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Exploring Kentucky: Wander West to Paducah

River city has plenty to keep tourists busy

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Visitors to The River Discovery Center can test their skill at navigating a riverboat at the center’s state-of-the-art simulator.

When our family moved to Mayfield for my final two years of high school, Paducah became our “big city.” My friends and I would spend a Saturday there, shopping the downtown department stores, strolling along the Ohio River and sating our appetites with sugary goodies from Kirchhoff’s Bakery or scrumptious barbecue from Starnes.

Though both eateries are long-time Paducah fixtures – Kirchhoff’s began in 1873 and Starnes has been there for 50-plus years – the city has changed dramatically since my teenage days. Brick-paved streets and beautifully renovated 19th-century architecture are part of a $100,000-plus Main Street revitalization, now a national model. These days, the town begun by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark notoriety) has evolved into a fascinating destination for tourists, who can stay just as busy as they like.

Corporate groups will find Paducah an ideal meeting spot, with plenty of historic, spacious, artsy venues, many with lovely water views. Most of its attractions, historic sites, restaurants and meeting spots are all within an easily walkable distance from one another, so much so that you can hit lots of highlights on your own cell-phone walking tour.

Perched at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, Paducah was devastated by the flood of 1937 and built a 12.5-foot-high floodwall three city blocks long to prevent future issues. In 1996, Louisiana artist Robert Dafford created the Wall-to-Wall Floodwall Mural, a riverside gallery of 50-plus, hand-painted panels on the wall that depict great moments in the town’s history.

Because of its location at that confluence and its proximity to the Mississippi and Cumberland rivers, Paducah is a river city extraordinaire. Find out about its watery history and the importance it plays in river commerce at the River Discovery Center, on the banks of the Ohio.

“It’s important for us to tell the story of the river, its impact on our lives from an economic standpoint, the river’s history and culture, and its natural environment,” says Julie Harris, executive director. “We address all these factors here.”

Guests can try their hand at riverboat captaining by taking the wheel in a state-of-the-art boat simulator, choosing either a towboat, speedboat or U.S. Coast Guard vessel.

Upstairs in the center, the elegant Founders Room, restored to its original mid-1800s Victorian splendor, overlooks the confluence and can be rented for meetings, as can the nearby 104-seat Maiden Alley Cinema, a classic film house, and the Market House Theater, once a farmers’ produce market, with a number of spaces for varied-sized gatherings.

Named one of the world’s smartest cities by National Geographic Traveler, Paducah became the world’s third UNESCO Creative City due to its important role in connecting cultures through creativity, a commonality that draws folks from around the world. Home to the National Quilt Museum (NQM) and a flourishing creative community, Paducah has built an entire economic sector around its arts.

Opened in 1991, the $2.2-million, 27,000-s.f. National Quilt Museum boasts more than 600 pieces of some of the world’s finest quilt and fiber art in its permanent collection. Here gorgeous contemporary and old-fashioned stitched creations may hang side-by-side. Paducah is home to the American Quilters Society.

Men seem to enjoy browsing here equally as much as women, says CEO Frank Bennett. “People are amazed – regardless of their background or whether they’ve ever quilted – at the complex quilts people can create. Essentially, we’re an elite art museum.”

Small- to mid-size groups can team build here through Creative Stitch, by first taking an extended guided gallery tour, then joining forces to make a quilt block from scratch that once complete, is framed to keep.

Starting in 2000, an Artist Relocation Program brought in artists from across the nation to live and work in turn-of-the-century homes in Paducah’s oldest residential neighborhood. Now 20-plus artisans reside and create and sell handcrafted treasures from fine art to jewelry to lawn-size sculpture in the Lower Town Arts District. The program has become another national model.

In addition, an artist-in-residence initiative brings in artists from diverse backgrounds for two to four weeks to share their skills.

In 2004, the Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center, known as the Carson Center, was built to provide a home for the Paducah Symphony Orchestra (PSO), which was rehearsing in an abandoned school auditorium, and to attract the performing arts. Upcoming options include Tony Award-winning musical Monty Python’s Spamalot (Nov. 26), the PSO: A Christmas Celebration (Dec. 8), and Kinky Boots (Dec. 29), with songs by Grammy and Tony Award winner Cyndi Lauper.

With a main hall seating 1,806 people and reception capacity of 750, the Carson Center features an outdoor patio and indoor meeting spaces with river views.

During the aforementioned flood, Luther Carson himself, owner at the time of Paducah’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, had to be rescued from a second-story window. He rebuilt the plant 31 blocks away on the first dry ground he reached. One of a number of local craft beer purveyors, Dry Ground Brewing Co. – the city’s first – now occupies that building. Beer aficionados can wet their whistles with 28 on tap, including 10-plus brewed in-house.

Prefer fruit of the vine? Then stop at Purple Toad Winery, Kentucky’s largest. Here you can learn about winemaking as you sip famous fruit wines, or any of more than 35 other varieties.

If you’re hungry, Paducah’s options are many and luscious.

Owned by Paducah native Sara Bradley, The Freight House is all farm-to-table, locally sourced meats and garden-fresh fare, plus a full bar with a “staggering” selection of bourbons. More than 500. Really.

Yes, Starnes, now in Midtown, still smokes outta-sight hickory-pit barbecue that you can pair with homemade chocolate or coconut meringue pie. They even ship barbecue across the U.S.

And fifth-generation Kirchhoff’s Bakery and Deli still bakes its vast array of homemade breads and serves homemade sandwiches, soups and salads. Cajun fried shrimp salad, anyone? They’ll make box lunches to order, so you can sit by the river, revel in a mouthwatering meal and watch the world pass by, just like residents and wannabes have been doing here since 1827.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].