Staci and I have made it our routine to spin through Cairo, IL for just a few clicks of the shutter on our way back from our New Orleans workshop. Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and at the very southern tip of Illinois, Cairo was once a booming town rich from river trade and rail transportation. It began as a Civil War fort commanded by General Grant that post-war became known for it’s enormous Victorian Mansions and for the wealthy people who vacationed there. Cairo was the place to be in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But as the railroads began to build bridges that bypassed the city and and highways were laid down, Cairo’s river dependent economy began to shrink.
In the 60’s Cairo gained national attention as riots broke out and a young black man was hanged in the middle of the town square by an angry mob. From the Civil War to it’s boom in 1920 through it’s downfall mid-century, Cairo’s history is defined by racial and economic tensions.
I didn’t know much about Cairo until a client and good friend recommended that we visit the area for its photographic opportunities. Being from a small town in northern Michigan, I’ve seen my fair share of boom and bust towns, but there is something unique about Cairo and it’s history that truly does draw you in. After doing some research on the area, I was hooked. I brought my Pentax 6×7 medium format film camera and put in some expired 120 Kodak Plus-X Pan ISO 125 Panchromatic Black & White Film 06/1984 to try and capture the feel of the town.
This year as we were strolling around, we had the pleasure of meeting Donny, a lifelong resident of Cairo. He’s a colorful character with a slight southern drawl and a real knack for telling stories. He was with his dog Shaky, a Jack Russell mix that he rescued from a yard in town. He named him for his constant tremors that are a result of being abused as a puppy. Of course I’m a sucker for a Jack Russell mix, and Shaky was every bit as witty and smart as you’d expect of a Jack.
We got to chatting and Donny shared memories with us of working the river boats that floated the Mississippi to New Orleans. “Every night I would get off that boat in New Orleans with $200 in my hand and return the next day broke. Drinking and women….those were good times!” Later in life Donny survived a gunshot wound to the head and as he tells it, “It was all about a girl.” Then a decade later he suffered a near fatal heart attack after hearing his previous dog was hit by a car.
I’ll admit, I can be a cynic at times which is probably due to the journalist-blood in me, but there was something that rang very true in Donny’s voice as he told us about his life. In the end, his story has been every bit as turbulent as that of the town he’s called home for 58 years. A town, a man, and his dog all getting by, each with stories of hardship and survival.
As I took my last photograph of Donny and Shaky with my Pentax, I said, “So is the wheelchair a result of the head shot or the heart attack?” He looked back with a smile and said, “Oh, I can walk. I can even run — just not for long!”
I chuckled and he smiled. I told him I’d see him next spring. He said, “I’ll be here!”