Month: February 2017 (page 1 of 2)

PAST PADUCAHANS: Who Was A.W. Watkins?



Known throughout town as Andy, Andrew William Watkins was Paducah’s first African-American funeral director and embalmer.


Watkins was born in Tuscaloosa, AL in 1856. It is not known when he moved to Paducah, but early mentions of him all indicate that he always showed a great head for business. He started in Paducah as an express wagon driver (the early equivalent of a delivery van), and before long, he’d saved enough money to own and operate his own cab line. In 1894, in recognizing the growing need for someone to serve the funerary needs of African-Americans in Paducah, Watkins established his undertaking business in August of 1894. His first storefront was at 221 S. 7th Street, close to his personal residence. Finding great success, he later relocated to the two story brick building at 701 Washington Street, close to Washington Street Missionary Baptist Church. The building housed an office, funeral chapel, morgue, store, and trimming room (a room for building coffins). Besides being a savvy businessman, Watkins was proved to be a considerable property owner and influential civic leader, often described in the newspapers as “highly esteemed.” He was affiliated with the Masonic and Knights of Pythias lodges, and served as a long time president of the “Colored Men’s Business League.”


watkins2Watkins died on June 5, 1915 from what the newspaper described as a “long illness of stomach trouble.” He was only 50 years old at the time of his death and was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah. The funeral home business survived his death and was successfully run by his nephew, D.P Rucker, for several more decades.


Recently, the McCracken County Public Library digitized 28 ledgers containing records from A.W. Watkins Funeral Home, covering the years 1894-1933. The information in the records varies, but can include the name, age, place of birth, cause of death, and burial place of the deceased; the person or fraternal organization paying for the services; items purchased for the funeral; and more.


Those digitized records are available for public access on the McCracken County Library website ( and are invaluable source for local history and genealogical research.


Photo sources: The photo of Mr. Watkins was copied from the 1915 book The Golden Jubilee of the General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky. The photo of the gravestone is copied from

SEEING RED: Three Short Stories about Local, Historic Redheads


1. Were you aware that William Clark, the man who platted out Paducah, had red hair? It is reported that Native Americans in the Missouri regions called him the “the Red Head” or the “Red Head Chief” and that they called St. Louis “the Red Head’s town” because Clark lived there.


2. In 1898, it was reported that a young redheaded boy named Julius Pelcher could be seen about town carrying a garden hose or a piece of pipe, and by blowing in it, could make “very acceptable” music. Apparently, he could make any cylindrical object sound like a flute, from a roll of paper to a sewer pipe, and could repeat any tune he’d ever head. The Paducah Daily Sun reported that Julius was between 8-10 years old at the time.


3. In 1910, it was reported by both the Paducah Evening Sun and the Cairo Bulletin that a courtship had been ended because of red hair. Miss Mary B. Messey of Ballard County and Mr. Michael Givvens of Kokomo, Indiana had courted one another through the post and finally set a date to meet one another on December 17, 1910.  Mr. Givvens traveled from Indiana to Cairo, Illinois to meet his bride, and for all intents and purposes, it appeared as Miss Messey was traveling to Cairo to meet her groom as it was reported that she only brought enough money with her for a one way trip. But upon seeing Mr. Givvens for the first time, Miss Messey ran from the spot saying, “I just couldn’t live with a redheaded man. I just couldn’t.” Later, confessing to an Officer James Casey and trying to secure funds back home, Miss Messey said, “It would not make any difference if her were the mayor and the owner of the whole town. That hair would settle his case with me.”


It was reported that Miss Messey was a brunette.


For more about the crimson-locked, come see us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

The 68th Anniversary of the Day a Paducahan Became Vice President


With the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, January 20 was established as Inauguration Day for our nation’s president and vice-president. (Technically, the current president’s term doesn’t officially expire until exactly high noon on Inauguration Day) So, today, we not only recognize the swearing in of our new president and vice president, but also the anniversaries of all of those presidents and vice presidents since the 1933 elections, including our nation’s 35th Vice President, Paducah’s own Alben Barkley.

