For many people the implication from the title of this piece might present a daunting proposition. In my case, growing up in a town of around 400 inhabitants simplifies things immensely.
There is a lot to share and the amount of information I’ve uncovered is simply too much to be used here, which is a bit unfortunate. So before we get started, a few pieces of information are critical.
- Upon starting this I realized an obligation to provide some historical perspective to give you a better flavor of the place.
- Keep in mind the town has deteriorated significantly since I moved away a quarter century ago. It had been in decline for quite a while prior to that, as you shall see.
- If you’ve ever been curious about the dynamics of small-town America, this is your big opportunity.
The town is Thebes, Illinois, located in Alexander County, the southwestern most county of the state. From Thebes, Chicago is twice the distance than is Memphis, Tennessee. Birmingham, Alabama, is as close as Chicago.
Thebes was first referred to as Spar Hawk Landing due to two brothers by the name of Sparhawk harvesting poplar trees from the area and floating them down to New Orleans for use in keelboat manufacture. The manufacturer was so enamored with the quality of this timber they sent crews to help with the harvest. These crew workers brought their wives and families along, thus a settlement was born.
The name of Thebes came about when the town was platted on March 2, 1846. The name of Thebes works well as this area is known as “Little Egypt” and Cairo is about twenty miles south. Many of the towns in this part of Illinois have Egyptian, Greek, or Middle Eastern originated names such as Dongola, Metropolis, Sparta, and Karnak. In fact, I spent thirteen years being educated at Egyptian School; the mascot was a pharaoh.
In 1846 a courthouse was built in Thebes on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Designed by Henry Ernst Barkhausen it cost $4,000 at that time. Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president here and Dred Scott was incarcerated in a prison cell (more aptly described as dungeon) in the basement. A plan sheet for the building, found at the Library of Congress website of all places, says the men’s cell is 15’6″ x 15’6″.
The courthouse still exists and has been restored. It even has its own website and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972. It currently contains a museum and is being kept going by a small but highly dedicated group of persons. Looking at the website, I’ve met or know a fair number of the people found pictured.
At one point business in town was quite good, with there being three railroad stations, eight taverns, a movie theatre, a large hotel, a dynamite plant, and numerous retail stores. The population reached its peak in 1920 at 857 and has been declining in the century since with the estimated 2016 population being 359.
The hotel cost $50,000 around 1900; the Bureau of Labor Statistics will only provide the present worth of money back to 1913; according to them a $50,000 amount from 1913 equates to $1.3M in present worth. It was built on the river front in a location that I would later know as a city park, of sorts.
From Google, here’s the approximate location of the hotel in 2008. The street is paved; it appears the river had recently been in flood stage. Sediment is a distinct issue every time the Mississippi River recedes.
If there is any sort of claim to fame Thebes may make, its playing a small part in the 1926 Edna Ferber novel Show Boat wouldn’t be the best. The use of Thebes was tangential to the story as it was the home of Captain Andy Hawks and his family.
A genealogical website about Alexander County claims Ferber spent time living in Thebes while writing the book; the wikipedia entry on Ferber claims she wrote it while spending time in Paris and makes no mention of Thebes whatsoever. Regardless, this isn’t the most enduring legacy of Thebes and time has made the book quite obscure.
Show Boat was made into a Broadway musical and a feature film based upon the play was produced in 1929.
The feature Thebes is likely most known for is shown in the leading photograph. It is home to the only railroad bridge over the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis. It was opened in 1905 and has remained in service since then.
Building it was quite the accomplishment in its day. According to historicbridges.org this is one of the earliest examples of work by Ralph Modjeski who would become a very well known bridge designer. The overall structure length is 3,817 feet long with the main span being 671 feet in length.
It is also referenced as being one of the early surviving examples of large-scale concrete arch bridge technology as the approach spans on both sides are a series of concrete arches.
A 1905 report by Modjeski and Alfred Noble to the Southern Illinois and Missouri Bridge Company (found in the archives of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale) says 26.9 million pounds of steel comprise the bridge; another source stated over 400,000 cubic yards of concrete were used. Interestingly, the linked report says the cement came from Indianapolis and was chosen due to its finishing properties.
