A 19th century twister took out the town, but left a popular bar
B.J. Allgeyer wonders if his tavern in Alexis has a superpower.
Does it really repel tornados?
“That’s what we hope for,” he says with a smile.
Jiggs’ Cardinal Inn — Jiggs was his grandfather and a longtime owner — somehow survived one of the meanest twisters to ever rip through west-central Illinois. At the time, way back in 1868, the pub stood three miles east of town.
How did it change sites? It wasn’t like “The Wizard of Oz” with a cyclone carrying off an entire building and plopping it down elsewhere.
The backstory to Jiggs’ Cardinal Inn is almost as fanciful, though completely true. Devoted clientele huffed and puffed to hoist the joint onto log rollers and drag it by horse to Alexis.
Why? Maybe they considered the pub to be a lucky charm worth preserving. After all, it was one of the few buildings left unscathed by the tornado, which otherwise waylaid the town.
The name of that place? Shanghai City. And its peculiar history is as legendary as that of the surviving saloon.
In the mid-1800s, about six miles northwest of Galesburg, an up-and-coming burg called Ionia bustled with vitality. By 1850, it hosted a wagon shop, general store, mill, hotel, four taverns and two churches.
visitors often would leave town with a whooping, ‘I’m going to see Shanghai!’
When rail lines pushed through the area, Ionia was skipped over in favor of nearby Alexis. That was bad news for Ionia, as railroads often meant life or death to rural towns.
But Ionia found a second wind, through gambling.
Farmers set up a crude horse-racing track, as much to entertain themselves as to draw money into town. Betting wasn’t always on the up and up, as jockeys sometimes threw races. One time, irate bettors tied a rider to a post, leaving him at the mercy of the elements and fate. Another time, wagerers from two towns accused one another of fixing a race, the argument sparking gunplay.
Yet as much as gamblers liked horses, they loved roosters. Cockfighting was known as the biggest game in town, and the biggest rooster was known as Shanghai. Coming from far and wide, visitors often would leave town with a whooping, “I’m going to see Shanghai!” The name stuck. By the 1860s, the community became known as Shanghai City.
But not everyone reveled in the raucous reputation.
On the morning of Sunday, May 3, 1868, the wife of a preacher happened to stride past one of the taverns, where regulars already were getting a snootful on the Sabbath. She stomped home to report the brazen scene to her husband, who that afternoon took to his pulpit at the Church of the New Advent. In a fire-and-brimstone sermon, he sternly warned 200 congregants about the pleasures of the flesh, such as those at the tavern.
Outside, thunder boomed as lightning streaked across the dark sky. Inside, the congregation barely took notice, as storms had hit the town repeatedly over the last week. They didn’t even flinch as a funnel cloud popped up and twirled in the distance.
But then the twister got closer — and wider. As lightning blasted all around, the tornado roared into the church, lifting up the roof, then crashing it down.
From there, the twister jumped through town like a pogo stick, destroying much of Shanghai City. Before vanishing into the sky, the cyclone claimed six lives as well as both churches. Few structures were left standing.
But one of the survivors was the very tavern that had sparked the pastor’s fiery sermon.
Ravaged by the storm, Shanghai City quickly began to fade into oblivion. But at the steadfast saloon, regulars wouldn’t let go. Via log rollers and draft horses, they lugged it across the prairie to Alexis.
For decades, it served as a simple but sturdy watering hole in the ag town. In 1965, not long before the anniversary of the tornado, factory worker Jiggs Allgeyer bought the place, putting his name on the sign out front. He also added the name of a bird — not a rooster, per the pub’s Shanghai history, but a cardinal, the mascot of the local high school.
Jiggs would spend day after day, decade after decade, sharing suds, smokes and stories with his customers. He didn’t put much money into the place, but — as always — it stayed standing.
It even outlasted Jiggs, who died in 2011 at age 80. By then, his grandson
B.J. Allgeyer, a union electrician, had owned the place for five years.
The same year of the purchase, a tornado zipped through the area. But it veered north of Alexis and away from Jiggs’ Cardinal Inn, which again escaped the wrath of a twister.
It’s impossible to tell the precise age of the building, as records don’t go back that far at the Warren County Courthouse. Inside and outside, the saloon carries a comfortably worn look. But Allgeyer thinks the joint is just about as sturdy as ever.
a tornado zipped through and spared Jiggs’ Cardinal Inn not once … but twice
“It’s got good bones,” he said.
The tavern is one of just a handful of businesses in Alexis, whose 779 residents live amid vast stretches of crop fields in all directions. Most customers tend to be local, though occasionally curiosity-seekers will wander in and ask for stories of Shanghai City and the nasty twister of 1868. They always marvel at the notion of dragging a tavern three miles across the prairie. Why work so hard?
“Must’ve really liked it,” Allgeyer said with a grin.