Month: May 2016

1 ESCAPED HYENA, 2 IMPALED FEET, AND 80,000 TICKETS SOLD: Paducah’s “Original” Lowertown Festival of 1901 (Updated Repost)

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This weekend Paducah celebrates the Lowertown Arts and Music Festival, one of the many great festivals held in our fair city every year. But the festival atmosphere is certainly nothing new to Paducahans, and in fact, during this week in Paducah history, May 14-18, 1901, the town was in the midst of a massive carnival sponsored by the Elks Club. Held in the Downtown/Lowertown area with the main attractions showcased on a lot at Ninth and Broadway, the carnival brought festival-goers from as far away as Evansville, Louisville, and St. Louis. According to the May 16, 1901 issue of the Paducah Sun, “The crowd in the city today is estimated to be the largest ever here at one time before in the history of Paducah,” which proved later to be about 12,000 people on that one day alone.

1901 wasn’t the first year for the Elks carnival. It had been started two years prior in 1899, but for those first two years the carnival was a relatively small affair, a local fundraiser, if you will. Even the early accounts for the 1901 carnival didn’t tout the event as being quite so spectacular. A major attraction, as reported in a February 1901 edition of The Sun, was to be the inclusion of a nursery for children… “where people may leave their children in the care of good, responsible nurses and have them checked like a trunk at the depot or an overcoat at the hotel.”

Something happened in the interim months, however; the size of the carnival grew, expanding from a weekend to a full five days. Midway performers were brought in from out of town. The event was advertised far and wide, up and down the rivers. The carnival grew such that it essentially took over the entire city, to the point that Mayor Lang handed over the city to the Elks on opening day, formally putting the Elks in charge of the city for the duration of the event.

Said Elks’s Director General Lagomarsino to a crowd of thousands upon receiving the key to the city – “Ladies and Gentlemen—In these days of mad racing for wealth, when we live two days in one day, and the duties of two weeks are crowded into one, it becomes a necessity to devise some means which will relax the tightly strung nerves and give rest to the over-taxed brain. A means by which this end may be attained should be hailed with delight by the whole people and the projectors thereof should have their comfort and support in their arduous labors. Such we claim this carnival to be.”

The townspeople took this mandate to heart. With the fair beginning at 1:30 pm each afternoon of that week, the vast majority of merchants and banks in town agreed to close shop by early afternoon so their employees could attend. The post office shut down. Children were let out of school early.

The scope and variety of the attractions at the 1901 Elks Carnival were second to none, and likely novelties to many of the festival-goers of the early 20th century. We don’t have a complete list of Midway performers and attractions, but we know of a few…
*a wild animal menagerie
*camel rides
*a German Village which featured musical and comedy acts, as well as beer and sausages
*the Ladies Auxiliary “fish pond” from which prizes could be drawn
*the Streets of India tent which featured acrobatics and “oriental” dancing girls
*the famous Backman Glass Blowing demonstration with a working glass steam engine as well as glass dresses, neck ties, and pin cushions
*a Flower Parade, not unlike the Rose Bowl Parade in concept, during which the crowd threw so much confetti that it stood ankle-deep in the streets. As reported, “Every body caught throwing flour, rice, or anything other than confetti will be arrested by order of Director Lagomarsino.”
*the Thompson High Divers, a husband and wife team. “The man dives one hundred feet and his wife about half that far. They are paid five hundred dollars a week for this feature.”
*Madame Roltare, a palm reader out of Chicago. The paper praised her as a “highly educated young woman” who “deserves the popularity that she is winning.”
*Joe Grimes, “the fat boy,” who tipped the scales at 740 pounds. Mr. Grimes made his living with his girth and had actually been to Paducah before, helping advertise a bicycle firm.

Of course, no major event is without its mishaps. One of the performers from the “Streets of India,” a Mr. Jeff Presley of Knoxville, tried to jump a fence at Ninth and Broadway and landed on the iron fence at Grace Episcopal, striking one of the pickets through his foot. In trying to dislodge himself, Mr. Presley succeeded in piercing the other foot as well. The paper reported he was in “very bad condition.”

Also, one of the hyenas from the Midway menagerie managed to escape its cage at two ‘o clock in the morning and wandered over to the “Streets of India” tent, finding its way into the sleeping quarters where the “Turks” were at rest. The sniffing beast woke one of the performers who promptly rolled himself into his blanket, figuring the hungry creature wouldn’t want to eat the blanket as well. He was right. The beast was ultimately lassoed and returned to its cage without further incident.

All told, the Elks fair of 1901 brought in 80,000 paid admissions—a staggering figure for the time. After expenses, the Elks profited $6000, approximately $150,000 in today’s money. The carnival proved to be so popular that it ran for many more years after 1901, getting a little bigger and better each time.