Design characteristics provide around 60 feet of space between water level and bottom of the bridge during high water conditions and just over 100 feet during low water.
The piers are quite stout, as demonstrated by numerous barges over the years. Nothing sounds quite like a barge hitting one of these piers on a warm summer night. It’ll wake the dead.
Incidentally, I’ve heard the automobile manufacturers briefly shipped cars via barge back in the 1950s. My father has told a story about yet another errant barge hitting one of these piers and sinking with a load of brand new 1955 or 1956 Ford cars. I’ve found nothing to prove nor disprove that story.
Mention needs to be made about Ralph Modjeski. Born in Poland in 1861, Modjeski emigrated to the United States with his mother in 1876. Modjeski returned to Europe to study at l’Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, graduating at the top of his class in 1885; he obtained American citizenship while there. The Thebes Bridge was one of his very early assignments as a chief engineer; other notable bridges in which Modjeski would serve as chief engineer include the Broadway Bridge in Portland, Oregon, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge that connect Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with Camden, New Jersey.
As an aside, I’ve been over the Ben Franklin Bridge. Twice. On a family trip in 1988 that included a stop in Philadelphia my father made a wrong turn and we descended upon New Jersey. As it included a toll (in other words, paying for his mistake) my father got royally peeved and we promptly turned around and went back (thus paying a second toll).
So I’ve always been uncertain if I’ve been to New Jersey or not; I was there but didn’t set foot on the ground. I do remember the sound of the 302 V8 in my parent’s 1985 Ford LTD Crown Victoria as my dad was hot-footing it back to Pennsylvania.
This is the time to transition this assortment of thoughts into reflections upon small town life and the dynamics of Thebes, with particular attention to my childhood of the late 1970s and 1980s. Everything here ties together one way or another, which is exactly how things work in small towns.
While nearly all of us are too young to remember World War II, there was great concern along coastal areas of the United States about German forces invading the country and wreaking tremendous havoc. As far inland as is Thebes, where there would have been ample advance notice of any invasion, such trivial matters didn’t stop my grandfather’s younger brother Stan from creating a frenzy. A bullshitter for the ages, Stan persuaded a group of town elders one quiet weekend the Wehrmacht was about to invade – on foot and across the bridge from the Missouri side.
Upon a well-armed posse marching out to the foot of the bridge, Stan went around town telling everyone he could find about the intellectually challenged individuals who were assembling and ready to fight the fictitious German invaders to their last breath. The members of the posse were teased for the next twenty years.
Seen here is a satellite image of Thebes. Of note is the distinction between downtown and uptown. The difference was literally a hill of 8% grade and about a quarter mile long (it’s the jog in the road in the tree covered area). The hill also explains the sparseness on the left side of the map. One too many floods prompted a huge federal buy-out in the 1980s and many houses were simply torn down in lieu of being repaired yet again.
So hang on; I’m going to be referring to these points while sharing various memories. However, my aim is to allow you to follow this narrative without your making umpteen references to this map.
I grew up (Point A) in a house with seven acres overlooking the Mississippi River. My parents had purchased it in 1976 from the original owner, who built it around 1967. The old Thebes school was still in use and teachers had to close the windows despite the heat; it seems the workers building the house were yelling and cussing so much it was disrupting class. Many of the cars of my father (seen here and here) were parked here at one point or another.
This was their second house in town; their previous house (Point G) was about 500 feet across a ravine and was purchased in 1968 from the parents of one of my father’s high-school classmates. My parents later sold this house to Charlotte and Mac. Charlotte and Mac loved Ford Mustangs, having two ’66 fastbacks for a very long time. Those eventually went away…for something.
When we moved into the new house in 1976, our closest neighbor (Point B) was Mrs. Stehr. She was a widow in her early to mid-70s and she was as tough as trying to chew roofing nails. She had a few acres that she couldn’t easily mow with her 6 or so horsepower Snapper riding mower; my father would bush-hog it a couple times per year for her using his old Ford tractor.
