The recent discovery and capture of Cletus the alligator in Paducah, has spawned much discussion about creatures of the Jackson Purchase. Interestingly enough, Cletus is not the first alligator to be found in the area!
According to the Paducah Sun-Democrat, December 21,1955, Hickman County resident J.B. Etherton and his trapping partner Henry Rambo, pulled a 6 foot long alligator from an underwater trap, which they had set in Murphy’s Pond. While the gator was deceased, it leaves us wondering again about the origins of these reptiles.
Murphy’s Pond, located in Hickman County, is known for its bald Cyprus trees and high concentration of cottonmouths. Mr. Etherton had been trapping and hunting in the area for years. In fact, he also claimed to have caught an “unusual-looking foot,” some three years prior to the gator and, “persons including himself, long told of hearing loud splashes in the water while fishing in the pond and assumed them to be large fish. He now thinks that his reptilian friend might have been responsible for the splashes.” Mr. Etherton suspected that the foot belonged to the gator he had caught and referred to having caught, “an old friend.”
While Cletus has now found a home at a reptile rescue near Natural Bridge, Mr. Etherton’s gator was displayed at a grocery store in Milburn and at Pryor Wolley’s Grocery in Paducah. We do not know where Mr. Etherton’s gator ended up, but we can be certain that the story only fuels the myths of these creatures making their way to Kentucky.
Until 1910, the citizens of Paducah were free to shoot off fireworks at will, essentially wherever and whenever they pleased. As a result, reports of injuries, particularly to the eyes and hands, filled the newspapers around the Fourth of July and Christmas. With every building seemingly made of wood and tar paper, fires were of major concern too.
In the summer of 1909, the local sheriff began cracking down on the amount of fireworks set off in the street, especially on Broadway where chances of accidental injury or fire were greater. And in April of 1910 the City of Paducah officially enacted its first fireworks ordinance. The details of the ordinance specified that the “sale of firework, including crackers, toy blank pistols, and fireworks is prohibited. The ordinance that a special display may be given under the direction of a competent man, and the supervision of the fire chief. The main purpose of the movement is for a sane Fourth and to stop the damage by fire, and the destruction of lives on every national holiday” (Paducah Evening Sun – 4/19/1910).
Many citizens (especially the young crowd) weren’t happy with the new law. Paducah’s ordinance, however, was right in step with the sentiment around the country. A wave of fireworks ordinances swept the nation at the time. Said the Paducah Evening Sun just before Independence Day in 1910, “The fatalities and mutilations by the cannon crackers, toy pistols, toy cannons and other noise makers have aroused the entire country to the necessity of protecting the youth of the land from injury.
As the Fourth approached, local law enforcement took to the papers to clarify their intention to halt the public’s use of fireworks. Chief of Police Singery and Fire Chief Wood vowed to uphold the new ordinance to the letter and arrest any person who violated it.
Their warnings and the ordinance seem to have worked. No arrests were reported on July 5, 1910, nor were any injuries or fires caused by fireworks. In late December of 1910, Fire Chief Wood reported that the year’s total loss to fire in 1910 was $20,000 as compared to a loss of $42,000 the year before. That translates to a savings of about half a million dollars in today’s standards.
Chief Wood attributed the savings to the new fireworks ordinance.
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With the recent return of locally-made whiskeys (moonshine and bourbon), there’s also been renewed interest in the history of whiskey and distilling in Paducah.
Now of course, when talking both whiskey and Paducah, Irvin Cobb immediately comes to mind. After all, he wrote an entire book of bourbon recipes.
In his 1921 book “One Third Off,” Cobb had this to say about Paducah’s relationship to whiskey: “While I was growing up, through boyhood, through my youth and on into manhood, I had the example of whiskey-drinking all about me. Many of our oldest and most respected families owned and operated distilleries…Men of all stations in life drank freely and with no sense of shame in their drinking…There were decanters on the sideboard; there were jimmy-johns in the cellar; and down at the place on the corner, twenty standard varieties of bottled Bourbons and ryes were to be had at an exceedingly moderate price.”
Though prone to exaggeration, Cobb was right on the mark with this description. Through Cobb’s youth in 1870’s and up until Prohibition, whiskey virtually flowed through the streets. The 1912 Paducah City Directory alone lists 7 distilleries, 5 wholesale liquor distributors, and 66 saloons! Keep in mind that in that time period, the business district didn’t extend much past 13th Street, so Paducah’s prosperous “hard liquor industry” was concentrated in our relatively small downtown area. Keep in mind further that this list only includes those 78 businesses that dealt directly and overtly in whiskey sales, and not others that purveyed alcohol like breweries, restaurants, brothels, and illegal stills.
That’s a lot of booze for a population of only 22,000!
Whenever you’re talking history, people are always most curious about what came first. So then, the question arises: Just what was the first whiskey made in Paducah? This would be impossible to determine if we were considering backwoods shine and home recipe corn liquor. For our purposes, we’re strictly talking lawful whiskey production. But even with that caveat, the question is still tough to answer.
