Farmland 0, Cairo 1 (Second Update)

Monday night (May 2), they finally did it. The Army Corp of Engineers blew the levees at Birds Point in Southeast Missouri, flooding 200 square miles of Missouri’s best farmland. The farms – those silly patches of black dirt where we produce the food that keeps us alive – were sacrificed in order to save the tiny town of Cairo, Illinois.

And the very next day, the lawsuits started.  On May 3rd, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Army Corps of Engineers. Farmers and property owners, represented by attorney J. Michael Ponder (Cape Girardeau, MO), allege that the 15-foot tall man-made tsunami destroyed (and will destroy) more than 100,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland.

The lawsuit claims that 5th Amendment rights are at stake, which offer legal protection for landowners before government can take private property. According to an article that appeared this afternoon on the PR Newswire, the cataract of water is flowing onto the farms at the rate of 550 feet per second, and (as one would imagine), it’s causing catastrophic consequences.

According to Monday’s Southeast Missourian, flood levels in Cairo reached historic highs on Monday night when the gauge hit 61 feet, shattering old records set 74 years ago. In February 1937, the rivers rose to 59.5 feet in Cairo, Illinois. Think about that for a moment. This flood of 2011 is breaking all known records.

The blown levees are good for Cairo; bad for the farmland in Missouri which experts say will be ruined for years. Midwestern farmland owes its fertility to those spring-time floods of yore, but this is not the way Mother Nature does things. When those levees were blown, that 15-foot wall of water brought with it sand and river-laden debris and all manner of pollutants found in flood waters. Experts predict it could take years for the farms to become productive again.

The Chicago Tribune reported that crops have already been planted on some of these farms that are now being inundated with this “man-made tsunami,” destroying the crops and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to the local farmers. In addition, as many as 100 homes could be destroyed by this plan.

Cairo is an interesting little town, and was full of history, but much of their historically significant architecture is gone, and the remnant is in poor condition. A few grand old manses remain, but they’re the exception. Most of the businesses and all of the industry left long ago. Cairo’s downtown is a ghost town, and a virtual trip back in time to the 1960s. To learn more about Cairo’s history, click here.

We’ve got to protect our farms. With the rising costs of food, it’s time to start showing a little respect to the few family farms we have left in this country, many of which are in Missouri.

This time, I think it would have been wiser to let Cairo be the sacrificial lamb, rather than lose our farmland.

To read the opinion of a Cairo native, click here.

To read a happy story about a happy town, click here.

Pictures of Cairo are below.

Judging by all the vines, its likely that these flood gates no longer work, but the rivers still work really, really well.

Judging by all the vines, it's likely that these flood gates no longer work, but the rivers still work really, really well.

Community services anyone?

Community services anyone?

Is there a doctor in the house?

Is there a doctor in the house?

Another view of the abandoned hospital

Another view of the abandoned hospital

The real estate market in Cairo is on fire. Sort of.

The real estate market in Cairo is on fire. Sort of. Note, all three houses have been burned out. Sadly, this is a common sight in Cairo.

Schools out for summer. And apparently for the rest of time.

School's out for summer. And apparently for the rest of time.

Part of the charm of the downtown is it really is a step back in time. Notice the vintage cat in the foreground.


Downtown Cairo. The barricade is presumably there to protect citizens from collapsing buildings. You'll notice the building on the far right has mostly fallen in on itself. This photo was taken about 11 am in the morning. This is the morning rush hour in downtown Cairo.

Spearmint “Pepsin Gum” surely got their money’s worth out of this old advertisement.
More views

Capt'n Wades appears to be the only viable business in the whole of downtown. However, this photo was taken in 2003, and when I was there in 2010, this building was collapsing.


Another view of downtown Cairo. All these stores back up to the Ohio River, and they're all now empty, waiting for nothing fancier than time to take them down. Visiting downtown Cairo really is like taking a step back to another time. Cairo was abandoned - in a hurry in the mid 1960s - when race riots decimated the city. The city went from a population of 13,000+ to 2,800 (current) in a very short time. The business owners and captains of industry are the ones who fled the city, taking their businesses with them.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Most are in marginal condition.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Many of these Sears Homes are no longer "pretty little homes."

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL. Homart Homes were post-WW2 Sears Homes that were shipped out in sections, which were then bolted together at the building site. These were radically different from "Sears Modern Homes" which were pre-cut kit homes.


A glorious billboard at the city's entrance offers such promise.

To learn more about Cairo, click here.