With the tall grass, snakes were plentiful. There was a story about her spotting a cottonmouth while hanging laundry out to dry. Knowing she needed to eradicate it, Mrs. Stehr bent down and clothes-pinned its backside to some weeds. She ran into the house for her 0.38 so she could administer some hot lead therapy.
The part of the story that surprised everyone is she didn’t have her pistol on her at the time.
Mrs. Stehr drove a blue 1970 Chevrolet Nova two-door.
Some years later, Mrs. Stehr moved north to live with her daughter. Purchasing her house was Mary Jean and Steve; they had lived downtown (just to the right of Point Q) and while the river had never quite flooded their house, it was too close for comfort.
They still live there; google earth reveals a white Ford F-350 parked in an outbuilding, likely a tow vehicle for an RV. Years ago they also had a 1947 Willys Jeep and a white mid-1970s Ford pickup.
They also enjoyed their 1971 to 1976 GM B-bodies as they had a loaded ’72 Pontiac Bonneville at one point as well as a white 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Both had been low-mileage bargains obtained from retired couples.
One day their son purchased eight white compact Ford Courier pickups at an auction. With those Courier’s lined up in the yard, my mother jokingly asked if the Olds and F-150 had had a litter of pups.
In 1980, right after my mother’s younger brother “Ron” and his wife got married, they bought a house (Point O) that my parents had had as a rental. At that time Ron had his 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Since Ron had a bit of a commute and wanted to prolong the Monte, in addition to providing his wife / my aunt a set of wheels, he had a series of beater cars including a VW Bug and, my favorite, a 1968 Dodge Coronet 440 sedan.
My father gleefully sold the house to Ron as being a landlord had been a nuisance to him. Perhaps a tenant some years before caused that. After my father had to evict those particular tenants he found the basement full of marijuana plants. The marijuana in and of itself didn’t bother him; having to dispose of it did.
He got to deal with marijuana another time, too. I was down in the woods near the house one day when I was about 13 years old and found marijuana plants growing. That they were planted in a tire filled full of well watered potting soil, with a beaten path to get there, made me suspect it wasn’t a volunteer plant.
Dad and I took a walk and cut all the plants off at ground level, taking them back to the house. I ran them all down the garbage disposal. However, that was only after my mother put them all in a vase to admire them for the afternoon. It is a beautiful plant.
Again it wasn’t the plant but the disposal. Plus, dad was like president of the school board by this time so having marijuana on the place would have been problematic. My suggesting he could claim glaucoma prevention got me nowhere.
Also, for any who may be aghast about our not involving law enforcement, consider what I’ve said before but am compelled to say again: Law enforcement where I grew up was a theoretical thing. There was no town marshal and the sheriff’s department was pretty invisible; years later they would have their patrol cars repossessed. The state police consisted of two troopers in the entire county, thus we tended to be self-reliant and take care of problems ourselves.
Remember, this is small town America where there are few to no secrets. My parents threatened and coerced me into secrecy about the marijuana find as they knew this was juicy information for a thirteen year old boy. The statute of limitations was reached a while back.
Subsequent to the flood buy-out, Orville and Irene bought property and built their new house (Point C) quite near ours. They had lived downtown (Point P) next to the Methodist Church. Orville had two Oldsmobile 98 sedans, a 1969 and a 1975. Several years ago I wrote about Orville and how he built his house when in his 80s.
For whatever reason, there are some events I find amazing that have no resonance with my father. For instance, he owned the town jail (Point S)!!! Yep, you read that right – the Shafer’s owned the jail. Granted, the jail was long out of use and he had simply purchased the lot it was on, but still. Despite my pleadings, he never took me there to see it. I finally did see it some time after he sold it in the federal buy-out.
Or I guess that’s when he sold it. He doesn’t seem to remember. How can one forget something that HUGE???
One thing is certain – the Shafer’s at one time or another owned many different parcels throughout town. How so?