(Jersey City, by the way, was the name of a small section of Paducah along the Tennessee River close to where Ingram Barge is now.)
Perhaps Jersey City Distillery was Paducah’s first. Then again, that leaves about 30 years unaccounted for between Paducah’s founding and that listing for Jersey City Distillery. In that time, our newly incorporated town might have been home to a legal whiskey producer.
Also, just because Jersey City called itself distillery doesn’t mean they actually made the whiskey in their plant or even in town. It was common practice then (and is still fairly common practice now) for distillers to commission and import barrels of whiskey from large, out-of-town manufacturers, and then bottle and brand the liquor as their own.
Outsourced bourbon, if you will.
It is possible that Jersey City Distillery may have been making their own whiskey right here in Paducah in the 1850’s. But it’s just as likely that their whiskey was distilled in Bardstown or even (perish the thought) Tennessee. The truth is that we don’t know for sure, and we may never know.
The first distillery that we have discovered which actually made legal whiskey within the city limits was called Old Terrell Distillery (registered as No. 34 in the Second District). Opened by Albert Sid Terrell in 1903, the Old Terrell Distillery made a big deal in its early promotions about the claim that they were the first of their kind, the first to truly make whiskey in Paducah. Their advertisements promoted the liquor with phrases like “The First Distillery in Paducah” and “Patronize home industry.”
Though whiskey and whiskey bottlers were abundant in Paducah, the concept of genuine distilling was so foreign to the citizenry that, in anticipation of the opening of the Old Terrell Distillery, the Paducah Evening Sun ran a lengthy front page article that outlined the entire distilling process. “Paducah is soon to have a distillery, the Messrs. Terrell to start their plant in a short time. Few people of this section of the state, where there are no distilleries, have ever seen one, and for that reason the following description ought to be of general interest….” (February 12, 1903, Paducah Evening Sun).
The offices for Old Terrell were at 417 Jefferson Street and the distilling plant itself was located a couple miles away on N.10th Street. The plant started production on Monday, April 6, 1903 and the first glasses of Old Terrell whiskey (maybe Paducah’s first) were served to patrons the following Saturday, April 11. A glass of Old Terrell whiskey cost 10 cents.
Likely those first glasses of whiskey were as smooth as a mouthful of gravel. But flash forward a few years, giving the whiskey time to age, and the product probably became more palatable. Because of that aging, in fact, Old Terrell stopped calling their product “whiskey” and started calling it “bourbon.” The labels on their bottles reflected that change, with the word “bourbon” in prominent letters under the name. The 1906 Sanborn Insurance Map of the plant on 10th Street (see attachment) also began to credit Old Terrell with the production of bourbon.
Hindsight teaches us Old Terrell Distillery wouldn’t be around too much longer. Prohibition had begun its slow march. By the early 1900s, the temperance movement already had a foothold in Paducah, and supporters often paraded through the streets, among Paducah’s 60+ saloons, in opposition to the sale of alcohol. In protest, Old Terrell also started holding parades….called whiskey parades. The distillery hired boys to carry banners and bands to play music all while traipsing up and down Jefferson Street in front of the Old Terrell’s offices.
One such whiskey parade on December 23, 1907 so angered some supporters of the temperance movement that they broke up the whiskey parade, destroyed all of the banners, and smashed several bottles of whiskey on the street. But Terrells were not to be deterred. The very next day, Christmas Eve, the Terrells were back on the street with another parade. This time, however, one of the Terrell brothers served as drum major, carrying a pickax instead of a baton. Under his armed direction, the band played “It’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” (December 24, 1907, Paducah Evening Sun).
The Terrells’s whiskey parades mischievously dug at the temperance movement. Even their ads seemed to poke little fun. Though their bourbon was never advertised as medicinal, the fine print of one of the accompanying ads stated: “N.B. [meaning Nota Bene, or Note Well] Parties living in dry towns of Kentucky must have orders expressed in their druggist’s or doctor’s name to comply with state law.”
Despite their good natured resistance, however, Old Terrell Distillery would soon have to lawfully silence its stills. By 1918, the distillery no longer appears in the Paducah City Directory, though Albert Sidney Terrell’s occupation is still listed as distiller. By 1920, the year Prohibition was enacted, not only is there no mention of the distillery, but Albert Sidney Terrell has no listed occupation.
So there you go, a little about Paducah’s whiskey past. Like they advertised, perhaps Old Terrell’s was Paducah’s first actual whiskey/bourbon distiller. But then again, it might have Jersey City Distillery or some yet to be discovered distiller. Without access to all the history, it’s hard to know the whole story.
A shot…get it?
[N.B. --- Both of the whiskey labels from the accompanying advertisements have the same typo. Can you find it?]
For more about Paducah’s spirited past, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.