68 years ago on January 20, 1949, in front of the Capitol Building with president-elect Harry S. Truman by his side, Alben Barkley stepped forward on the inaugural platform and took this oath:
“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

With that, a Paducahan became Vice-President!

And also with that oath, Alben Barkley established another sort of inauguration distinction, one that he shares with Donald Trump.


At 71 years and 57 days old, Alben Barkley became the oldest person to assume the office of vice president. Similarly, as of today, Donald Trump (70 years and 220 days old) will be the oldest person to assume the office of president.

By contrast, the youngest vice-president to assume the office was John C. Breckinridge, VP under James Buchanan, at 36 years and 47 days old. With regards to the presidency, many think John F. Kennedy was the youngest, but the actual answer is Teddy Roosevelt. JFK was the youngest elected to the presidency at 43 years 236 days old, however, when Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency after McKinley’s assassination, he was only 42 years 322 days old.

For more about Barkley’s legacy and presidential ages, come visit the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger

*The attached photo of Barkley in the midst of his oath was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

THE BELL OF THE HALL: Today in Paducah History


Today, January 5, is the 25th anniversary of the formal dedication of the bell that sits on its marble perch in City Hall.

Now in the scope of historic events, 25 years is not that long ago. But when you know what that bell went through to get back to City Hall, the anniversary becomes rather significant.

The 134 year old bell has survived two major accidents: a fire and car wreck!!

The 3500-pound phosphor bronze bell was originally cast in 1883 by a foundry in Troy, NY and hung contentedly in the clock tower of Paducah’s old City Hall at 332 Kentucky Avenue. There it stayed for 83 years (from 1883-1966), dutifully chiming each hour.

bell2When that city hall was razed, the bell found its way into quiet storage at the Paducah Terminal Warehouse on Harrison Street. When the warehouse burned in 1983, however, the bell was found in the ashes, severely damaged and broken in three places.

The pieces of the bell then went into the hands of W.L. Beasley who stored them for safekeeping among the headstones at Beasley Monument Company at 1101 Mallory Street. But one Saturday night in 1986, a driver missed a curve and smashed into the bell on the Beasley property, breaking it in two more places.

Time had taken its toll on the poor bell. Now in five pieces, the bell looked like a dead ringer.

But in 1989, Mayor Gerry Montgomery sought help in restoring the bell and ultimately found that assistance through VMV Enterprises. Donating over 330 man hours, VMV fully restored the bell by mid-1990. W.L. Beasley found and donated a marble slab, and the 1.75-ton bell was moved to its permanent spot on Halloween Day in 1991.

Which brings us to the anniversary we honor today, the bell’s formal dedication on January 5, 1992 during the inauguration and swearing in ceremonies exactly 25 years ago!!

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

–Matt Jaeger

TODAY IN PADUCAH HISTORY: The Carnegie Library Fire


On this day, December 30, in 1964, Paducah’s first public library, the Carnegie Library, caught fire.

The determined cause of the fire?

A faulty Christmas light.

Pictured here is the shell of the building after the fire. The photo is part of the McCracken County Public Library’s Harriet Boswell Collection which you can view at



The carolers begin their tune very courteously…
“We wish you a Merry Christmas…”

But then they get a little pushy…
“Now bring us some figgy pudding

And then they get downright rude…
“We won’t go until we get some…”

But the carolers’ manners aside, the old Christmas song begs the question: Just what is figgy pudding? To get an idea, think of something like a fancy fruitcake.

Figgy pudding (also sometimes called plum pudding or Christmas pudding) is a dense cake, shaped like the container it is made in, often a bowl. It is filled with all manners of dried and candied fruits, as well as spices associated with the holidays: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves. It is generally cooked by steaming, rather than baking. It is often soaked in alcohol. It can be eaten right away, or if preserved by alcohol, can be stored for months and reconstituted by further steaming. It is often soaked with brandy and lit on fire just before serving.


