Among the hundreds of roadside attractions strung across the American landscape from coast to coast, the World’s Biggest Catsup Bottle holds a strange place in my heart. Yup, that’s a real thing – a watertower, trussed up to look like a bottle of the all-American condiment. It’s been towering over Route 159 outside downtown Collinsville, Illinois since 1949 and has even been added to the National Register of Historic Places. At 170 feet , the “Bottle” is about 70 feet taller than another roadside attraction that’s been standing on the outskirts of Collinsville for considerably longer and took a couple of hundred years to build. That would be Monk’s Mound at the Cahokia Indian Mounds.
More years ago than I want to think about, when I began writing a novel I thought was going to be about an American Babel, I discovered the tiered 100 foot high “stupendous pile of dirt,” as it was once called. I thought I’d found my Babel. Monk’s Mound, at the center of America’s First City (circa 950BCE-1300CE) was built by a highly advanced people who we call Mississippians because we don’t know what they called themselves. Before it mysteriously fell to ruin, the city had a population of about 20,000 – bigger than London at the time.
But…getting back to the World’s Biggest Catsup Bottle, as I researched the region for the novel, I thought it curious that it seemed to hold a higher place of pride for the local population than the ancient city at their doorstep. The Bottle was photographed, celebrated, even fully renovated.
The mounds – about 120 of them over 6 square miles, were not. Until fairly recently, they were routinely shaved and knocked down by local horseradish farmers and business owners and plundered by pothunters – to the horror of the few archaeolgists who worked almost without funding to discover the ancient city’s secrets. Monk’s Mound was even the site of KKK cross burnings, back in the early 20th century.
And then, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, more mounds got razed to make room for the latest biggest thing to come through – the interstate highways.
The more I read about the secrets uncovered in America’s First City (including peculiar human sacrifices!), the more I thought its defenders, the archaeologists, had a story worth looking into. Turns out, it was a story I never expected to find, and one so current it’s frontpage news pretty much every day.
So if you’re driving by Collinsville, Illinois on July 9, by all means stop by for the Biggest Catsup Bottle Festival. But don’t miss the Cahokia Mounds.