Month: November 2016

SCARY PLACES IN OLD PADUCAH: Hell’s Half Acre, Pistol Avenue, Dogtown, Monkey Wrench Park, Hot Springs, and the Bucket of Blood

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Autumn sure makes Paducah look and feel like an idyllic place to live: dappled sunlight, crisp air, changing leaves, and the smell of wood smoke.

But some of those sections of town that you so enjoy this time of year—the parks, trails, shops, and neighborhoods—were once awfully creepy, haunted, and downright scary places. Some of them even sound like settings for horror movies. So with Halloween right around the corner, here’s a list of a few of those formerly frightening areas of town.

HELL’S HALF ACRE
Paducah was once a city defined by its “little towns.” Each neighborhood had its own name and personality: Lowertown, Uppertown, Littleville, Rowlandtown, Frenchtown, Jersey City, Avondale, Arcadia, and Mechanicsburg are just a few. In most instances, these “little towns” were perfectly nice places to live. But as you would expect, there were bad areas, too, and sometimes they weren’t that far away from action.

scary3In the mid 1800’s, Paducah had the reputation of being a raucous port city, and many of the downtown businesses catered to transient rivermen: saloons, pool halls, and cheap hotel rooms. (With that in mind, it doesn’t take a big imagination to figure out how Maiden Alley originally got its name.)

Among all that iniquity was a particularly bad section, only about an eighth of a block, called Hell’s Half Acre, known to house the worst of the worst. One description from 1914 said it was “the home of the most notorious criminals and bruisers Paducah ever produced,” and so named for the numerous crimes committed there. Hell’s Half Acre was located close to downtown, at the corner of Washington and South Second Street, across from where the Carson Center is now. Toward the end of the 1800’s as the railroad came through that part of town, Hell’s Half Acre dissolved and the property became the Southern Hotel and then Iseman Wagon Yard. But as you can see from the accompanying 1897 newspaper article, it was still colloquially known as Hell’s Half Acre at the close of the 19th century.

PISTOL AVENUE
Though Hell’s Half Acre was eventually populated by mostly legitimate businesses, the South Second Street area hung onto its shady status for a long while. Up until prohibition, saloons littered the area, most of them reputed to be rough and tumble. Brothels were also prominent on Second Street, which had the reputation among rivermen as being one of “the finest brothels in Ohio Valley” (Fairhurst Essays, pg. 369). Though this section of town was also a center for commerce, especially fresh produce coming into the freight house on Third Street, the bars and brothels established South Second Street as being an unsafe part of town, and thus it became locally known as Pistol Avenue. “The Freight House” Restaurant in Paducah has a signature drink on its menu commemorating the street’s history.

DOGTOWN
For some, the idea of a place called Dogtown might sound heavenly. But believe me, Dogtown was not the sort of place you wanted to go.

Dogtown was a small community that lived in destitute shacks and leaky shantyboats along the Ohio, primarily during the 1880s and 1890s. The exact location has been difficult to pinpoint. It was not part of any map and none of its citizens appear in our directories. But I suspect it was on the north side of town beyond the current location of the convention center, perhaps close to the downtown head of the Greenway Trail.

Dogtown’s residents were comprised primarily of outcasts: the impoverished, the mentally ill, the criminal, and others who for whatever reason didn’t work or live in town. Because of near constant run-ins with the law and “polite” society, there are numerous newspaper accounts that followed the exploits of the denizens of Dogtown. For example, an article from 1897 reported that the honorary “mayor” of Dogtown was arrested on a peace warrant for constantly threatening to cut his own throat (though it doesn’t appear as if he ever did).

But for all their troubles, Dogtown’s residents appeared to occupy a soft spot in Paducah’s heart. Newspaper reports often spoke of Dogtown’s people in a compassionate, almost endearing way. No, it wasn’t the human residents who caused problems. It was the namesake of the town that posed the real danger….the dogs!
The stray dogs that haunted Dogtown were truly frightening, feral creatures. They congregated after dark and hunted in packs in excess of two dozen. As one account stated, “their midnight orgies are dreadful to contemplate.” Following a flood of the river in 1897, Dogtown’s dogs were forced westward, away the river toward Paducah’s Frenchtown area. Reports followed of the dogs attacking stray cattle in Frenchtown. The Paducah Daily Sun stated that “all jump on the bovine at the same time and many cows have been left torn and bleeding and all but dead.”

The accompanying newspaper article from 1902 advertises the ultimate dissolution of the Dogtown area of Paducah.

MONKEY WRENCH PARK
This site is now one of Paducah’s most bucolic and fun-filled areas…Noble Park! But before it was called Noble Park, it was called Forest Park, and before it was called Forest Park the people called it Monkey Wrench Park.

Why did they call it Monkey Wrench Park?
Because one didn’t go into the area unless armed with a monkey wrench.

In the early 1900’s, this densely wooded area located far outside the city limits, and so was primarily populated by moonshiners and criminals. Thick overgrowth, twisting trails, and swampy traps provided a good hiding place for those who lived outside the law. It was widely known throughout Paducah, however, that a moonshine still operated in the gully behind what is now Noble Park’s amphitheater, and occasionally daring, young Paducahans would drive their buggies to the area in search of a little refreshment. But as stated in the “History of Paducah Parks” by Sue Dana Green (1978), the “results of mixing moonshine from a fruit jar and outlaws who found shelter in the woods” were so many muggings that “young folk called it Monkey Wrench Park” and learned not to go there without the protection of a heavy tool.