In olden days, figgy pudding became a dish reserved for the holidays because it was a luxury item. Though common now, the spices used were an extravagance in pre-Victorian times, so the dish became synonymous with wealth and indulgence. Preparation and cooking often took a full day, made doubly difficult when considering that it all happened on a cast-iron stove heated by wood or coal. And not just anyone could make a figgy pudding either. It took a masterful hand; all could wrong very quickly. Remember this scene from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol?”

”But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up, and bring it in.

Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose: a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

So after all this history, surely you want some figgy pudding now. How could you not? And if you’re looking for a historically accurate recipe, look no further than your Local and Family History Department.

figgyOne of the oldest local cookbooks we have in our collection (if not the oldest) dates back to 1896, the end of the Victorian era, which was prime time for puddings. “The New Paducah Cook Book” was published by Sun Press for the benefit of Grace Episcopal Church at 9th and Broadway. There are many, many recipes for steamed puddings in the book, but the following recipe for plum pudding looks most similar to a traditional Christmas pudding.

“One pound of beef suet; one pound of sugar; three-fourths pound of bread crumbs; one pound of flour; one pound of raisins; one pound of currents; one-half pound of candied orange peel; one-half pound of candied lemon peel; one-half pound citron; one pound of almonds; six eggs; one quart of sweet milk; one teaspoon salt, cloves and cinnamon, each; two nutmegs. Mix suet, sugar and bread crumbs; then add the flour and fruit. Beat eggs and add to milk last thing. Steam seven hours.”

That’s it. Easy as pie. So get to it and whip up a figgy pudding. And if you do, make sure you bring some down to the Local and Family History Department.

Seriously, bring us some figgy pudding.
We won’t go until we get some.

–Matt Jaeger


loneoak2 loneoak

Burning a Yule Log.

It’s not a Christmas tradition that we truly participate in anymore. Though we may build crackling fires and roast chestnuts, I’d daresay that none of us have ever sat around an actual Yule Log.

That’s because old-fashioned Yule Logs were very big.

How big?

Big enough to burn for twelve days straight, the entirety of the Christmas season. Often times, a family would drag an entire trunk into their house, stick one end in the fireplace, leave the other end sticking out into the room, and slowly push the trunk into the fireplace as it burned down over the next week and a half.

Our modern day houses with their central heat are just ill-equipped to burn such unwieldy firewood.

But on Christmas Day in 1903, some Paducah citizens got awfully close to burning a true Yule Log. They burned not just a trunk, but a whole tree. And it wasn’t just any old tree that they burned, but a rather recognizable landmark in town.

The tree they burned was described as a “massive and stubby oak” and sat at what is now the intersection of Highway 45 and Lovelaceville Road. The tree was highly visible at that location as it was the only tree in the immediate area. People referenced the oak when giving directions. That single tree was so identifiable that it became synonymous with that section of town. In fact, people just started calling the area Lone Oak.

That’s right…the original tree for which Lone Oak was named was chopped down and used for a Christmas Day fire.

But don’t let this bit of trivia ruin your good cheer. This was no act of mischief, no bit of holiday vandalism. The tree was not cut down in its prime. The “lone oak” in question had already been dead for a couple years before that fated night.

In his 1976 “History of Lone Oak,” Bill Powell stated that a group of “playful young men,” including D.M. “Doc” Potts, got together on December 25, 1903 to finally bring the oak to rest. “There was no ceremony, no fond remembrances; the tree was just lying there in sawed-up sections.”

But there was respect. As Doc Potts said in a later interview, “It seemed like a good idea to burn it as celebration.”

And a fitting tribute it seems to be. You can imagine there were many who warmed their hands and hearts around the old oak’s glow that night.

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

–Matt Jaeger

THE LORD OF THE RINKS: Paducah’s 1907 Skating Rink


It had been nearly six years since downtown Paducah had a skating rink, but as of this past weekend, ice skating has returned! The 60 x 120 foot ice rink is located in the Expo Center, and since it’s indoors, it can remain open despite the weather, through rain, sleet, or even the return of 80 degree days.

