Q. Where did all this Egyptian stuff come from in Southern Illinois? I was a member of The Egyptian Amateur Radio Club, which started in 1929, and my phone company is Egyptian Telephone.
-- Harold Vitrey, of St. Libory
A. If you do even a little research, you start to think there are as many theories on the subject as there are limestone blocks in the Great Pyramid of Giza (an estimated 2.3 million, by the way).
For those unfamiliar, "Egypt" or "Little Egypt" is the nickname commonly given to all of Southern Illinois south of U.S. 50. According to the Illinois State Museum, one theory is that the southern tip of the state, lying at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, reminded early immigrants of the Nile River delta, so they christened the area after the African nation.
Another story you'll hear is that a spate of new towns with such names as Thebes and Cairo led to the ancient moniker. But this is putting the cart before the horse -- the nickname apparently came first and led to the popularity of similar names to fit a theme.
A third tale cites a Rev. David Badgley, a Connecticut minister who was sent west to find a suitable place for a new settlement. He wound up near Edwardsville, which he described as similar to the place where the Israelites once dwelled in ancient Egypt, fertile and free of plague.
But he and his fellow settlers called the place Goshen or Land-O-Goshen, so this theory, too, seems to fall apart. So, too, does speculation that the name grew out of political divisions in the state.
"In 1858, debating in northern Illinois, (Stephen) Douglas had threatened (Abraham) Lincoln by asserting that he would 'trot him down to Egypt' and there challenge his antislavery views before a hostile crowd," according to John Simon in an article in Springhouse Magazine Online. "The audience understood Douglas: Overwhelming proslavery sentiment and Democratic unanimity in Egypt had led to the nickname."
But again, "Egypt" is thought to have been long-established before this early political war of words. For the real story -- or the one most historians accept -- you have to hear from someone who was there: Judge Andrew D. Duff, who wrote this explanation in a mid-1800s edition of the Shawneetown Gazette:
In 1831, farmers in central and northern Illinois faced a crisis. They had suffered through the longest and severest winter they had ever seen only to be followed by a late spring with frequent severe frosts until mid-May.
So, north of Jefferson County (e.g., Mount Vernon), there was little corn planted until June. Then, a killing frost on Sept. 10 destroyed nearly all corn north of Benton. But all counties south of there enjoyed crops that were "unusually good."
If you know your Bible, you can guess what happened next. Instead of paying $3 and $4 a bushel in counties where corn was scarce, farmers the following spring brought hundreds of wagons to the state's deep south, where they could load up the grain at 25 cents per bushel.
"The result," Duff wrote, "was that from the 15th of April to the last of June 1832 there were not less than a thousand wagonloads of corn taken from ... the southern counties."
It was, Duff said, like the story of the sons of Jacob going down to Egypt for corn. And since many of these old-timers were likely much more familiar with the Good Book than some of us are, when they were asked where they were headed, they said facetiously, "We are going to Egypt for corn."
"This is the true origin of the term, and the cause of Southern Illinois being called 'Egypt,'" declared Duff, who remembered hearing the term time after time in 1832. "No living man ever heard the term Egypt applied to this part of Illinois prior to the spring of 1832. To the people and the incident above mentioned are we indebted for the name."
Presumably, then, towns began playing off the new term, naming themselves Cairo (1837), Thebes (1844) and Karnak (1893), among others. Much later, Southern Illinois University would choose the Royal Dog of Egypt -- the Saluki -- as its mascot.
One of the first uses of the diminutive "Little Egypt" can be found in a 1912 Troy Weekly Call which headlined a story "Two New Little Egypt Pastors" about new ministers in Brookport and Salem.
Since then, the nickname has spread far and wide. The title character in the comic strip Moon Mullins had a girlfriend named Little Egypt, probably because strip creator Frank Willard was a native of Anna. And one of the most revealing episodes of "The Fugitive" on Dec. 24, 1963, centered on Ruth Norton, a 23-year-old stewardess from the fictional town of Little Egypt, Ill.
Who created the Nerf football?
Answer to Sunday's trivia: According to www.theworldofhummingbirds.com, a hummingbird's heart beats at 250 beats per minute at rest -- and 1,250 beats per minute while flying.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com