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Legends & Lore: These 5 figures & folktales define Southern Illinois

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Local legends and lore abound in Southern Illinois, through natural wonders, famous historical figures, centuries-old traditions, and mysterious monikers. The following five topics are just a few of the fascinating talking points to be uncovered in the chronicles of our region.

Stone Forts

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Stonefort in Giant City State Park is actually a stone wall stretching 256 feet along a bluff. The wall is estimated to have been built between 600-900 A.D.

Throughout the Shawnee National Forest and in a portion of Giant City State Park, clusters of fallen stones dot the landscape in 11 different locations. While to the untrained eye these groups of stones may look like part of the natural landscape, they are actually remnants of stone forts constructed by Native Americans during the Late Woodland period of A.D. 400-900. The actual purpose of these forts is widely discussed among scholars, archaeologists and nature enthusiasts, but several identical factors pertain to all 11 sites as to the construction of these forts.

Each of the forts was originally built on a bluff and contained thousands of stones, each weighing anywhere between 50 to 100 pounds, dry stacked together, without mortar. Stonefort Bluff in the town of Stonefort, the first to be discovered in 1807 by a surveyor from the federal government, was estimated to be 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall.

“That discovery is important because the New Madrid earthquakes happened in 1811 and 1812 and my personal opinion is that’s probably what shook most of the forts down,” said Mark Motsinger, a local expert on stone forts and the legends surrounding them. Motsinger, who initially began researching the forts while devising the curriculum for his Illinois history class at Carrier Mills-Stonefort High School, has immersed himself in the world of stone forts and is currently compiling his studies into a book on the subject.

Motsinger also discovered the 11th stone fort, Murray Bluff, in 2011, and has theories as to the purpose of the forts. Although ideas range from fortifications built by Prince Madoc of Wales, the Sun Kingdom of King Juba and Roman legionnaire fortresses, and archaeological evidence tied to the Book of Mormon, Motsinger believes the forts were used for ceremonial purposes.

Jennifer Randolph-Bollinger, a natural resources coordinator at Giant City State Park, says that the stone fort in the park is the most accessible of all 11 in the region and has a lovely waterfall right next to the third of a mile trail leading to the fort.

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Stonefort in Giant City State Park is actually a stone wall stretching 256 feet along a bluff. The wall is estimated to have been built between 600-900 A.D.

“One of the coolest things about that particular spot is it’s been utilized for centuries. In the 1880s, especially during Fourth of July, hundreds to maybe thousands of people would pick that particular spot to have a big picnic. So it’s always been kind of a big social gathering, meeting place,” Randolph said.

For those adventurous hikers and history buffs in the region, all 11 sites have much to offer in regards to exploration of the mysterious fortifications.

Charlie Birger

Charlie Birger gang.

The Charlie Birger Gang in the early 1920s. Birger is indicated with a red arrow.

A famous outlaw and topic of local lore in Southern Illinois, Charlie Birger has a fascinating history in the area beyond his final moments on the scaffolding in Franklin County as the last man publicly hanged in Illinois.

“Probably one of the least understood aspects of Charlie Birger is the fact that he was an Eastern European and he was born in Russia. His parents came to the U.S. when he was about eight,” said Mark Motsinger, who is also a researcher on the topic of Birger and his gang.

Born Shachna Itzik Birger, in his early 20s Birger spent a short time in the United States Army and eventually settled in Harrisburg around 1912, choosing Saline County because it was an area where many other Russian, Czech, Hungarian and Romanian families settled to work in the booming coal mining industry. Also the biggest town in Southern Illinois at that time, Harrisburg became the location for Birger’s first business venture, an ice cream shop in Ledford that was conveniently located on the street car line between Carrier Mills and Eldorado to serve the hundreds of coal miners traveling to and from work. To avoid causing mayhem in the community where he was accepted, Birger later moved his business and built a speakeasy named Shady Rest in Williamson County, where his bootlegging operation became wildly successful.

“Harrisburg was his adopted hometown so he didn’t want to commit any crimes there. So he moved right across the county line,” said Motsinger.

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An old bottle lies in the woods in the area of the compound of the infamous gangster Charlie Birger in 2015. Birger built a fortified speakeasy named Shady Rest in Williamson County located off old Highway 13, halfway between Harrisburg and Marion.