But over 100 years ago, in November of 1907, a whole different kind of indoor skating rink opened in downtown Paducah. Not an ice rink (the widespread use of indoor ice rinks was still decades away at that point), but a roller skating rink.

Roller skating was all the rage in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Paducahans were right in step with the four-wheeled fad and regularly sought out places in town to strap on their skates. Some of the meeting lodges in town, like the Elks and Odd Fellows, put down temporary floors in their spaces for skaters, and reported that they were glad to provide “some amusement for our young men and ladies besides going to dances all the time” (Paducah Evening Sun, 12/16/1898). In early 1907, Paducahans, both young and old, also used the court house yard for skating as the new concrete walks afforded “an excellent place for the sport” (Paducah Evening Sun, 1/23/1907).

But skaters were outgrowing the lodges and sidewalks, so by mid-1907, construction began on a brand new facility solely dedicated to roller skating…Auditorium Rink! The rink itself was 60 x 200 feet long, designed to accommodate 600 skaters at one time. Seating was installed around the edges of the rink which could accommodate another 800 bodies. The lobby, separated from the rink by a partition, housed refreshment stands and could hold yet another 300 people. The facility also boasted a second floor men’s smoking room and a women’s waiting room which was advertised as being “absolutely private.”

Perhaps the coolest feature of the new rink, however, was the installation of a 40-piece orchestrion, a large mechanical instrument that ran like a giant music box with pinned cylinders and was designed to sound like a military band complete with organ pipes, wind instruments and percussion. The orchestrion could be programmed to play all manner of popular and classical songs—two steps, marches, and waltzes. (The accompanying photo from a 1908 Billboard Magazine shows both the type of organ that Auditorium Rink might have had, as well as the sort of skates used.)

Auditorium Rink opened to the public on November 11, 1907 (see the included advertisement). So many people lined up outside that it took over an hour to admit them when the doors opened at 7 PM. The Paducah Evening Sun said that counting the number of skaters who “spun about the big rink would be impossible,” but they did say it was over 1000. Councilman Van Meter stood out in the large crowd and was said to handle himself on skates “in such a manner that many a younger skater looked on with envy.”

Though most everyone had a wonderful time, opening night was not without incident. One woman fainted while in the crush at the door. Another young women, Miss Irene Curd, fell on her head and was rendered unconscious for a short time. Complaints were made about daredevils who skated too fast (a practice called scorching) and about ne’er-do-wells who snuck alcohol into bathrooms.

While Paducah embraced its new rink, there were some in the area who deemed the practice of skating as undesirable, perhaps even scandalous. The Carlisle News reported in 1908: “We sincerely trust that the people of Bardwell will put their stamp of disapproval upon any attempt to establish a skating rink here….It will be an amusement that we will largely regret and the damages that will finally result from it will largely outweigh the good received.”

rinkAuditorium Rink continued to show great promise in its early months, so much so that there was talk of adding a swimming pool to the property. But even as soon as the autumn of 1908, the popularity of skating in Paducah began to wane. Attendance was so low, that the owners had to think outside the rink and repurpose the space to keep the doors open. They rented out the rink for religious revivals and political rallies. They held Greased Pig Contests and St. Patrick’s Day Dances. One summer they converted the rink into an indoor “Summer Garden,” which by the description, sounds an awful lot like a flea market.

But it was all to no avail. Eventually, the enthusiasm for skating completely ran its course and no manner of promotion could keep it open. By 1912, Auditorium Rink closed its doors for good, and the lot was used for a tobacco warehouse.

Though Auditorium Rink’s tenure was short lived, skating, in all its various forms, never totally went away. And today, no matter how you like to skate—whether on quad-skates, roller blades, skateboards, or ice skates—Paducah has a place for you to go!!

For more about this or any number of fascinating topics, visit us in Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger



The news media is sometimes called the “Fourth Estate “or the “Fourth Branch” because of its important role in a functioning, informed democracy. So, it’s no surprise that almost as soon as a town in the United States was founded (and a local government was formed) you also saw the establishment of a local newspaper.