Or watch a short video documentary on Cairo here. And another one here.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

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  1. Barbara Richard

    Cairo was the staging area for Union troops during the Civil War. Volunteers (and draftees) from all over the north gathered at Cairo and were dispatched to the various theaters of operation in the south, down the Mississippi. I discovered this when I wrote our family history; my great-great grandfather (from Michigan) was one of those volunteers.

  2. sandra

    I’m sure Cairo was – at one time – a great place, but farms are needed for the future of our survival not only in mo. but all over the us. I feel that we should let the town of Cairo go and save the most important things our farms. Cairo we can live without, farmland to grow food for the people we can’t live without.

  3. Bill McGee

    I was born in Cairo in 1927. It is my hometown, although I do not live there any longer, I still do volunteer work in Cairo. Sure, Cairo has seen much better times. Sure Cairo is run down. Sure Cairo looks drab. I grant you all this. But Cairo is more than rundown buildings. It is home to a lot of people. It is their home and they stick up for it no matter what. Destroy an entire town for the sake of some flooded farm land? It was done in 1937 and the farmland AND Cairo are still here. Go ahead and kick a poor ole sick dog while he is suffering. Then answer to a higher authority. Hang in there, Cairo….you have been here for 157 years….shoot for 200 at least.

  4. Sears Homes

    @Bill McGee
    Hi Bill,

    If you spend a little time at this website, you’ll find that I’ve written many positive things about Cairo. Heck, there’s a CHAPTER on Cairo in two of my books – “The Houses That Sears Built” and “The Sears Homes of Illinois.”

    I feel like I’ve done a lot to “boost” Cairo, but in this case, I’m worried about destroying 132,000 acres of Missouri’s best farmland. Food and farms are very important in this country and ever moreso now.


  5. CairoForever

    Rose, it hurt.s me that, while you are portraying pictures of Cairo at this time, you chose the worst ones and not the good and best ones. If you can’t give us a fair treatment in the city, at least also give pictures of our flooded farms. Many Missouri farmers try to buy them, already own them or rent them,. Flooded dirt is mud is dirt.

  6. Matt m

    This is disgusting…putting farmland designed to flood over human life.

  7. Sears Homes

    Hi CairoForever,

    I promise, I do not wish to be hurtful. As I said in a prior post, I’ve tried to do a LOT through the years to promote Cairo to the best of my abilities. But food prices are SOARING and I’m very concerned that America should work harder to protect its farms. The last thing we need is to demolish 130,000 acres of our best farmland.

    I’m not sure what happened in Cairo, but I’ve been visiting there since 2002, and every year, it looks a little sadder.

    It’s a tough situation for sure, and everyone has different opinions.


  8. Sears Homes

    @Matt m
    I agree, that farmland does NOT trump human life, but according to all reports, the local law enforcement and the national guard have been DILIGENT in making sure all the people of Cairo have been safely evacuated to higher ground.

    Just for a moment, consider the possibilities: What if Cairo was RELOCATED to higher ground, and to a place where jobs were available, and people had a chance to rebuild their lives and move forward. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

    Every time I visit Cairo, more houses are either torn down, or in a pitiable state. Is that really the best future for Cairo?

  9. Virginia Beno Moore

    These pictures bring tears to my eyes I was born and raised in Cairo as were my three
    children at St. Mary’s Hospital,I would not take anything for the good times I had growing
    up there. Who ever took these pictures should have gone inside the library and taken
    pictures to show people what a beautiful and wonderful place it is.

  10. Sears Homes

    I’m sure Cairo was a delightful place to be born and raised. The library is indeed housed in a beautiful building, but that does not change the fact that the town of Cairo is hurting, and is in bad shape, and faces – at best – an uncertain future.

    When I visited Cairo (several times from 2002 to 2010), I saw it with the eyes of a tourist and a historian. As a tourist, I found the town to be depressed and more than a little frightening. As a historian, I was grieved to see so much of your housing stock in such poor condition.

    As mentioned above, I’ve mentioned Cairo in two of my books, and presented it in a very favorable light. I’ve donated several of my books to the Cairo Public Library. I’ve done a survey of the kit homes in Cairo for free, and left that list with the library. I’ve tried to engage your local historians in conversations about what could be done to promote and preserve your remaining architecture, but without any good result.

    And even on this site, I’ve published several favorable articles and I’ve also included a piece written by a Cairo native, who explains why Cairo should be saved. I understand grieving a town that has fallen on hard times and is at risk of being lost. I do not understand fussing at someone who took pictures of the city, and presented the facts as she saw them.