To learn more about menageries, mishaps, and Midways, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger


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Born in 1807 in Lancashire, England, John “Jack” Lawson was orphaned as a boy and spent much of his youth hustling for jobs. As a young man, he found work with the Englishman Robert Stephenson, a pre-eminent inventor and designer of steam engines. Stephenson built the famous engine “The Rocket,” which was the winning design among five other engines in a contest sponsored by the first railway in the world designated solely for steam powered engines. Captain Jack Lawson stood on the footboard of “The Rocket” on this inaugural run. Said Lawson in an 1897 interview, “I well remember that trip. The engine was under the supervision of Mr. Stephenson, but I really had charge of it.”

Following the invention and introduction of steam engines in England, Lawson then came to America to help usher in the new era of railroading by teaching others what he knew of engineering. Said Lawson in the same interview, “Six months later I came to America and brought the first steam engine across the ocean that was seen in this country. I took the engine to Baltimore, and the first trip was made on the Baltimore and Susquehanna to a medicinal spring twelve miles distant.”

Lawson claimed he was the first to engineer a steam locomotive in the United States, and newspapers from the late part of the 19th century are full of articles supporting his story. In truth, that claim is quite debatable. But it’s not debatable that Lawson was a railroad pioneer.

Following these early railroad days in Baltimore, Lawson chose to stay United States. He fought in the Civil War and ultimately settled in Paducah as a riverboat captain. He never got too far from his railroading days, and often heralded his own accomplishments on the rails. Said Lawson, “I am proud of one thing in my life, and that is that I never had an accident while I was running an engine. I have made some noted runs, too. At one time in my career, I made the run from Mayfield to Paducah, twenty-six miles, in seventeen minutes.”

Lawson died in 1901 at the age of 94 and is buried at Mt. Kenton Cemetery.


–Matt Jaeger

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE FLOODWALL: The Fifth Anniversary of Paducah’s Second Biggest Flood

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These days, Paducah’s floodwall seems to get more attention for its beautiful murals than the actual job it is doing. Without a doubt, the murals are stunning. However, anyone who was living in Paducah in 2011 also owes that floodwall a huge debt of gratitude for its protection…an astronomical debt as it turns out.

As far as floods in Paducah go, the Flood of 1937 deservedly gets most of the fanfare. The volume of water on our streets and the extent of the damage seems unfathomable. In 1937, the Ohio River crested at 60.8 feet on February 2, the highest level ever recorded in Paducah’s history. Our floodwall was built in response to the 1937 Flood at a height that would withstand a crest of 64 feet.

What many people may not realize, however, is that Paducah’s second highest recorded crest happened just five years ago. Starting in February 2011, Paducah was inundated with rain. In April alone we received nearly 16 inches, and on this day in Paducah history–May 5, 2011–the river crested at 55.03 feet.

A mere five feet lower than the high water mark!

While the water damage to outlying areas and some of our neighboring cities was devastating, downtown Paducah and thousands of residents were spared by our floodwall. The wall stood true letting through hardly more than a trickle.

So, in actual dollars, what then is the debt that we owe our floodwall? One statement on the website for the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Paducah’s floodwall prevented $1.2 billion in damages.

Take a look at the accompanying photo. The watermark for the 2011 flood isn’t listed with the others. We can thank our wall for that.

FYI…according to the National Weather Service the five highest historic crests in Paducah are: 60.6 ft. (1937), 55.03 ft. (2011), 54.3 ft. (1884), 54.3 ft. (1913), and 53.3 ft. (1950). The first floodgate in the wall in Paducah is installed when the river reaches approximately 49.5 feet.

For more information about money saving engineering feats, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger


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THE REMARKABLE LIFE (AND DEATH) OF ALBEN BARKLEY: 60 Years Ago in Today in Paducah History


Today in Paducah history we remember the 60th anniversary of the death of Vice President Alben Barkley, whose life ended in an abrupt, but remarkable fashion on April 30, 1956. Captured on audio, his last words are truly legendary and befitting of a man who so faithfully served his town, state, and country.

Though Barkley is often mentioned in conjunction with Paducah, he was not a Paducah native. Born in 1877 in Wheel, Kentucky in Graves County, Barkley didn’t actually move to Paducah until he was 21 years old in 1898. Once in Paducah, however, he quickly adopted the city as his own.

He worked as a law clerk for Judge William S. Bishop (the inspiration behind Cobb’s “Judge Priest”), and following his admission to the bar in 1901, his career path led him straight toward the Vice Presidency.
*Paducah Lawyer (1901-1905)
*McCracken County Attorney (1905-1909)
*McCracken County Court Judge (1909-1913)
*U.S. House of Representative, First District of Kentucky (1913-1927)
*U.S. Senate (1927-1949)
*35th Vice President of the United States (1949-1953)

Following his term as Vice President, Barkley ran for reelection as a U.S. Senator and won in 1955. Despite others offering up their seats, Barkley insisted on sitting on the back row with the other freshman senators.

