Monday, 20 September 2010

Paducah: A Cross-Section Of Southern Culture

Every city, even a small one like Paducah in western Kentucky (30,000), has its charms. But the euphonious name itself has always made me want to see the real thing. It’s an unfocused curiosity that the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason made finally irresistible.
You can get there by car (Interstate 24) or steamboat—Me Me Wiley at the Chamber of Commerce told me proudly that the Delta Queen makes 15 half-days stops a year there. Charles Manchester of the Market House Museum assured me that all the cultural attractions open wide for such festive landings. I took the overnight bus from Memphis because every hotel room in that city was booked for the Church of God in Christ convention.
I started prowling Paducah’s streets before daybreak, there being more historical plaques per capita than any other place I can remember. I fortified myself for this early morning meander with a refueling stop in the Downtown Diner on Broadway, the main drag.
I had a most tasty breakfast—sausage patties riding grandly on a sea of grits—while I read yesterday’s Paducah Sun, which perversely rises in the afternoon. The Sun is about to rise in the a.m. again so its farmer subscribers can have same-day delivery and advertisers can flog day-of-issue sales.
The Paxton family, which has a lock on the local media, is going to do this even though they know it will disrupt the lives of their news people. I wander on about the paper’s logistics because only in a small town would they hesitate so humanely out of deference to their workers’ life styles.
There is something about pretending to read a paper in a small Southern town at dawn (while really all-ears for the sounds and sentiments of the local speakers) that I find almost as much pleasure as reading a Bobbie Ann Mason story.
So I was in a breezy mood when I set out to take a look at the Ohio River, a few hundred yards to the north up Broadway. The first plaque that got me to take out my notebook was the one devoted to one Dr. Reuben Saunders (1808-1891), who halted a cholera epidemic in Paducah in 1873 with hypodermic injections of morphine-atropine. He became a world-famous medical celebrity when he telegraphed the good news to other American cities suffering from that malady that summer.
He obviously was riding a high-IQ gene pool, because his grandson was the other “most famous” Paducan, the humorist Irwin S. Cobb. A sort of bush-league Mark Twain, his memory lingers on in the former grandest hotel in town (1929), a quirkily half-timbered high-rise, now a retirement home.
But the Gallery 600 (as on Broadway) is far from retiring. Beguiled by the window full of childlike false naïve art, I circled back to schmooze with the ex-art teacher Nancy Flowers, who had gathered pieces from far and wide on the theme of “Art for Children.”
My heart (and Visa card) succumbed to Bloomington, Indiana sculptor Brent H. Skidmore’s kinetic black vinyl beast on wheels, “Dino-Spot,” a carnivore with a silver chain around its gawky neck and bright colored bony triangles adorning its sleek black back.
Along the waterfront there was a plethora of plaques. The saddest plaque explained the worst thing ever to hit the town, the Great Flood of 1937, which made a million people in the Valley from Pittsburgh to Cairo (say it kay-ro) homeless. It crested at a terrifying 60.8 feet on February 2nd, 1937. The Corp of Engineers got busy to see that it never happened again by building a flood wall 12 miles long and 63.8 feet high.
There’s an Iron Horse Memorial at the foot of Broadway—a Mikado-type steam engine (#1518), a green Illinois Central Post Office wagon (#58) and a fiery red caboose (#404). It was placed there in 1985 by the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO in memory of the fact that the Paducah railway shops were the biggest in the region until they closed in 1960.
But the most interesting venue in town in the old Market House (1827-1905), saved from the wrecking ball by local preservationists. Fronting Broadway is the Paducah Art Guild Gallery, where director Dan Carver showed me around a really impressive five-state (Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee) regional show he puts on every other year, alternating it with a national fabric show (appropriate to Paducah, the quilt capital of the world).
I found especially tasty senior Bunny Vaughan’s quilt-top stools. She paints traditional motifs on the top of utilitarian Shaker-looking short stools. Her stuff is in the Guild’s shop, which offers a wide range of locally made crafts. In the regional I also found Southern Illinois University student David Gosselin’s false naïf oil-on-board, “Lapcat,” a good buy at $1,500.
Behind the Art Gallery is the museum run by Charles Manchester on a shoestring. Especially interesting to me were the folk sculptures by Cherokee James Crawford (1896-1977). Ask Manchester to point out two especially enigmatic pieces, one a black slave with white face emerging from the top of his head, and another which I dubbed “Jail Birds.” I told Manchester to tell Robert Bishop of the Museum of American Folk Art about Crawford—at least some of his pieces deserve national attention.
Inside the Post Office is a mural called “Paducah Pictorial” which tries, not entirely successfully, to deal with the 19th-Century tug between Unionist loyalty and Confederate “sentiment.” Grant took over the town on September 6th, 1861, he said, “to defend you against Confederate attack.”
“Yeah, right,” you can almost hear the local Confeds grumbling.
It’s definitely a nice place to visit, and you might even want to live there. As cracker-barrel philosopher Irvin Cobb put it, he’d “rather be an orphan on the streets of Paducah than rich twins anywhere else.”
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 26, 1990

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