For starters, another of my grandfather’s younger brothers, Leland, the one who gave me Mercury poisoning, owned the post office building, seen here on the right. Hmm, I just realized; Shafer’s owned the jail and the post office. Such has to be unusual.
Leland and his wife Geneva’s house was on a lot near the court house. Geneva was the post master for a long time; the substitute post master was my mom’s cousin.
On the right side of the picture, there is a snippet of a greenish car. There isn’t quite enough to definitely determine what it is, but it looks like a 1959 Edsel; if so, that may be one of the two Edsels Leland bought new.
Here’s a ’59 Edsel. I’m thinking that may be what is seen in the picture.
Incidentally, the post office picture appears to be at the front end of a flood. I remember walking into this post office (after a vast exterior upgrade) during another flood in 1978 or 1979 and had to walk on planks over the water to get in the front door. The water was already about 12 inches to 18 inches deep by that point. That flood did consume the post office that time.
At some point my great-grandparents lived in a house east of town (Point T). Perhaps this was when they had their 1937 Ford. That was long before my time.
Or their 1939 Ford. However, I knew my great-grandmother Shafer (my great-grandfather had died in 1966) as only living in town (the now vacant lot between Points L and K). They bought that house from their fourth son, my Uncle Donald.
Donald is who purchased my ’63 Ford Galaxie in 1964.
Donald and his wife Bobbye lived nearby (Point F) and added an addition to the house for Bobbye to operate a small grocery store. The place has deteriorated greatly since Bobbye died but right in front of this utility pole is where Donald parked the old Galaxie and it was sitting there when my father, Uncle Stan, and I pulled it home in 1986.
Getting the Galaxie home was no big deal but doing so did look a little, uh, rustic. Dad was on his Ford tractor pulling the Galaxie, Stan was steering it and fighting a flat tire, and I was following in dad’s 1984 Ford F-150. As we passed Louie and Pauline’s (Point E), Pauline saw the procession and had a mild scowl on her face. Whatever. Pauline was particular about some things (seen here) although it was always hinted I needed to be nice since Pauline’s brother was married to Wanda, my Grandma Iris’s older sister.
Pauline didn’t drive but Louie and their son Buddy did. In addition to their 1975 Chevrolet Nova they had a 1970 or 1971 Ford Torino sedan.
The Torino eventually went away for an N-body Buick Somerset / Regal (whatever GM called it that year). It’s doubtful any of these three cars ever exceeded 45 miles per hour during their ownership.
Another Shafer parcel was that of my Aunt Elizabeth, dad’s younger sister, and her husband Lyle (Point K). For a while they had a brown 1975 Toyota Corona with an Fe2O3 infection (that small town in me is too polite to say “rust”) that went away for a 1981 Ford Mustang. Lyle also had a ’60s Chevrolet pickup for a brief while that went away for a 1976 Ford F-100.
They had purchased the house from Miss Lulu, a retired teacher from the old Thebes School.
The Thebes School was consolidated into Egyptian School in 1968; this is a picture from the 1959 Thebian yearbook. The guy on the left chasing the girl is my then fifteen-year old father. The school was directly west of, and across the street from, Elizabeth’s house in what is now the huge vacant lot.
Another digression is needed. Miss Lulu has been gone for decades and never married, so I suppose spilling an ancient town rumor is now safe. Anyway rumor had it Miss Lulu was born with ambiguous genitalia and simply lived as a female. Thinking about it, that may have come from Stan so the validity is highly suspect; then again he lived next door to her for years, so maybe he had first-hand knowledge….
If one was to believe in ghosts, Miss Lulu may have been visiting Elizabeth from the great beyond as something kept turning her blender on in the middle of the night. It happened despite Elizabeth always keeping it unplugged.
Elizabeth and Lyle later sold that house to Ernest and Carolyn; Carolyn had babysat my sister and I several years earlier.
At the risk of another digression, here’s an example of small towns. This is my father’s junior class, my father being second from the left in the middle row.
The guy standing next to my father married at sixteen due to getting his girlfriend pregnant. It was his parents from whom my father purchased his and my mother’s first house. This gentleman now lives in Georgia.
