Growing up in Louisa – Touring Kentucky
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
I remember growing up seeing the ‘Tour Kentucky’ on every license plate. When I was very young I asked what it meant. I was told that the Commonwealth was trying to promote tourism. Well, I thought. That makes sense since Kentucky is so pretty and has so much to see. I recently decided to find out just how pretty and worth touring she is.
I just got back from a wonderful driving vacation with my wife to see a place I’d heard about for a number of years. The trip took me through Kentucky, trying to dodge the traffic and lack of rooms caused by horse races, but seeing sights from a different angle, or perspective, than I had before. Growing up I made a few trips to the mid-Kentucky blue-grass area, but none in a modern vehicle or without a gang of friends cutting up and having fun. Usually the trips were band trips, or the like, where our focus was really more on each other than the landscape. Oh, we took mini-naps from time to time and on the way back, sometimes cuddled. Often it was either dark outside. If not, it was to a self-centered teen as just plain boring.
Well, this time it wasn’t boring and the trip was many, many times easier and faster. Crossing from West Virginia into Kentucky at Catlettsburg was little more than a blur and I saw pieces of towns I’d visited as a youth go flying by. Grayson, a football and basketball contender during my LHS years, disappeared behind us as we wheeled on toward a favorite town and college, Morehead. I remember trips there that often took several hours over roads that went up and down the tall hills and around many curves. Traffic wasn’t a problem back then, but the roads were often a challenge. Now I found them as barely consequential or worthy of note.
My maternal grandmother, not the great grandmother I often mention in the column, lived most of her life in a rural town that barreled down on us quickly. Salt Lick, Kentucky was a place I had never visited before, but is a place that undoubtedly was or is home to a number of uncles and cousins. We rarely saw this branch of the family and only then when they came to see us. It was on one of those trips when my grandmother handed me an angel-food cake and told me she had baked it especially for me. I was directed to take it to the kitchen while the family visited. I did and consumed the whole thing when I got there. After all, she had brought it to me. Later, when the family broke up to enjoy some cake, I was frozen in guilt, now realizing the cake wasn’t really mine and I had been selfish. I learned the hard way that when you have something good, it is far better to share. I cried that others had not been able to enjoy the treat.
We searched around Lexington for a suitable hotel but were told they would all be filled because of that weekend’s race. It was a race I hadn’t heard of, but apparently many others had. We drove out further and took the Frankfort turnoff in hopes of getting a room. In answer to prayers, a gentleman canceled his room while standing in line in front of my wife. We took the room.
Our AAA map directed we continue on I64 up to Louisville and across the Ohio though the southern parts of Indiana and Illinois, and across the mighty Mississippi into St Louis, MO. Before starting out that way my wife talked about a quilting store she’d like to visit in Paducah. I had been rather disappointed in the route suggested anyway, and saw that Paducah was on a more direct line toward our final destination, Branson, MO, so I took a different route along some country roads toward the Bluegrass Parkway that would be our new route. I saw many, many horse farms and cattle ranches. The grasses, flowering trees and rolling terrain were a real delight. Kentucky is so beautiful!
Arriving in Paducah we saw crowds and crowds of ladies on every street as if hundreds of thousands of women had taken their daughters and best friends to rush out ahead of us, leaving the men-folk at home to their own devices. Suzy didn’t know this was the Annual Quilting Festival/Show and the largest event for quilters in the United States, if not the world. In essence, we had stumbled into the World Series of quilting. Suzy was in heaven. She got to enjoy the show and visit several stores before the sun began to sink and I decided it was time to head out of the area to Missouri where we could find a hotel room.
As it turned out the Ohio and Mississippi were out of their banks with high water. In fact, a bridge across the Mississippi was closed, apparently because of the water level. We had to turn toward Cairo, Ill, to find a way across. The high waters were evident on both sides of the two lane road into Cairo, and upon arriving there I saw a ghost-town of abandoned buildings and streets of demolition. This town made famous by its acceptance of run-away slaves as described in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, was a near total war zone, a perfect model for a movie set depicting a bombed out town. On the other hand, it was clearly a result of age and abandonment. For blocks the downtown was in total ruins. I wondered why?
As we passed through this nightmare I saw a scene that explained what might have happened. The town had moved out toward the major highway that would provide river’s crossing on a modern bridge built high over the river traffic. It was as if the bypass went in and the town died, only to have the remnant population move closer to the highway. To get people back to where the town was would take something to draw them in. Only the ruins of old buildings were there so the abandonment perpetuated itself.
So part of the changes that brought destruction to Cairo, has also bought similar slow deaths to other towns across America. What surprises me is that I understood it and was not thinking that the change was an evil, but rather a natural event given our goals of trying to make travel easier and faster. The roads avoided the ‘slow-downs’ of city streets and the fast-food stores catered to the displaced traffic just out of town. Up went the big box stores with the large array of goods at low prices, and finally, the little towns lost some of its relevance. Houses in the town and the ‘suburbs’ were filled with fine, up-to-date housing and golf-courses and other amenities that followed.
This was on my mind as I continued on my journey. I thought about Louisa and searched my mind and heart for answers. Next week I’ll tell you about my experiences in Branson and some thoughts and ideas for keeping our memories of downtown and recreating, or reinventing them for future generations.
Drop me a note about your memories. I’d love to hear from you.