It was precisely this willingness to return to the seat of a freshman senator that Barkley was speaking about when he died about a year later. On April 30, 1956, in the midst of a speech at Washington and Lee University, Barkley had just uttered the words, “I’m glad to sit on the back row, for I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty,” when he collapsed on stage.

78-year-old Barkley had died of a massive heart attack. The haunting audio of the speech containing Barkley’s last words, is available by clicking the link.

Barkley’s body was returned to his adopted hometown of Paducah. Following a service at Broadway United Methodist, a grand procession wound through our city’s streets, finally ending at Mt. Kenton Cemetery where Barkley was interred.

And if you’d like to know more about the spectacular life of Vice President Barkley, join us at the library on May 26 at 7 PM for a program entitled “The Veep” presented by WKMS’s Todd Hatton.

And as always, for more about Paducah history, be sure to visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger



This day in Paducah history, April 29, 1929 saw the grand opening of the Hotel Irvin Cobb!! Attached are an RSVP card for the opening as well as pages from the announcement brochure which show the architect’s rendering and short biographies of the hotel’s major players including Adolph Weil, the Owner; Walter Ahlschlager, the Architect; and Irvin Cobb, the Namesake. The hotel’s first registered guest was a revered author, actor, journalist, screenwriter, radio personality, and humorist….Irvin Cobb himself!

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A PATCHWORK FAMILY: A Tale of Love, Happenstance, an Orphan, the St. Louis World’s Fair, and One AMAZING QUILT (Updated Repost)


We’ve got quilts on the mind at the Local and Family History Department—fancy that—but a historical Paducah story about quilting proved elusive. But we found one, a single quilting story, just a paragraph long from an April 1905 Paducah Sun…hardly a prosaic foundation. But following the threads, we patched together a rather sweet tale, about love, happenstance, an orphan, the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, and one amazing quilt.

The World’s Fair in St. Louis, 1904, was, in a word, spectacular, for it was not only a fair for the world but a world in and of itself. The grounds of the fair covered 1200 acres and contained 1500 buildings which were connected by over 75 miles of roads and walkways. 62 foreign countries sponsored exhibits, as well as the United States Government and all of the US States. Nearly 20 million people attended the fair. Perhaps, most importantly, the World’s Fair of 1904 introduced the planet to the ice cream cone.

The state of Kentucky, like all the states, had its own building at the Fair, and among the hundreds of exhibits was one relegated for “Women’s Work and Relics,” which included arts and crafts like embroideries, hand-painted satin, rag carpets, fish scale wreaths, table covers, buckeye wood, sun-bonnets, crochet work, and pillow shams. And, naturally, there were quilts on exhibition too, which had brought Miss Louisa “Lou” Catherine Singer, aged 47, to the Fair in the first place. She’d traveled all the way from Milton, KY, a speck of a town northeast of Louisville on the Ohio, just to display her quilt.

Among all the items in the “Women’s Works and Relics” exhibition, which were among all the displays in the Kentucky Building, which sat among all the other state and country buildings, which were scattered throughout the 1200 acre grounds, you might have thought a single woman’s quilt would have gotten overlooked by the masses. Not true, for Miss Singer’s quilt was apparently something special to behold, freakish in its construct, for it contained 122,616 pieces! Granted, I don’t know a lot about quilting (in truth, I know next to nothing), but 122,616 seems an awful lot, a monumental undertaking, for sure.

This is only conjecture, but I reckon more than one person put aside their newfangled ice cream cones to gander at her epic handiwork.

Surely, Miss Singer knew she had something special, and surely she knew that her quilt would be admired by many, but perhaps she couldn’t have predicted that her massive quilt and the massive fair would also introduce her to her future husband. Enter Richard Wilson, also aged 47, from Paducah, who, in wandering through the Kentucky Building, happened upon Miss Singer and her Amazing Technicolor Dream Quilt and found himself awe struck by her talent and love struck by her personage. Miss Singer apparently returned his affections for their conversation not only lasted through the afternoon, but for the rest of the following year until Mr. Wilson finally moved to Milton, Kentucky and married her.

A tale of love, happenstance, the St. Louis World’s Fair, and one freakishly dandy quilt…no? But wait. It’s not quite over. I promised you an orphan in this tale, too, so as epilogue to our love story we flash forward to the year 1910.

Our heroes, now Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, are five years into wedded bliss, now both aged 52 and still living in Milton. Both came into the marriage childless, and because they married later in life, they probably assumed children were not a part of their future. Until Mrs. Lou Wilson found a baby on the banks of the Ohio. The baby, just a few months old, was born to a woman who worked on a river boat and she abandoned him on the Kentucky side of the river. Richard and Lou, now in their middle ages, adopted the boy, named him Forest William Wilson, and after that one can only imagine, though it’s easily figured, that this amazingly patchwork family found a way to live happily ever after, wrapped in the warmth of one ginormous quilt.

To learn more about quilts, quilting, fairs, babies, fish scale wreaths, or any other manner of things, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger