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DISCOVERING AMERICA: Nostalgia and ‘The Jewel of Western Kentucky’

Leaving Beaver Dam, Ky., on Route 62, we hadn’t gone very far when we saw a sign for The Everly Brothers Monument in Central City, Ky.

Once we turned off the highway, signage was lacking and the GPS was no help. Dick and I were about to give up the search when we located the monument, a large piece of granite with Don and Phil’s pictures on it, in front of the Muhlenberg Music Museum which features exhibits of music legends from Muhlenberg County, including John Prine, Merle Travis and other iconic thumbpickers.

We walked inside to the sounds of “Bye, Bye, Love” playing on an old juke box filled with 45 rpm records. It brought back memories.

There were two rooms with memorabilia – a complete collection of every album the Everly Brothers made, including those from other countries, concert posters and more. The enthusiastic curator would gladly have spent hours telling us the history.

The brothers were known for their beautiful close harmonies that only siblings can create. They were wildly popular in the late 1950s, through the 1960s and beyond, together and singly, even performing together into the early 21st Century.

“Cathy’s Clown” was their biggest hit, selling over eight million copies worldwide. “Wake up Little Susie” was another popular one. Did they really fall asleep in that movie theater?

Most of the items were collected by a woman in Las Vegas who had traveled the world to find the treasures. She didn’t want her children to sell them at a garage sale, so she sent them to Central City where a museum was planned. Money was raised for a museum, but the brothers decided to donate it to start a college near Central City, Ky.

Thus, this small building in the middle of town displays the collectables. After walking down memory lane, it was time to return to the highway.

Historic Paducah, Ky., is at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, about 50 miles upriver from where the Ohio River meets the mighty Mississippi.

Our B & B was a few blocks from the waterfront which has numerous historic and artistic attractions. That evening there was to be a concert down by the river.

After a quick dinner at J P’s Bar and Grille where a guitarist entertained us while we enjoyed a burger and Goose Island craft beer, we set up folding chairs which we’d stashed in the trunk for just such occasions, and enjoyed a bluegrass concert on the levee of the banks of the O-hi-o.

Tow boats were maneuvering barges along the river as the sunset turned the sky pinkish/purple. Some of the tows contained 15 barges—three wide and five long, lashed together. What an incredible setting. Little children were dancing and spinning, and a few dipped their toes into the river. A perfect evening with the soft sound of the water lapping against the concrete levee.

Afterward, there was time for us to take a short self-guided tour of the flood walls which are illuminated at night. The town has over 50 beautiful murals, designed and painted by Robert Dafford and his team of muralists, depicting the rich history of Paducah.

In 1937 there was a super flood which devastated the city, with the water rising to the second story of most buildings and covering ninety percent of the town. The river crested at 60 feet. Twenty-seven thousand residents had to evacuate to higher ground during this catastrophe.

This event resulted in the city erecting 14-foot high concrete flood walls for protection from future storms. Openings for cars and pedestrians allow access to the river, and, when a flood is expected, the gates are closed.

One of the murals depicts this tragedy with a bit of humor. Somehow Jimmy Houston’s cow, Bossy, became stranded on a second story balcony. As I remember the story, every day for a week, he paddled his canoe over to the balcony to feed and milk his cow until the waters receded and he could bring Bossy back down to terra firma.

A particularly colorful panel shows the city’s Ambassadors, dressed in red and white, greeting three steamboats—the Delta Queen, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen as they pull in to dock. In reality these three boats would not all have been there at the same time.

The Ambassadors still welcome arriving boats to tell passengers about the town. My parents “sailed” on the Delta Queen in the 1960s and now we were on our way to “sail” on the American Queen.

Other murals show a winter when people skated on the frozen Ohio River, a view from the pilot house of a tow boat with the pilot looking out across his barges, a city grid of Paducah in the 1870’s, steamboats, industrial progress, churches, Lewis and Clark passing by on their keelboat, and more. Plaques in front of each mural explain the history.

Until the murals were painted, beginning in 1996, it must have felt like being in a walled-in city. Now it’s a beautiful wall of art available for viewing 24 hours a day.

William Clark founded Paducah in 1827 and named it after a Native American tribe, the Padoucas. The next day we explored the William Clark Market House Museum. The guide’s enthusiasm was catching.

Inside the museum was a complete drug store from the 1870s with beautiful carved oak woodwork and stained glass windows. Items from the World War I gunboat, USS Paducah, were on display, including a silver punch bowl set and the fog bell. An old telephone switchboard with all the cables to connect calls reminded me of Lily Tomlin’s character, Ernestine, on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a TV show from the early 70s. “Is this the party to whom I’m speaking? Snort, snort.”

Alban Barkley, President Truman’s vice president from 1949-1953, was from Paducah and there was an extensive exhibit about him. He had served in both the House of Representatives and Senate previously, and was 70 years old when sworn in as VP. His stamina and strength campaigning proved crucial to Truman’s surprising victory over Dewey in the election of 1948. I remember my dad telling me about the newspapers being so sure of the election result that they had already printed the front page with the headline, “DEWEY WINS!”

Another exhibit showed how Kentucky, a border state, was conflicted about the Civil War. The state chose to be neutral at the beginning of the war, but soon became a state divided with dual governments. Many battles between North and South took place in Kentucky, sometimes pitting brother against brother.

As we travel and learn more U.S. history, we gain an appreciation of the difficult challenges our country has gone through to keep us all free and united.

On a happier note was our visit to the National Quilt Museum. Out front is a statue titled, On the Trail of Discovery, by George Lundeen. It includes Lewis, his dog Seaman, Clark, a Native American, representing the people who helped the expedition, and a young girl waving a flag, representative of gifts given by the Corps of Discovery to the Native Americans.

Inside is an extraordinary collection of quilted works of art from all over the world. The docent described the many types of quilting and told us about the winning quilts from that year’s competition. The collection includes over 600 quilts in all sizes. The bulk of the collection is kept in temperature controlled vaults while approximately 50 to 60 are on display at one time. Some have abstract designs, some traditional, others realistic scenes.

One shows two horses racing for the roses at the Kentucky Derby, another a harbor with boats and colorful buildings along the waterfront.

And…a special treat. A quilting demonstration by natives of a small island in the Philippines was taking place with a talk by a woman reporter who had visited the women’s homeland. Her article resulted in 100 women being able to provide for their families by quilting. Most of the quilts are sold in Japan, but they are trying to let the world know about their art. The quilting accounts for one-third of the island’s economy.

The women were sitting on the floor in a circle working on their quilts. The colors were vibrant, and many quilts depicted scenes of life on the island and in the water too. All the quilting is done by hand, no machines.

It was a fascinating story of how the quilters take a day just to travel from their island, Caohagan, to larger islands to purchase materials. When the quilts are finished they are washed in the sea because water is scarce. The final rinse is with fresh water. What a serendipitous and enlightening experience.

Even the local bakery was celebrating this unique exhibit by selling brightly iced cookies in the shapes of starfish, seashells and octopi.

The River Discovery Center was our last stop. Interesting exhibits on the history of the rivers opened our eyes to the importance of our rivers for commerce. There was a simulator where one could be a boat captain and drive a tow down the river. Of course, I had to try it and quickly crashed my barge into the riverbank, causing another tow to hit us on the side. Total disaster!

With all these delights, no wonder Paducah is often referred to as “The Jewel of Western Kentucky.”

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