    Rose Thornton

  11. Daniel McCann

    Miss Rose i sure did enjoy this story. I know it is a shame the way things are going there, but I still think you are a good person to write about the town and dig into this. Cairo reminds me so much of Elkhart, TX. I’m living in Kyle, Texas now and I’m sorry to say it is racing toward Cairo at a fast clip.

    Thanks again.

  12. Doug Eurom

    200 square miles of farmland (128,000 acres), along with buildings, fences, etc, has more monetary crop value than a town of 2800. So the decision is not a practical one.

    Floods are getting worse, because everyone has dyked in the river. Instead of 6″ floods up river, we now get 30′ floods down river.

    The logical answer is not to deem who should and shouldn’t be flooded, it is to remove all of the levees and allow nature to decide. Its stupid to build towns on flood plains to begin with.

    Note Cairo is in IL (will vote Obama), while Missouri likely won’t.

  13. Michael

    Cairo is much like many other small towns in this nation – dying (or already dead and just don’t want to accept that). The town was built long ago in a flood plane. Extraordinary measures have been taken to preserve the dying town, including a levy completely surrounding the town. But the town is dead.

    Thus one has to turn to WHY the land, livelihood, and homes of farmers in Missouri must pay the price to preserve the basically dead town of Cairo, IL. And while one ponders, one cannot help but make observations (that may or may not actually play into the decision to blow the levy):

    Demographics – Cairo, IL and Mississippi County could hardly be more different. One is predominantly African American, the other is predominantly Caucasian. One is heavily Democrat in voting, the other is far more conservative (vote Republican). One is contributing economically (or at least was until their farmland was sabotaged by the Corps), the other…

    If the remaining people of Cairo really wanted to save their city, the effort would have started long before this flood event came into being. Instead, they have sat by and watched the town crumble. I hope they take advantage of this possible “second chance” (or third, or fourth…) and actually make something of this opportunity. But I won’t hold my breath. When the flood waters recede, will Cairo just go back to their drawn-out process of dying? My sad expectation is… they will.

    My prayers are with those who have now likely lost their livelihood for years.

  14. Sears Homes

    @Doug Eurom
    Michael, I’ve wondered about that, too. If the people of Cairo wanted to save that city, those efforts should have begun many decades ago. As mentioned in posts above, I was hoping to be “one of the helpers” when I visited Cairo years ago, but my best efforts were met with silence. If it weren’t for Richard Kearney (who got people to open up and talk to me), Cairo would never have even been mentioned in my books.

    It’s a very sad story, and I can’t help but wonder why Cairo was saved while America’s farms were flooded, and now are unusable for YEARS. I hope it’s not politics, but one has to wonder these days.


  15. Tony

    They should have flooded this town. But now we will have less corn for people and cattle because we will have to use it for green energy. What a shame the peps in Washington need to pull there heads out of the sand.

  16. Tony

    @Matt m
    How much livestock died?

  17. Chris

    This has absolutely nothing to do with saving Cairo Illinois. They know the Red River was flooded and is on its way and all of the Corps reservoirs are above flood stage. They have seen the rainfall the last two weeks and know more is on the way.

    The 130,000 acres of natural floodplain was utilized to save New Orleans…not Cairo.

    You could have rebuilt Cairo from the ground up brand new with 20% of just the profit off that much grain.

    The Corps didn’t want the uproar from telling the Missouri farmers that they were being used to save New Orleans. They knew that the public would want it buried if it flooded twice in 5 years. So they are blaming it on little towns up river when what they are doing is saving New Orleans. Watch the amount of levees they blow or inundate with gates over the next two weeks to relieve pressure from New Orleans. Missouri was just the start. They will follow the bulge all the way down river releasing pressure. Cairo or no Cairo.

  18. Tom Nelson

    I have traveled across the America, including Cairo, Ill., and I’ve found some interesting history. But, you can’t really save history; you can only preserve it and work to make others aware of it. With farmland, history can be saved, because that is America’s history and heritage. Once you destroy the heritage, that’s the first step toward destroying the lifestyle and economy of America. I’m interested in saving the history and heritage of America, and the American way of living.

  19. Boone

    It’s worth pointing out that while 130,000 acres sounds like a lot, in context it is 0.014% of the 922,095,840 total acres of farmland, and 0.0057% of the 2,260,994,361 total acres of agricultural land in the country (both circa 2007). To be clear, that’s less than 1/7100th of the total farmland, and less than 1/17500th of agricultural land. Its inactivity for a period of a few years is not going to affect food prices, or indeed the future of our survival, in any significant way.

