to go to Egypt to buy grain to survive. The nomads remained in Egypt until they became enslaved, only to be liberated generations later by Moses.
Well, slavery and liberation do strangely come into the story here. Southern Illinois was and is a rural, agricultural area and so had strong economic and cultural ties to the American South, which was of course rural and relied on slave labor to work the large fields of commercial crops. Even though the state of Illinois itself was never a slave state, slavery did exist in Southern Illinois since landowners could bring their slaves with them when they moved into the area. And cotton, a well-known commercial commodity in Egypt, was grown in Southern Illinois during the Civil War.
Now Moses liberated the slaves in the Egypt story by a demonstration of plagues, some of which, like hail and locusts, are common enough scourges in Southern Illinois as well. But the worst plague of all, the one that finally broke the will of Pharoah, was the death of all first-born children. I suppose the American Civil War, whose death toll is still the highest and most catastrophic of all American wars, is in a poetic way a plague upon offspring. Everyone lost sons. But from Illinois, north Illinois of course, came the “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, who set the slaves free and led all Americans into a new world. Like Moses, though, he died before seeing this happen with his own eyes. Illinois is still known as the “Land of Lincoln,” and Lincoln is one of few American leaders of stature to achieve messiah status.
Still later, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, plagues in the rural areas of the South in the form of massive floods and pests destroyed the agricultural economy, leading to the Great Migration. This was a time when African-Americans in great numbers left the rural South and travelled to urban centers in the north to find new work in factories. Chicago, in northern Illinois, was a major destination, even spawning a new musical form known as Chicago blues. Southern Illinois is still “Little Egypt,” but her glories are now past.