During this time, a gruesome turf war took place over bootlegging rights between the Birger gang and the Shelton Gang, with the Ku Klux Klan later becoming involved. At the time, the Klan was anti-alcohol, anti-immigrant, and anti-bootlegger, and imbibing was viewed as a wholly un-American vice. Together, Birger and the Shelton crew eventually defeated the Klan, but the disagreements between the two bands of criminals eventually lead to the killing of then-West City Mayor Joe Adams, the murder Birger would hang for.

Throughout those bloody times, Birger still remained a charismatic and poised member of the Eastern European community in Harrisburg. To retain his image as a Robin Hood of sorts, Birger even had postcards made and aired advertisements on the local radio station assuring listeners that the violence of gangsters would remain only between the gangsters.

“He was such a good self-promoter, that in Harrisburg he was always pretty much viewed as a hero and a good guy,” Motsinger said.

As he stood on the gallows prior to his execution, wearing the smile so well-known in his last photographs, Birger remained an advocate of Eastern European settlers to the end, requesting a black hood rather than a white one, to avoid affiliation with the KKK.

Prairie du Rocher

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Prairie du Rocher is pictured in July 2019.

The village of Prairie du Rocher, settled in 1722 and situated near the bluffs of the Mississippi River, is a community steeped in the traditions of the French Colonial period. The townspeople hold events throughout the year that date back to the settlement period of Prairie du Rocher, most notably La Guiannee and The Twelfth Night Ball. The La Guiannee Societe oversees both events and Jeremy Volknar, present of the Societe for nearly 10 years, is proud to continue traditions older than the country itself.

La Guiannee is held on New Year’s Eve each holiday season, and is the longest continually running La Guiannee in the United States, preparing to ring in its 300th celebration in 2022. The French tradition involves a procession of the Societe members, dressed in period clothing and playing instruments, to various homes and businesses on the evening of Dec. 31, to sing the song of La Guiannee to each group, who then provide refreshments to the performers.

“It’s a sort of beggars procession type spinoff that has medieval roots. We go around to various homes and businesses, and sing the song on New Year’s Eve. It’s a hold over from the old French tradition,” said Volknar.

The event originally included just young male participants, only changing to include women in the 20th century, and served as a way for male suitors to visit the homes of female love interests. As the song states, if homeowners have nothing to give as a monetary donation or even the company of the family’s eldest daughter, “a chine of meat or so will do.” Legend has it that households who warmly welcome La Guiannee into their home will experience good fortune for the new year ahead.

Another charming tradition in Prairie du Rocher is The Twelfth Night Ball, held on the last day of the 12 days of Christmas, known as Epiphany or Three King’s Day. At the ball, each male attendee is given a cake, four of which have a bean inside. The first to find a bean is deemed the king of the Twelfth Night Ball, who then chooses his queen. The three other lucky recipients become members of the court. Once all members of the court are in place, a procession takes place where the retiring king and queen relinquish the throne. Traditional French Colonial dress is worn by many of the Ball’s guests during the event where jovial waltzes, reels and square dances takes place throughout the evening.

People dance to the Virginia Reel at the Twelfth Night Ball in 2014

People dance to the Virginia Reel at the Twelfth Night Ball in 2014. 

“There has been a renewed interest in town with some of the young, local families who come to the ball. It’s become more of a family event. I think it’s great because the younger kids will have to be the ones interested in it to carry it on,” shared Volknar.

Would you like sugar and cream?

Participants gather for tea and sweet treats at the Pierre Menard Home for a Twelfth Night Celebration in Chester in 1985.

Both events of the French Colonial village of Prairie du Rocher are whimsical, cherished events open to members of the public interested in taking a step back in time to the early 18th century.

John A. Logan and Memorial Day

Gen. John A. Logan

Gen. John A. Logan

The idea of who implemented the first Memorial Day celebration is a topic that may never be completely settled to everyone’s satisfaction, but General Order Number 11, issued by Gen. John A. Logan on March 3, 1868, put into place the national holiday to remember and honor the soldiers who have perished in the defense of our nation.