The boy second from the right in the back row was Dad’s first cousin, their mothers being sisters (yes, two of these three). They would later serve together for years on the school board at Egyptian School.
The boy third from the left in the rear row was my godfather. He’s the one who took his Ford Mustang II to Italy around 1980 when he took a job teaching fifth grade at an Air Force installation near Brindisi.
The girl at left in the bottom row had been my 4H club leader (a youth service organization) and had a son a year behind me in school. We were friends for a while but had a falling out.
The girl third from the right in the bottom row had a younger brother who was manager of the Ford dealer in Rolla, Missouri, during the time I lived there in the early to mid-90s. Dad and I visited him one night and he told about borrowing an old widow’s 1954 Chevrolet for joyrides.
The boy on the right of the rear row had a brother who later lived next door to my parents first house. His brother was one of the three Bob’s in town – there was Fat Bob, Black Bob, and Rapid Robert.
Fat Bob (who wasn’t fat) lived next door to my parents. His nickname (as did everyone’s, come to think of it) came about from my Uncle Stan as he needed to differentiate between the Bobs. Bob and his wife, who was a Holocaust survivor, had about 47 kids – or so it seemed. In about 2002 Bob was driving his 1976 Dodge pickup (1977 shown) when my paternal grandmother pulled in front of him with her 2000 Ford Taurus. The Dodge was the clear winner in that skirmish.
Nobody was hurt.
Black Bob (due to his thick black hair as a youth) lived on the edge of town (Point J) and owned the gas station downtown (Point Q). In the early 1990s I mowed Bob’s yard for him and he was profoundly particular about how I mowed the terraces in his yard. At the time he had an early 1980s Chevrolet pickup and a 1985 Chevrolet Caprice.
Here’s a picture of Bob’s old station during a 2016 flood. Bob was around 80 when I mowed for him, he sometimes wore a shirt, and he didn’t have a black hair anywhere I could see.
Rapid Robert lived next door to Donald and Bobbye (Point H) and drove an old Ford Maverick. That man never stopped moving and was always working on something. I always suspected it was so he wouldn’t have to be around his wife Eunice.
Bob provided Eunice a yellow, very well equipped 1973 Ford LTD which was a nice car that looked infinitely better than a ’73 Impala or Fury.
Speaking of yellow LTDs, Ed and Grace (Point L) had a yellow 1975 to 1978 LTD with non-covered headlights. It was nice but not as nice as Bob and Eunice’s. Grace also had a killer sense of humor from what I heard from my godfather’s mother Edna (who was also my first grade music teacher and was the inspiration behind this long ago CC). It seems Grace found a favored Christmas card that she sent to quite a few people.
The caption was along the lines of how one can tell they’ve been naughty.
Perhaps some might be wondering – why all the American cars? Where’s the imports? Other than the lone Toyota, the guy down the street from Elizabeth had a series of Datsun pickups. His wife’s sister was Charlotte, the female half of the couple my parents sold their first house. Everything in a small town goes full circle.
Writing this has been oddly invigorating. It’s odd how such seemingly typical events may not be so typical when elaborating on them. Will I go so far as to say Thebes is unique? Not really as all small towns have their own particular dynamic.
Would I go back? No; there’s nothing for me there as even my parents moved away in 1994. The town has deteriorated too much and many of the people mentioned here are long gone. For my chosen profession career opportunities are quite limited unless I wanted to drive 50 miles each way or work in a different state – and pay income tax in both states like my parents did. A very compelling argument could be made it’s people like me who are killing such small towns. Many of my classmates, along with their parents, have moved away to larger areas for more opportunity or better services. As an example, after Bob closed his station, I was ten miles away from the closest gas station.
That said, a little outside of town I did find a fairly new 2,200 square foot house with a full basement on just over two acres for $140,000. While that’s relatively cheap, and I can theoretically retire in about seven years, I am not tempted.
I know full well I’ll never be a part of such a place again – and I’m good with that. Besides, I can still go back and drive around town. It’s a small place so it’s not like driving every street there will take very long.