July 31, 2009

SIUC helps preserve history of Cairo

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The historic river town of Cairo has been abuzz with activity this summer as students and faculty from Southern Illinois University Carbondale have teamed with community members and others to restore a “shotgun”-style house and document some of the community’s fascinating, storied past.

As these projects are wrapping up, organizers are planning a double-header grand finale of sorts: a public meeting and an open house. The townspeople and anyone else who wants to know more about what’s been happening will want to come to the Cairo Public Library at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 6, as the seven history interns from the University’s Preservation Summer 2009 debut the results of their research.

In addition, there will be an open house later in the month, probably Aug. 22, at the refurbished decades-old shotgun house located at 2910 Sycamore St. An announcement soon will offer details of the open house.

Did you know that the first woman ever to get a federal government pension likely was from the Cairo area?

Graduate student Leanne Ulrey, of Shelbyville, will tell of Ann Stokes Bowman, a nurse on the Red Rover Hospital Ship during the American Civil War. Her husband also served in the Navy and when he died, she applied for his pension but because she had remarried, the government denied her request. She then sought and received a pension in her own name as she’d served in the Union Navy, too. She settled in the Grand Chain area and other veterans in the region also followed in getting pensions that helped improve their quality of life. Ulrey’s research indicates that black people heavily settled in the Cairo area because while other communities had sundown laws requiring them to leave town by dark, deep south towns in Illinois were welcoming.

The research of graduate student Andrew Barbero of Herrin reveals that in March 1873 Gov. John J. Beveridge appointed a black Southern Illinois man, John J. Bird, to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Bird was also police magistrate in Cairo and it’s likely he was the first black trustee appointee for an American university.

Willie Davis, an undergraduate student from Chicago, has written the biographies of a half-dozen black military personnel who settled in the area after the war while Stephanie Wagner, an SIUC student from Carterville, researched Civil War medical practices and how they saved Union soldiers and freedmen.

Students Lana Gosnell of Naperville and Vernon Davis of Simpson will present “Cairo Illinois: Then and Now,” the story of downtown Cairo’s transformation and development. They’re creating a Web page, too. The town’s early development and how the region got its “Egypt” connection are the focus for a presentation by Jens Anderberg of Lanark. Each of the students will highlight their interesting research with Powerpoint presentations during the Aug. 6 event.

Plans call for incorporating all of the research into an exhibit, according to Rachel Malcolm Ensor, history department lecturer. They’re trying to collect donations of about $5,500 to create a permanent display to appear at the SIUC University Museum in January and February 2010 for Black History Month. They then plan to take it on the road, presenting it wherever people are interested.

To make donations, or for more information, contact Ensor at 618/453-7862 or by email at rensor@siu.edu. Or, send checks payable to the history department to Ensor at Faner Hall, Mail Code 4519, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Carbondale IL, 62901.

The group from SIUC has not only worked with area residents to preserve their history in words and photos. They’ve also labored long and hard to help restore one of the city’s homes and make it usable by Cairo for tourism and development efforts.

Legend has it that shotgun homes got their name because their long narrow design meant you could shoot a gun through the front door and the projectiles would go straight out the back door with nothing architecturally in between to stop them. This summer, SIUC architecture students and faculty, including Robert H. Swenson, associate professor and architect from the School of Architecture, worked alongside community members and participants in the Heritage Conservation Network workshop (http://www.heritageconservation.net/index.htm.) led by Paducah contractor Bill Black Jr. to perform their magic on the dilapidated structure.

Under the sometimes searing summer sun, they cleared debris from the house, tore out loose floor coverings and scraped the floor to the original wood, removed plumbing fixtures and useless cabinetry, rebuilt and re-glazed the windows and surrounding framing, installed foundation vents and repaired and rebuilt porches, fixed doors, removed overgrown plants and much more. Always mindful of being true to the original structure, where necessary they acquired structural elements from a similar partially burnt structure slated for demolition. Students have planned a new handicapped accessible bathroom and entrance so the Cairo Chamber of Commerce will be able to use the house. Cairo Vision 20-20 members are installing new wiring too.

The Cairo Chamber of Commerce is accepting donations to cover the cost of materials already used on the project and for the new roof. For more information or to donate, contact Monica Smith at the Cairo Public Library, 618/734-1840.

The open house will give the public a chance to see how they can save and utilize Cairo’s historic structures. The city of Cairo owns this particular house, one of about 350 properties in the town that are already included on or are eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Preservation Summer collaborative effort is all about examining and preserving the past of the historic Cairo region while helping local residents bring about a revival for the community located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.