What do a mound, an arch, and a bottle of catsup have in common?
When my family drove to Ohio to visit some dear old friends, I convinced wife and son to detour through western Illinois. You see, I had recently learned of Cahokia, and was bent on visiting. Cahokia is the site of the largest known urban settlement of the Mississippian culture. The population exploded in the mid-11th century; between its ritual center and outlying settlements, estimates put the local populace at nearly 40,000 during the 13th century. If accurate, that would make the greater Cahokia landscape the largest urban population in North America until the late 18th century! At its center was a platform mound rising 100 feet and covering 14 acres, formed by earth and sod carried one basket at a time. Over a hundred smaller mounds rose across the local area. Archeological finds point to Cahokia as a major center of trade, and likely a social and religious center as well, with complex social structures.
Given the dense population, it is easy to assume that supplying food and firewood, and disposing of waste, would have been increasingly difficult. It is likely that poor nutrition and polluted water lead to rampant disease and short lifespans. This further suggests that regular immigration was necessary to maintain the population level, though such inflows couldn’t last (the city was abandoned in the 14th century). It is not too much to assume that traders, emissaries, pilgrims and perhaps simple tourists came to witness the center of Mississippian culture. And here I was, a tourist of echoes, visiting the ruins whose builders and rulers have long since vanished, unable to our modern homage. I wonder how they would process the fact that people in a land they couldn’t conceive of would deem the ruins of their city of worldwide cultural significance (UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 1,154 worldwide).
The visit was all that we had expected. The interpretive displays in the museum were excellent, and my boy was at the point where he would actually read and appreciate the panels of text accompanying the artifacts and reconstructions. We climbed the great mound and explored the nearby reconstructed timber circle (“Cahokia Woodhenge”) in the warm sunshine. I could have spent a leisurely day there. Instead, we hopped in the car before noon and headed west across the Mississippi River and a more modern place of tourist pilgrimage.
St. Louis’ Gateway Arch is considerably younger than the mounds we recently quitted, being built in the 1960s. It is also far taller (over 600 feet). The arch segments are triangular in cross section, constructed of carbon steel covered by stainless steel. It is an engineering marvel.
It was also expensive and crowded. We stood in a long line in the warming late-May sunshine, before descending into the cool darkness of the visitor center. This was followed by a two hour wait for our turn to actually enter the arch, during which we ate overpriced snacks, wandered through the museum, and sat listlessly against a wall. I imagine boredom and expensive rations were experiences we shared in common with ancient Mississippian tourists. But we thought, if nothing else, the boy could say he’d been to the top of the world’s tallest arch.
A little more walking, another 15-minute stand-around, and then we crammed into small tram capsules that slowly raised us several hundred feet in the arch. Then we walked the last bit to the apex, where we vied with the crowd to look through the windows. Thankfully, the wind wasn’t rocking the top! It was certainly a view, with the city laid out on one side and the river and ancient floodplains stretched out on the other. After a couple of minutes, the height-shy young’un was ready to vacate. And so this family of introverts headed groundward within ten minutes of our arrival, and left the crowd behind with all speed.
We were tired, but there was one stop to go. It was admittedly the silliest coup to count, but we were a little punchy by this point.
You see, when we checked in at our motel in Collinsville, the desk clerk asked what our plans were. When we spoke of the UNESCO World Heritage Site four miles down the road, she confessed she wasn’t familiar with Cahokia Mounds. However, she said we “absolutely have to see the Giant Catsup Bottle!” and gave explicit directions to said marvel.
Yes, friends, she was referring to the Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower, a bit of novelty architecture from 1949 that is, indeed, shaped like a bottle of catsup. The faux condiment container supplied water to the Brooks catsup plant. The tower needed significant restoration by the 1990s, and those needs were met by volunteer fundraising, to the tune of $80,000. It isn’t on UNESCO’s radar, but it does hold a coveted slot on the National Register of Historic Places.
So, as no doubt many pilgrims of roadside attractions have before us, Mom and Dad took Junior to gaze upon a slice of novel Americana. I remarked that I was now ready to go see the world’s largest ball of twine and maybe get our dinner from a hotdog-shaped restaurant, before turning in at a motor lodge shaped like a tipi. Or, to make a Lord of the Rings reference, “I just came back from the ruins of Amon Sul, but please, I’d love to go see the largest pumpkin in the Shire.”
To summarize: Spent the morning in a world-famous archeological site that even locals haven’t heard of. Spent the afternoon standing in lines with crowds to do “the done thing” and count coup. Finished up with roadside kitsch. Clearly, the mounds ruled the day.
Yet, they were all tourist attractions. The city of St. Louis is proud of the stainless steel arch. The town of Collinsville is proud of their water tower. And the enigmatic people of 900 years ago were likely quite proud of the great ritual mound at the center of their own metropolis.