“The Paducah Sun,” our perennial publication, got its start as the “Paducah Evening Sun” in 1896 when a group of investors bought out the assets of another failing paper called “The Paducah Standard.” (You can still see a ghost sign for the “Paducah Standard” at the top of the building at 115 N. 4th Street). But neither the “Sun” nor “The Standard” (est. 1884) come close to being Paducah’s first paper.

The oldest newspaper we have archived on microfilm in the Local and Family History Room is the “Paducah Weekly American” dating back to 1854. But that’s hardly the oldest either. In fact, there were lots of newspapers competing for readership during the mid to late 19th century, upwards of two dozen with names like “The Evening Eye,” the “Dollar Times,” and the “Sentinel.”

To find Paducah’s oldest paper you have to go back to the 1830’s when Paducah was incorporated as a town. Two papers vie for the title, both published around 1835.

In his book “Paducah: A Sesquicentennial History” John Robertson cites the earliest paper as “The Express” published by Mr. R.R. Willis. The political orientation of “The Express” was Whig which Robertson says “reflected the difference between Paducah and the rest of the Purchase region.” The rest of the Purchase generally exhibited Democratic leanings while Paducah followed a more independent route until after the Civil War.

The other paper was called “The Unionist” and was established around the same time as “The Express” in our “flourishing little town situate[d] at the junction of the Tennessee River with the Ohio.” The editor was a Mr. W.R.B. Wills, and as you can see from the accompanying article from a July 14, 1835 edition of the Arkansas Gazette, “[The Unionist] takes no part in politics.”

So, we’re not quite sure which of these two papers was actually Paducah’s first…the “Express” or the “Unionist?” But truthfully, it’s probably neither of them. They are only the oldest we know about. Paducah was incorporated around 1830, and these two paper were both found around 1835. Surely there was some sort of newspaper being published in those first five years. If not, then what were those first Paducahans doing while drinking their morning coffee?

To see our newspaper archives, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger


Anna Baker 2

The historical marker honoring Anna I. Baker holds a prominent place on Kentucky Avenue, right across the street from the Carson Center. Even still, a lot of Paducahans may not recognize the name.

So, who was Anna I. Baker?

She was…
• A prominent Paducah businesswoman in the early 20th century
• The founder and first president of the Paducah Business and Professional Women’s Club
• The first president of the Kentucky State Federation of Business and Professional Women

Baker was born in Abilene, Kansas in 1873. In 1899, after earning her degree at Baird College in Clinton, MO, she moved to Paducah to work alongside her father, Captain Henry Baker, in the transportation department of the Ayer-Lord Tie Company. After her father’s death in 1916, Anna Baker took over the management of the transportation department of Ayer-Lord, coordinating the massive effort to ship railroad ties by rail and barge all over the United States. Such was the respect for Baker’s leadership and business acumen, that the Marine Ways named one of its towboats after her (pictured above).

Anna BakerIn July 15, 1919, Baker attended the founding meeting of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women in St. Louis. Bringing the ideas from the St. Louis meeting back to Paducah, Baker established Paducah’s Business and Professional Women’s Club. The first meeting was held on September 23, 1920, making it the oldest BPW in the state of Kentucky. Baker served as its president for three years.

In 1921, along with six other professional women across the state, Baker helped organize the Kentucky State Federation of Business and Professional Women and served as its president for its first two years.

Besides her business and professional leadership, Baker was also well-known for her generous contributions to charities and welfare institutions throughout the city of Paducah, in addition to her “boundless charities, privately conducted.”

Upon her death in July 1931, the Paducah Sun Democrat stated in her front page obituary: “Miss Baker, an able leader, was prominently identified with every constructive movement in the life of Paducah. She was a woman of impressive mental attainments and recognized as one of marked business ability. She was highly efficient in the office she filled with the Ayer-Lord Tie Company and at all times was thoroughly conversant with and keenly interested in the river industry and its business development. Her efficiency won her the respect of business associates and a place of high rank among business women of the United States.”


Anna Baker 3

For more about Anna I. Baker or any other people featured on our historical markers, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger

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