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Rooted, but always reinventing

story by Libby Falk Jones

Paducah is a Kentucky peninsula, a curved finger stretching into the confluence of rivers flowing west towards the powerful Mississippi. Its heritage goes back to the Native Americans, the Western adventurers, the Civil War notables, the shipping and railroad magnates and laborers, and the African-American musicians, and artists of all stripes.

Paducah is known as “another name for Paradise,” in a song from the 1943 musical “The Gang’s All Here.” And it is known as the Atomic City, after a uranium-enriching plant that began operating there in 1952. It’s a city of boats, bridges, tracks and trails, proud of its 200-year history. And it’s a creative city, proud of the people who’ve made it, proud of its ability to hold to its roots, yet to reinvent itself.

Paducah is all these things and more.

This city and the surrounding countryside of McCracken County are the focus of this year’s Mountain Workshops of Western Kentucky University. Seventy-seven participants are here to polish their skills and learn new techniques in visual storytelling under the guidance of dozens of top professionals from around the country. The stories they tell appear on a web presentation dedicated to Paducah at www.mountainworkshops.org. And they grace the pages of this book, a celebration of the people who make Paducah what it is in this time and this place in the history of America.

Visiting Paducah today is finding history and creativity made present. A tour might begin on the Delta Queen on the Ohio River, with views of barges loaded with McCracken County soybeans bound for China or carrying Paducah-built locomotives to Australia. Several miles upstream, the Cumberland enters the Ohio River and the Tennessee joins them at Paducah. The three big rivers – all carrying headwaters from Appalachia – combine with the Mississippi, one of the great waterways of the world. Paducah, now with about 25,000 residents, has grown and profited from its unique location on this powerful waterway. But it has also suffered. Flooding was a constant threat until the city constructed floodwalls, and the nation responded with dams that control the flow from upriver.

Land awarded to George Rogers Clark in 1795 for his military service was incorporated in 1830 by Clark’s brother, George William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Clark named the town for the Native American tribe, the Padoucas. It’s the only town in Kentucky to bear a Native American name.

“A resonating energy comes from the waters,” says Nathan Lynn, musician and archivist at McCracken County Public Library. Lynn lives with his wife and children on land his family began farming in 1867. “Paducah feels very alive to me,” he says.

Life pulses from the floodwalls atop the levee. Built in response to the devastating 1937 flood, when waters rose 11 feet and covered 90 percent of the town, these walls today boast 50 murals depicting Paducah’s history. Visitors can ride by the murals in horse-drawn buggies or walk or bike past on their way to the 4.6-mile Greenway Trail that stretches along the levee.

The murals, a project begun in 1996, are one example of contemporary artists’ work. Three blocks away, the National Quilt Museum, the largest quilting museum in the world, boasts a stunning fiber art collection of over 500 pieces. The Paducah School of Art & Design offers programs in ceramics, metals, clay and wood.

Artistry takes many forms here. At Kirschhoff’s Bakery & Deli, the family’s fifth generation still creates artisan breads. The 1939 Coca-Cola Bottling Plant is home to the city’s first craft brewery, Dry Ground Brewing Co. The town also hosts a vibrant music scene, with contemporary musicians performing at local venues such as Maiden Alley Cinema. Local musicians draw on the music of the rivers and the hills, as well as on Paducah’s African-American heritage of jazz, blues and gospel. The Hotel Metropolitan, an early 20th Century haven for visiting African American musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, is now preserved as a heritage center.

Local artists have also helped to transform the city’s infrastructure. In 2000, the city partnered with Paducah Bank to offer artists historic properties at low cost. The artists in turn made a commitment to refurbish the homes, many of which had been divided into apartments and were in disrepair. The result of this partnership is today’s Lower Town Arts District, filled with restored homes, studios and galleries. Paducah’s Artist Relocation Project serves as a model for arts-focused economic development.

World recognition of Paducah’s creativity came in 2013 when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated it a Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art, one of only seven such cities in the world.

In a creative city, community flourishes. One thousand volunteers from McCracken and surrounding counties came together for a week last year to build the Paducah Rotary Playground. Citizen groups prevented demolition of the courthouse designed by famed architect Edward Durrell Stone and built in 1963. Now they are working to reclaim the historic Columbia Theatre, a 1927 movie palace. Volunteers serve those in need through the Community Kitchen and Paducah Cooperative Ministry, among other organizations.

“There are many giving hearts here,” says Carrie Dillard, news editor at the Paducah Sun.

That community spirit of care forms a solid base for meeting current challenges. These include creating economic opportunities for young people, addressing achievement gaps in the public schools, and cleaning up the uranium mining site, says Fowler Black, sales director at Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau. The community radiates an optimism born of proved resilience.

“If we love something, we can do it,” Black says.

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