Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cairo - KAY-ro It's an Illinois Thing

Today we talk about Cairo, IL. Pronounced, I'm told, KAY-ro. If you pronounce it like the city in Egypt, you are immediately branded an "outsider" who doesn't know anything... It's an Illinois thing, particularly a SOUTHERN Illinois thing. 

Cairo is at the southern tip of Illinois, and at one end of town, we have the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River located at Ft. Defiance Park. 

We'd left Giant City State Park and were quite warm (to put it nicely). We came into town and immediately spotted the Cairo Public Library. It's a beautiful building surrounded by a high decorative wrought iron fence. 

The building is actually known as the Safford Building, in honor of a prominent Cairo citizen. It's in the Queen Anne style, which really stands out in the town. There are 2 statues on either side of the front door in niches - Clio, the Greek muse of history and Concordia, a Roman goddess of peace...there's also a beautiful (though when we were there, empty) fountain right in front of the door. 
Christmas angel

And there were lots of Christmas decorations. For some reason, they never removed the outside wreaths and fake florals in the pots. And we noticed that even though the outside of the building was gorgeous, you could see the rooms that were "storage areas" because, frankly, the junk was piled up and visible through the windows. 

The collection of books is kind of jammed into the first floor, toward the back of the building, with the kids' section prominently in the front part of the building - encouraging you to settle down and pick up a book. That back area is apparently new to the structure, and they claim 50,000+ books in the collection. 

The vestibule in the front is a cache of kitsch. And in a delicious irony, the computers are located there. And they're both out of order... So -- READ A BOOK!

There are beautiful stained glass windows and in a really stupid move, I didn't take a picture of the unique water fountain right inside the door: set with a beautifully vibrant mosaic - part of the WPA Art Project. I'm an idiot sometimes. Even though I mentioned it twice - I never thought to take a photo. 

I'm blaming the heat. 

There were a number of dioramas and exhibits of the area's river heritage on the first floor, and some really interesting displays of antique toys. 

The town loves its library - and cherishes the history. The old wood and the carvings up the balustrade; the smell of books and antiques; the light filtering through the was bookworm heaven. We even saw a "gambling table" (the one the Christmas angel is sitting on) from an old steamboat. 

As we went upstairs, we saw a rare find: a Tiffany grandfather clock. I'm talking very rare. As in -- according to Tiffany, there are only FOUR of these clocks that were ever produced. The librarian encouraged us to go upstairs and prowl around. There was a lot to see. From the enormous 14th century Italian rosewood credenza to the artwork, porcelain and portraits hanging everywhere you look, it was a feast for the eyes, even though we were having small sneezing fits because many of the vases held -- shall we say -- musty floral arrangements. 

Even though the exhibits were well cared for, there were signs that the building needed some help. And yeah, the flowers could've used dusting - or replacing. 

So upstairs we went, with that satisfying "creak, creak, creak" that an old staircase sings as you walk up to find the treasures on the next level. 

Another sign of the economic issues of Cairo lay in the fact that the upstairs was not air conditioned. Not that I'm a wimp. Well, yeah, I'm a wimp. 

But historically speaking - you've got antiques of some note up there. And no climate control, except for the Special Collections room, which was locked, much to the dismay of Kid #2.

This chandelier was in a "200-seat auditorium." Ummm. Only if they open all the doors and place those chairs all the way to the stairs, but whatever... The chandelier was once the centerpiece of the Cairo Opera House... which, if it still existed, we never found. We also saw President Jackson's desk - the one he used at the Bank of the United States, in Philly. 

In the auditorium are two regular baby grands - and again, it's troubling that these gorgeous pianos are kept in a hot (HOT!) room with large windows and sunlight streaming in. I can't imagine they're in tune...

But also -- there's this: a square grand piano... Yep. Over 100 years old, and according to the librarian, unable to be tuned. Most likely the sound board is in horrible shape, because it's in the same hot room as the other 2 pianos. 

I didn't play it - I was afraid of the Wrath of the Librarian...but she was perfectly lovely and said "all you'd hear was that it's horribly out of tune!"

Among the other treasures are pictures and various other items of note left to the library including collections of horses, china cats, a number of exotic fans from various countries and dating mostly during the era when women used fans not only as a device to cool off, but an accessory for flirtation, and some ancient pieces of pottery. 

It's an amazing place in a town that's clearly in trouble. We drove by the levy and I don't think either of us realized till we were leaving town just how vulnerable Cairo is. If the levy is breached, there's a gate at the railroad viaduct which will come down and effectively close off the town if the river floods. It's not as noticeable when you drive IN, but as you LEAVE, you can tell that it's a barrier that's placed between the two railroad trestles of the viaduct.

There's the Custom House, which we weren't able to tour, and a church that looked interesting. There were a few houses that were interesting as well, but there's this weird vibe in downtown Cairo. 

When I told my friend Shaun that we were going there, he looked at me and said, "be careful." I try to not have preconceived notions, but I see what he meant. 

There was a sense of quiet desperation in the town. And we didn't feel like lingering. We skipped Ft. Defiance; a few of the reviews mentioned how "remote" the site was, and we'd already had enough of the heat with our morning visit to Giant City. 

Before the Internet...

So kids... This is how you researched before The Google... This is a card catalog. In here is the entirety of the collection. It's a sign of the times that there's a poster telling you how to use it... 

In Kid #2's opinion, the level of "acceptability" of a library's collection is how much Vonnegut it has. He was unable to find anything, but I found two volumes. Small, but hey - I was fascinated by the history books they had and I was also able to dig through the "book sale" bin and help the library out a bit by bringing home a number of books... 

I also bought some post cards for my continuing quest of contacting legislators via post card. I mean, seriously - who sends postcards, right? I'm trying to get their attention and it's a hand-written Tweet because you only have a few square inches in which to get your message across. 

The library also still uses cards to check out the books. No bar codes here. 

It was a good way to start out our trip. 

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