No one was believing us when photographer Jeff Cook and I told them we were going to Shanghai and would be back by dark.
We didn’t say which Shanghai.
But we were on the hunt for Shanghai in Illinois — a pinpoint spot on the map that's 41 miles south of the Quad-Cities.
Shanghai is a mystic-sounding Oriental name, but it's also a tiny town in the country that's named after a rooster. It must have been some bird, too, because it was written into the lyrics of a song recorded by folk singer Burl Ives.
If Shanghai were still a place, we would find it. On an autumn morning we headed into Illinois to hunt for Shanghai. We churned dusty roads that left us coughing, riding in a 2012 Nissan that was regularly full of flies because our windows were down.
It was a winding hunt that turned into an adventure, a bittersweet scenario that reminded me of the writings of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” or John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley.” Jeff, our photographer, had a smartphone, but even the GPS in that clever device could sometimes fail us.
Don’t follow our cryptic tracks, but here we go on the hunt for Shanghai.
Lost & Found
It was an idyllic day of blue skies and puffy cumulus clouds that looked like floating cotton. Jeff is a person who is fussy about details, the type who neatly folds road maps. He acted like he knew how to find Shanghai.
On the way, I was hungry. He knew to turn off I-74 at Woodhull. He eyed a quick stop where he bought me a double-size Mars candy bar. We split it to share.
At this point, we went south on U.S. 150 and passed Rio, which put us in the boondocks. I told Jeff about a story I once did in Rio about a barber who ran a restaurant that was linked to his barbershop. When someone wanted a burger or tenderloin, he would put down his shears and become a cook.
This did not interest Jeff, who insisted we were hunting for Shanghai. Once, I wanted him to stop for a perfect picture of a dilapidated gas station, its porte-cochere overhang sagging where the gas was pumped by hand. Sparrows had a nest under falling-down eaves. Jeff kept going without getting out his camera.
After U.S. 34, we headed west into a maze of dusty crossroads.
I hinted to Jeff that we were lost. That irritated him. It irritated me that there were no signs that pointed the way to such a famously-named city like Shanghai. Country roads should have names to guide lost souls like us. Jeff's smartphone said to travel left on 148th Street, a gravel road that looked like a driveway.
This was beautiful country, without a blemish. Not far from the rumble of gravel under our tires was a sentinel of the countryside, a big red barn with the date “1867” painted at the rooftop. It gave me a lump in the throat.
We kept going, alternated by rolling hills and flatland. We found few houses where we could ask about Shanghai. Finally, Jeff knocked on the door of an immaculate farmhouse that had a carved-wood sign by its deck, “Fox Den.” I leaned out the car door, letting in more flies. Two Labs and a black cat were amiable. The owner, Rick Fox, could offer little help on where to find Shanghai.
Off we rolled again, advised by Jeff’s smartphone to turn onto 150th Street. Nearly an hour had passed to find us in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields of corn waiting to be harvested. We turned around at 300th Avenue, which took us backwards to 150th Street, where we were intrigued to see three or four scattered houses and a one-lane gravel road that looked to get little use.
A friendly face opened the front door of a pretty single-story white house. I called out, “Can you tell us how to find Shanghai?” Dee Reeder responded, “This is IT! You ARE in Shanghai.” Jeff and I were relieved.
Dee, with her husband, Tim, have lived in this hidden pocket with a mystifying Oriental name for four years.
She recited that Shanghai has, at best, seven people. I compared Shanghai, China, with 24.15 million people and the largest populated city in the world, with Shanghai, Illinois, that has a population that can be counted on your fingers.
Dee once lived in Davenport and says, “We’re happy way out here.”
She raises chickens so she has her own eggs. She grabbed onto a feisty rooster and said we could call him Shanghai. “You know, this was named after a chicken that was called Shanghai — a mean, fighting rooster. It was a busy little town with churches, a school and store until the tornado wiped it off the map.”
“Tornado” is a tragic reference.
In this neck of the woods, “Tornado” is a cruel synonym for Shanghai. These tidbits of history whetted my mind, leading to tales of tragedy and sadness, a mecca for cockfighting and horse racing on a small track.
Up the main drag, officially 150th Street, drove Dee’s bearded husband Tim, in a pickup truck. He was eager to tell that he was superintendent of streets in Davenport for 32 years until retiring. He and Dee wanted to leave Davenport and get away from what he called “the rat race of a city.”
Tim pointed: “Over there at the corner of my cornfield was a church where people were killed or injured when the 1868 tornado hit. When I was plowing a couple of years ago, I came up with a chandelier from the church. It was junk; not worth saving. We threw it away. Every now and then I come up with a hunk of foundation from the church.
"The tornado wrecked the town; about the only thing left was a bar that was hauled away by horses and still runs in Alexis.”
The tornado and a phosphorescent light that surrounded the church after the twister, along with naming the town for a chicken, make for mysterious Midwest stuff.
Jeffrey D. Rankin, historian and marketing director for Monmouth (Illinois) College, believes that Shanghai was a substantial town of 150 to 200 people in the pre-Civil War years.
Many of the town's settlers were of English descent. Sixty were from Somerset County and brought with them cockfighting, a sport popular in their homeland. It was destined to change the name of the town from Ionia to that of a chicken.
Cockfighting in England often took place in church yards, and the cruel sport became popular in the small Illinois town, too.
The local fighting champion was a big black rooster named Shanghai. Farmers came from afar to see him tear the feathers from local chickens. It was a common lie for farmers to tell their wives they were going to the store, while they were instead going to see Shanghai and the chicken fights. In time, the town name of Ionia was changed and named instead after its most notable rural attraction.
It can be assumed the sins of cockfighting were forgotten on a warm spring afternoon, May 3, 1868, when the pews of Advent Christian Church were filled with the pious, unaware that a twister was bearing down.
The afternoon was cloudy, but there was no concern, according to a detailed journal, “125 Years of Alexis, Ill.”
Suddenly, the wood-frame church was drenched in darkness, followed by a flood of lightning that filled the room. Worshipers rushed to the doors, which were sealed by the pressure of a tornado. Windows were wrenched out. The roof was scattered to the winds, and the church was filled with a phosphorescent glow.
In the town of Shanghai, six people were known killed and 34 injured. As many as two dozen houses were leveled. The dreadful storm made copy in papers throughout the nation.
The Wilmington (Illinois) Independent newspaper reported, “Those who were present pronounced the calamity more terrible and heart-rending than the effect of a destructive battle.”
The town was gone. A railroad, excitedly proposed for Shanghai, went instead to nearby Alexis, because there was no town left after the twister.
A fresh start
The newest house is a trim bungalow on 150th Street, the “main drag” of Shanghai.
Shirley Harris designed the house that has been her home since retirement as a French and language arts teacher in Alexis, about four miles away. Out back is a barn for her horse, and her front porch is a cluster of bird houses and feeders. At her drive are neat stacks of tires, painted red, white and blue, a greeting to strangers.
“But no one knows we’re here," Shirley said. "Rarely does a car of curious people drive through. One thing makes us feel good; we have a ZIP code: Shanghai, Ill., 61412.”
I have nothing more to report. I have, at last, found Shanghai.