On occasion my wife Kim and I like to jump in the car and take a ride around our beautiful county. All of the scenic highways like Highway 25, old Highway 109, 31E, Highway 52, Dobbins Pike, and all the old country back roads in between make for a beautiful drive. While you are driving you will pass through old little communities like Graball, Cottontown, Bethpage, Castalian Springs, Oak Grove, and many more. Like all of the major cities in Sumner County, each of these smaller communities has their own story to tell, but for now I would like to focus on one community in particular; the community of Cairo.
When I was in high school there was not much to do in Gallatin, unlike today, so my friends and I would pile up in a car and hit the old back roads. One stretch of road we always seemed to take was Cairo Road, which is off of Hartsville Pike. One reason we frequented Cairo Road was because at it dead-ended into Cairo boat dock. This was the closest lake access to us, and during the summer months, there was a good chance we getting out on one of our parent’s boats.
I never really thought too much about Cairo’s history back then, or why it was given that name. I just knew you could put a boat in there. I did notice the church and a few old buildings in the area, but that was about it. It was in recent years that I discovered Cairo’s rich past and believe that it is a past worth sharing and remembering.
The history of Cairo dates back to about 1790, when Zeigler’s Fort was built for the protection of settlers who were beginning to clear land and erect homes in the area. Tragedy struck and several were killed by Indians, many were captured, and the fort was burned. This led to the construction of another fort known as Walnut Field Station. Shortly after, peace was made with the Indians, and this settlement near the Cumberland River would soon become a thriving town.
Cairo, originally called Ca Ira, meaning “it’s alright” began growing in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Cairo, being located right on the Cumberland River gave it a great advantage over other villages or towns in Sumner County. It was said to be one of the largest shipping ports along the river.
Cairo was incorporated in 1815 and failed to become the county seat, losing to Gallatin by one vote in 1801. The story goes that on election day a man had gone across the river and that by the time he had returned the polls had closed, naming Gallatin the county seat, even though at that time Cairo was much larger than Gallatin and would be for several years to come because of its prime location on the Cumberland.
Products like animal skins, bacon, livestock, corn, wheat and other grains were being shipped to New Orleans among other places via steamboats and would return with commodities like sugar, coffee, farming supplies and other types of merchandise. Eventually, this would even include the finest mahogany furniture, which has mostly disappeared, however, a few pieces can still be found in the area today.
When Cairo was incorporated in 1815 there were thirty families, two doctors, one school, one tavern, one cabinet maker, one machine maker, one church, one cotton and wool factory, one rope walk (a building where ropes are made), two blacksmiths, one gunsmith, two shoemakers, a silversmith shop, thirteen grocery and dry goods stores, and one corn mill.
What happened to this once busy town full of commerce and trade? Well, as the threat of Indian attacks lessened, roads became more travelable, and railroads were on the rise, Cairo transitioned from a thriving business community to a prosperous agricultural community due to its rich river bottom farmland. At this point there were two schools and churches and a general store or two.
As farms continue to be sold and divided into lots, Cairo is now a desirable residential area with many lakefront homes. Lifelong resident and “unofficial” mayor of Cairo, Homer Bradley recalled memories of growing up there, saying, “Cairo was once a farming town and has always been a place of community.” There is still a community center there that has quarterly events for residents in the area, although Homer says that any and everyone is invited to these events. The next meeting at the Cairo Community Center is the Christmas Program in December.
Mr. Bradley also recalled memories of electricity coming to Cairo, getting a cold drink and some peanuts for a dime at the General Store, getting weekly ice deliveries and storing it in the icehouse, and World War II maneuvers in the area.
So the next time you are driving down an old county road or one of our scenic highways and you pass a small community or historic area, just think, not too long ago, that place may have been the place-to-be in its own time. I just wish that I could go back and see for myself just what it was like way back when.