Following the Civil War, a group of women in Georgia put out a call for all states in the Confederacy to honor the fallen soldiers from April 26 to June 1 of 1866. The event was widespread that first year, and occurred again in the same time period in 1867. In 1868, during a fateful trip to Petersburg, Virginia, Mary Logan, the wife of John A. Logan, observed the small flags and dried flowers laying atop the graves of Civil War soldiers from the previous year’s observance.

“She was so touched by the sight of these flowers that when she went back to Washington, D.C., she told her husband he needs to do this. We don’t know anything about the conversation that ensued, but I know about husbands and wives. And I know that Mary was a very persuasive woman, a very powerful woman,” said Michael Jones, director of the General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro since its inception in 1989.

While John A. Logan was likely hesitant to follow the traditions of the Confederacy, given the resentment the North still held for the persons viewed as traitors to the national government, he signed into effect General Order Number 11 later that spring at the behest of his wife, who knew that the constituents of her husband’s district would be supportive of such a memorial.

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Brian Ellis portrays Gen. John A. Logan as he reads General Order No. 11 during the 2018 Memorial Day Service at Woodlawn Cemetery in Carbondale. The order established Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, in 1868.

A lesser discussed aspect of John A. Logan’s legacy is the drastic change the congressman experienced in his long-held beliefs toward slavery, which he learned at an early age, shifting dramatically from his long-held views supporting anti-Black immigration laws to being a staunch supporter of civil rights legislation. While it is not easy to judge someone from the past on today’s standards, it is fascinating to consider that John A. Logan completely changed his beliefs when confronted with the horrific treatment of African Americans.

“Logan, who reflected the racist attitudes of Southern Illinois when he was a young man, became so involved with what was basically Black civil rights after the war. If Logan were alive today, I think he would be out marching with Black Lives Matter,” Jones said.

A vastly important man in the creation of our Memorial Day remembrance each year, as well as a pivotal figure in the history of Southern Illinois, John A. Logan’s legacy is one to consider, especially in today’s turbulent social climate.

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A statue of Gen. John A. Logan is shown at John A. Logan College in 2013.

Egypt

If you are one of the many residents of Southern Illinois who uses the term Little Egypt to describe the region, historian Michael Jones will tell you that the correct nomenclature for the area containing the southernmost 29 counties of Illinois is actually just Egypt.

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“Where Little Egypt came from, I don’t know. If you Google, ‘Why is Southern Illinois called Little Egypt?’ it only tells you why it is called Egypt. In 1950, you could buy a postcard that said, ‘Greetings from Egypt — Southern Illinois’ and ‘Greetings from Little Egypt — Southern Illinois.’ They were both out at the same time in 1950,” Jones said.

Similarly, the reason Southern Illinois received the title of Egypt is a widely debated subject. One theory is the geography of the area, which religious immigrants thought resembled the fertile soils, landmarks and rivers of the country Egypt as compared to verses in the Bible. The Mississippi River can be compared to the Nile River and the mounds of Cahokia could be smaller representations of the Great Pyramids.

Another idea for the title of Egypt is the names of several small towns in Southern Illinois, such as Cairo, Thebes, Dongola, and Karnak.

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The Thebes Courthouse is pictured from the Mississippi River in January 2013. Thebes is one of several Southern Illinois communities — along with Cairo and Karnak — to draw inspiration for its name from the region's ties to the wider name Egypt.

A third theory relates to biblical allusion again, specifically Genesis 42:2-3, "And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live not die. And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt.”

This verse from the Old Testament has been likened to the harsh winter of late 1831 into early 1832, dubbed the Winter of Deep Snow, when Northern Illinois corn crops were destroyed and settlers were forced to travel to Egypt to purchase corn from Southern Illinoisans. It is also said that Levi Day, a settler who lived in St. Clair County, told fellow residents of that region that he would “travel down to Egypt for corn” given the desperate state of food shortages that year.

“I think probably that the story of coming down for corn is perhaps true. That people were coming down for Egypt, the biblical reason there. I think that’s how it started,” Jones said.

Whatever opinion as to the roots of the Egypt namesake is actually true, the legends of the origin are quite interesting to explore.

Whether searching for secrets of Native American structures, Tommy gun-wielding gangsters of the Prohibition era, the French Colonial traditions of the 18th century, or the origins of Memorial Day and Egypt’s namesake, the study of the legends and lore within the annals of Southern Illinois history are sure to provide an endless amount of enjoyment.

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