  20. Sears Homes

    Boone, yours is one of the best posts I’ve ever received at this site. Gosh, why doesn’t the main-stream media report those kind of facts? Thanks for your post!

  21. Browsing

    It’s too bad the owner of this site, (may I call you Rose?) only visited a few years ago and then had someone who was of so little help as her tour guide. Also too bad that she wasn’t interested in the architecture of the entire town. There are some new videos of Cairo today that might be of more interest to anyone who would like to know more about the town as it is today.

    I invite the curious to visit us at any time and to take time to drive down more than the main street or to try to view these now demolished eyesores which you have presented.

  22. Sears Homes

    First off, let me correct some errors in your comment. I last visited Cairo in March 2010, and spent an entire day there (8:00 am to 4:30 pm), doing nothing but driving around the city, studying the houses and photographing local architecture. That was 14 months ago – not “a few years ago.” And by the way, if you’d like to see a few of the many photos of your Sears Homes there in Cairo, you should buy “The Sears Homes of Illinois” (History Press, 2010).

    Secondly, my tour guide was Richard Kearney, and he was the perfect tour guide and was a fantastic resource and very knowledgeable.

    When I first visited Cairo in 2002, no one would even talk to me, and I was there to re-discover the history of your Sears Homes, including the mill out there in Urbandale. Finally, through a series of fortunate events, I discovered Richard Kearney, who introduced me to people and provided me with rare documents and photos of Cairo. Richard really opened doors for me. If you read “The Houses That Sears Built” (Gentle Beam Publications, 2004), you’ll find that I interviewed Cairo residents who had worked at the mill, thereby capturing a piece of YOUR city’s history that would have otherwise been lost to the ages. It was Richard who found those people for me to interview. Were it not for Richard, that piece of your history would not have been saved, for those men that I interviewed have all passed on now.

    From 2002 – 2010, I visited Cairo several times, and in that time period, I saw it going downhill more and more.

    I’m sure Cairo has some nice areas, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Cairo is a town in very bad shape, and faces – at best – an uncertain future.

    As mentioned above, I’ve devoted an entire chapter to Cairo in my two best-selling books (“The Houses That Sears Built” and “The Sears Homes of Illinois”).

    In those two books, I presented Cairo in a very positive way. I’ve donated my books to your local library, and I’ve done a survey of the kit homes in Cairo for free, and left that list with the library. I’ve tried to engage your local historians in conversations about what could be done to promote and preserve your remaining architecture, but without any good result. That was very, very frustrating, and also quite depressing.

    And if you poke around this site, you’ll see that I’ve published several favorable articles and I’ve also included a piece written by a Cairo native, who explains why Cairo should be saved.

    The youtube video linked in this story asks, “Every adult understands the death of a loved one, but how many adults understand the death of a city?” As I think about the fact that several Cairo boosters are accusing me of presenting Cairo in an unfavorable light, I think the bigger issue is, it’s hard to accept the death of a city.

    I’m sorry that Cairo is slip-sliding into the abyss, but it’s wrong to fire a few shots at the messenger. My photos present an accurate depiction of this city’s woes, and I stand by my original comments.


  23. Richard Kearney

    Cairo, Illinois is not only a town, but also a close knit community. Cairo also is an historical city, that was very vital to this Country in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It supplied a gateway to transport goods, to the North, South, East and West and was considered to be the transportation hub of the United States.

    Now as to the 2011 Flood, The Birds Point Flood-Way was not opened just to save Cairo. As General Walsh, of the Corp of Engineers has stated many times, this was done to save other areas, too. Cities were being flooded on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers north of Cairo. Dams were overflowing and more water had to be released to protect the towns on the upper side of the Dams.

    I do feel sorry for the Farmers living near the Birds Point floodway, but thy knew where they living and the chances they were taking. Also to me Lives are a lot more important than Farm Land.

    If you will follow the Flooding news, you will see this same thing happening in Arkansas and Louisiana to protect the River System as a whole and to save Lives.

    Richard Kearney

  24. f h shelton

    Any one who wants to put swamp land above real people, they have something missing, their deck is not full. I am sorry that my town has hit on bad times, but it’s still worth more that swamp land filled in to grow Beans and Corn. The History of Cairo Illinois is something to read, it has always had it’s ups and downs.