HOT SPRINGS
Perhaps this is the most outwardly pleasant sounding place on our list, conjuring images of rejuvenating waters. And as matter of fact, Paducah did advertise a couple of “healthful” mineral wells in its early days, one near the icehouse at the riverfront and one at the intersection of Fifth and Caldwell.

scary1But in the late 19th century, the Hot Springs in Paducah did not refer to water flowing from the ground but from the “great volume of blood which flowed in that vicinity every night. “ Located on Kentucky Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, Paducah’s “Hot Springs” was a dense collection of saloons and clubs where many of Paducah’s most dangerous citizens were known to congregate, and the papers from that time are chock full of stories about stabbings and shootings in the neighborhood. According to a 1914 report on the “Little Towns of Paducah,” the area of Hot Springs in Paducah had nearly as much “notoriety” as the Hot Springs in Arkansas, though obviously for totally different reasons. Curfews and other restrictions enacted by city, as well as Prohibition, ultimately dried up Hot Springs.

THE “BUCKET OF BLOOD”
It doesn’t appear as if this bar even had a real name. In fact, the bar doesn’t really appear in any of the city directories. But it was known widely throughout town as “The Bucket of Blood,” and the Paducah Evening Sun referenced it as such in many articles from 1904-1909. In fact, a Sun article from July 31, 1909 even provides us with an origin story: “The place was so named by former Patrolman Roger on account of the daily number of cutting affrays which took place there.” Located at Tenth and Caldwell, “The Bucket of Blood” was described as “a menace to the neighborhood and trouble to the police.” To the relief of much of Paducah, the “B. O. B.” was destroyed by a fire in early January 1910. By March of 1910, construction had begun on a new structure at the spot, a two-story brick grocery.

So, there you have it…a few of Paducah’s formerly scary places. There’s sometimes a temptation to look at the past as the “good old days,” but as you can see, sometimes it wasn’t always so good. Makes you kind of glad we live in the time we do, doesn’t it?

For more about Paducah’s old haunts, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger

REMEMBERING WALTER JETTON

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Today, September 14, 2016 marks what would have been the 130th birthday of Walter C. Jetton, long time principal of Augusta Tilghman High School.

Jetton was born in Sedalia, Kjetton3entucky in 1886 and started his teaching career at the age of 18 at the Wilford School near his hometown. After earning degrees from the University of Kentucky and the University of Chicago and teaching in both Kentucky and Oregon, Jetton returned to western Kentucky in 1922 to serve as principal of Augusta Tilghman High School in Paducah. Jetton remained as principal of ATHS for 34 years, earning the reputation as strict but loving disciplinarian who demanded excellence from all his students.

In 1955, the school building was renamed in his honor and is still known by that name today. Upon Jetton’s retirement in 1956, it was estimated that 20,000 students had passed through Tilghman under his tutelage.

Jetton died on May 12, 1980 at the age of 93 and was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery.

The pictures of Jetton and the school are copied from 1924 ATHS yearbook, “The Owaissa.”

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LILY TOMLIN (September 1)

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Many in these parts think Lily Tomlin is a Paducahan. Truth is, Tomlin never officially lived here. She was actually born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. But she had relatives in Paducah, including her parents, and often spent summers here as a kid. In the 1980′s Tomlin’s mother and brother opened a restaurant called Chez Tomlin in Paducah.

Today, September 1, is Lily Tomlin’s 77th birthday. While she may not be a Paducahan by strict definition, we’re happy to claim her as one of our own anyhow.

A PLACE FIT FOR A VISION: One of Kentucky’s Fascinating Historical Markers

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The plaque is easy to miss. It stands on the corner of a busy intersection, right in front of Fourth Street Live in downtown Louisville. With all the people, traffic, flashing lights and noise, one might not even see the small bronze sign much less take the time to stop and read it. But if you did, you’d find that plaque commemorates an event that is pretty strange for a hectic, city intersection…it marks the spot of a moment of particular peace, a moment of clarity and quiet.

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On March 18, 1958, Thomas Merton, a monk from the Gethsemni Monastery in Bardstown, was in Louisville running some errands when he was suddenly overtaken by a vision. In his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” Merton wrote: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”
That vision, that mystical experience, set Merton on a new path, prompting him toward a new understanding of his vocation as a monk and his role within the world. He went further into explaining his revelation by stating: “I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

 
It’s the job of a historical marker to draw attention to significant locations and people, but it must be a pretty rare thing for a marker to memorialize a vision. But the commemoration doesn’t stop there. Not only was a historical marker erected, but the street names were changed as well. Where Merton had his vision at Fourth and Walnut streets is now the intersection of Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Thomas Merton Square.
For more about the fascinating life of Thomas Merton, join us for the Evening Upstairs program at the McCracken County Public Library on Thursday, August 18, at 7:00 p.m.

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–Matt Jaeger

Paducahan Quote of the Week #21

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Paducahan Quote of the Week #20

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IN MEMORIAM — Mrs. Olivia Cave (1920-2016)

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The McCracken County Public Library remembers Mrs. Olivia Cave, who was not only a faithful library patron for more than 50 years, but who had the forethought many years ago to save and preserve some local library history….a pair of columns.

cave2Paducah’s magnificent Carnegie Library once stood on the corner of 9th and Broadway, but an unfortunate fire–sparked by a faulty Christmas light on December 30, 1964–ultimately led to the razing of the once beautiful building. Among the rubble during the demolition, Olivia Cave recognized a pair of columns that had marked the entrance to the children’s wing inside the Carnegie, the Anna Bird Stewart Department. Mrs. Cave and her husband rescued the columns from sure destruction and took them home with her where they found a home in their garden.

In 2014, because of Mrs. Cave’s generosity, those columns once again found their way back to the library and made their permanent home beside the library’s Washington Street entrance. Mrs. Cave died on August 5, 2016 at the age of 96. The columns she saved from the rubble continue to stand, not only as a reminder of our history, but also in her memory.

Paducahan Quote of the Week #19

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