Ex-Patriot Towns
-M. J. Loheed

If you're in Illinois, you don't even have to leave the state to see Paris, Havana, or Cairo. Lying within its borders are many towns with foreign names, all of which hint at the deep American need for heritage. How else to explain a moorish castle on the Mississippi or an Egyptian deli in Cairo? These towns are exotic yet familiar, like the missionary position.

But do these Illinois towns stack up to their foreign namesakes? Are there similarities? Differences? If I stop and ask the locals, will I be branded as a gypsy and tarred and feathered? I'm a curious guy, so some friends and I went looking for the old country.


It's Friday night in Marseilles and Main Street is abandoned. The hand laid bricks of the town center bleed a dull red. Jessica's Lounge looks inviting, so we step inside. The juke box is playing Arrested Development but the atmosphere is pure Middle America. Bob the bartender takes a few moments to answer our questions:

on life in Marseilles: "Boring."
on the origin of Marseilles' name: "Well it's pronounced Mar-Sell-Us, if it was pronounced Mar-Say it would be French, I guess. I don't know."

Bob wasn't our man. None of his answers even remotely matched the password we were looking for. After failing to contact with the French Resistance, we get some burgers.


A mist begins to slick our windshield and the road blends with the night horizon. We never find the road which leads to Rome.


havana.gif I doubt the capital of Cuba is cobbled as immaculately as the town center of Havana, IL. We step into Wentoworth's Restaurant/Lounge to have a late breakfast. Tim's pork tenderloin sandwich measures almost a foot across. "It looks like a shingle," he says. If nothing else, there are no food shortages here.

pork.gif On the wall, a fantastic sign for "Hamms On Tap" eludes our understanding. Some mechanism makes a flowing river scene roll continuously past. The water in the scene runs in twisting eddies and rushes down waterfalls. A gentle light from inside the sign gives the river a flawless serenity. Fidel Castro would light up a stogie with pride.

We resolve to chip in and buy it, figuring we can get it for $70 or so. It turns out the sign is a collector's item valued at a $1500. "Valued" means somebody will actually pay that much money for something that stupid, so we quickly give up.

Refreshed, we bounce out of Havana and head west. A rare glacial hill looms by us and inky black mastodon cows stand atop it watching our passage. I could swear one of the cows yells "Babalu, Lucy!" as we get in the car.

Villa Kathrine

Just south of Warsaw on the Mississippi there stands a Moorish castle. Inside, ornate wooden lattice work twists shadows up the walls of a narrow stairway. Railings, doors, windows, ceilings, all are beautifully carved. It is as if you stepped into a rich merchant's home in northern Africa, but there is not furniture. George Metz, rich playboy and world traveler of the late 1800s, built the castle for his sweetheart, who died before its completion.

Rumor also has it that Metz buried his pet dog Bingo with a big cache of gold somewhere on the property. Numerous attempts to exhume Bingo prove fruitless.

At a road stop south of Villa Kathrine I get some Swedish Massage oil from the vending machine in the men's room.


When we see the great scar in the earth where they mine nickel, we know we're in Sparta. Further on, we find the Old Broadway hotel. Once a major figure in Randolph County's 1920s social scene, its rooms are filled with what the present owner calls "antiques". Strangely, it looks a lot like "junk".

An abandoned flea market sits in what was once the downstairs ballroom. A defunct arcade version of Tetris, a game designed in Russia, stands idle in the corner. The magnificent dance floor is covered up by doormat-sized acrylic rug remnants.

This is a hard place, not unlike the ancient Sparta. Comforts are few and hardships are many. Discussion with the owner of the mall reveals the change from an agricultural community to a service economy is not proceeding smoothly. When I ask her how she feels about this change, she shrugs her shoulders as says, "What can you do? Grin and bear it."

Very Spartan.


thebes.gif A small shop operated out of the corner of a home is the only sign of living civilization. I step in to ask for directions to the historic court house were Dred Scott was imprisoned and Abraham Lincoln once did some lawyering. Out of the back room a woman comes from the ebb of a television's glow. Deep circles undercut her eyes. She directs me to the courthouse apprehensively. Middle America's cultural landscape is feeling like the Twilight Zone.

A vacant school building stands in squalor, windows broken, swing set empty, as we approach the courthouse. I'm loading film when Tim discovers that the courthouse is occupied. In the back window, a legless mannequin dressed as Honest Abe waits for the passerby to peer through the cobwebs. He stares petulantly at the window frame, concentrating on nothing. He has no riddles for us.

Very Thebean.


cairo.gif Cairo lies at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio, much as Cairo, Egypt lies in the Nile delta. Unlike Cairo, Egypt, which produces 2/3 of Egypt's gross national product within the city limits, Cairo, Illinois is going through a declining period of economic growth. Every door on Commercial Street is boarded. The park at the confluence of the rivers with the riverboat memorial is closed due to flooding. All this way for nothing.

Coffee at the gas station on the way out of town is only 25 cents and we discover that Cairo, is pronounced like Karo syrup by the locals.


paris.gif We miss our 7:00pm dinner reservations by 2 hours. L'Auberge, the French cafe of Paris, Illinois is closed. At $15.00 an entree, I think we're pretty lucky. Instead we settle down to dinner at the Savoia. The smorgasbord is exhausted by the Sunday evening rush so we opt for the Savoia Special: pizza with everything. We order onion rings and build a mock-up of the Eiffel Tower.

No fashion models, no berets, no dangerous liaisons, no mimes, and no one offers us a skinny cigarette. We head north again and at last the clouds break up. A pale moon swathes the prairie in a deep pallor.

In Danville we stop for gas at a combination Burger King/7-11. After explaining our trip to the woman working there, she will not stop recommending towns for us to visit. After repeating a number of times that the towns need to have foreign names, I feel like I'm asking for directions in English in a foreign country.

The reek of a pig farm (30,000 head) about a mile west of the station makes me want to vomit. No more traveling.

We drive back to Chicago as fast as we can, cursing the new world order.

M.J. Loheed slaves away at a job in his spare time.

Little-Known Cultural Exports    My Great-Grandfather
Ooze #9 ----- International Issue

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