The first time I saw downtown Cairo, I stopped my car in the middle of the street and stared in disbelief. The entire business district, which comprised several blocks of brick streets in beautiful condition, was empty - deserted and devoid of all movement. Had it not been for a piece of trash blowing down the middle of the street, the scene could have been a still-frame.
The stillness, the quiet, the absence of any sign of life was fascinating, yet also left me wondering if the next sound I heard would be the theme from The Twilight Zone with a voice-over by Rod Serling.
Looking at the stunning late-1800s commercial architecture - most of which was in original condition and all of which had been abandoned - my intuitive sense told me that folks had left this place in a hurry. And as I began researching the area, I learned my hunch was on mark.
In the mid-1960s, racial unrest and riots were a sad part of the American landscape, but in Cairo, things went especially badly. African-Americans, weary of Jim Crow laws and disparate treatment, threatened to boycott businesses that employed only whites. White business owners responded by closing their stores. Large numbers of families - white and black - left the area and never returned. The population plummeted. Today, downtown Cairo is a ghost town - an incredible time capsule - frozen in the 1960s. The city that once boasted of 14,000 citizens now has about 3000 people living within its borders.
In the early 1900s, Cairo was the site of a 40-acre Sears Mill, where Sears kit homes were milled and shipped out to all 48 states. It was a busy, industrial town and the Sears Mill was one of several businesses there.
I’ve returned to Cairo several times since that first visit in 2002, and each time, I make a point to drive through that incredible downtown area. I park my car and stare. I stare at the old buildings which are in fair to decent condition and still look much like they did when built 100+ years ago. I look at the store fronts whose doorways have not been darkened by a customer in many years. I study the two movie theatres that look much like they did when built in the 1920s and 30s. I take in the long view and look at the streetscapes, devoid of movement or activity.
Just behind those fantastic old commercial buildings lies a seawall and the Ohio River. I do believe that the city could build a fantastic tourism industry off this downtown area alone. I’ve never seen a sight like it.
Apparently, word is getting out, because on my last visit, I saw two tourists taking a plethora of photos of this eerie but fascinating downtown. However, if you decide to visit - come prepared. Cairo has no public bathrooms, no fast-food joints and no public water fountains. About 15 minutes away, just across the Ohio River, is Wickliffe, Kentucky - site of the nearest public restroom. The nearest Burger Doodle is 30 miles southwest in Cape Girardeau.
One thing Cairo does have is plenty of vacant lots, such as 1501 Commercial Avenue. This corner lot is a few blocks from the downtown area and according to the 1922 Sears Modern Homes catalog, it was the site of a beautiful “Elsmore” (Honor-Bilt home). The testimonial on page 111 of the catalog reads, “Built by R. P. Fitzjearl, 1501 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. He says, ‘Already-cut lumber saves one-third of time. Plans as simple as reading a book.’”
When I drive through Cairo, I look at all those empty lots and try not to think about how many Sears homes have been torn down in the intervening years. Several? Dozens? Or worse?
Thus far, I’ve identified about 30 Sears homes in Cairo. Many are in poor condition and a few more may be torn down before the city awakens to its architecture treasures. The addresses of these Sears homes are at the Cairo Public Library on Washington Street and make for a fun driving tour. Learn more about Sears Homes here.
Entrance to Cairo
This was once an architectural gem: An 1860s building with Mansard roof and round windows.
The last remnant of the Sears Mill in Cairo, Illinois are two little Sears Modern Homes (The Rodessas) built side by side to prove the superiority of pre-cut kit homes to traditional stick built lumber. They were built in 1919, and are now surrounded by acres and acres of farmland. The Sears Mill closed in 1940, and the buildings (mills and storage sheds) disappeared sometime later.
Original catalog image featuring the little Sears Rodessa