Hidden among the majestic cornfields of western Kentucky is a gem known for its quilts. Digging through the blankets, you’ll find Paducah, a town with a rich history, lots of good food, and great people.
Words By Fredrik Lundgren | Photos by Jonas Larsson
The city spreads out along the Ohio River, where every street and every corner tell a story and where culture flourishes like flowers in the spring. American small towns have a remarkable ability to bring one’s imagination to life, especially in the South. The oppressive heat that refuses to give up until evening, the smoky smell of barbecues, and the picturesque buildings all contribute to my imagination and make me want to discover more. All I have to do is close my eyes and listen, and I can hear the sound of horses’ hooves on the dry ground and the steam whistles of locomotives and ships. Like so many other cities, this city has a varied history. It was in the 19th century, in the middle of the American wilderness, that the town took shape, and we don’t have time to see much of the city before my historical zoom-out is overwhelmed by the hunger that sets in like a bulldozer.
We are guided to the legendary restaurant Kirchhoff’s; like everything else in Paducah, it is not far to walk. Kirchhoff’s Bakery’s history spans five generations. It combines classic quality with a modern vision. In 1873, Franz Kirchhoff and his wife Hannah Baumer started their bakery in Paducah. They used old methods, family recipes, and a wood-fired oven to serve locals and riverboat travelers. The business thrived and provided bread to Paducah residents until the mid-20th century, when they were forced to sell the building. In 1997, the bakery was reopened by Ginny Kirchhoff-Elmore, a fifth-generation Kirchhoff, who managed to buy back the premises. The shop still makes bread, pastries, sandwiches, soups, and salads according to old recipes and always with high-quality ingredients. But best of all, they have a reputation for serving large portions.
With confident strides, wearing my best cowboy boots, I boldly order a po’boy sandwich, trying to hide my uncertainty about the pronunciation. Patrick, the on-site chef, smiles broadly and whispers a warning: “You know the sandwiches are gigantic, right?” The sandwich placed in front of me is indeed huge. It’s like a small submarine landing right in front of me. It is so big that it barely fits on the table. I suddenly make eye contact with Patrick, and he laughs when he sees my expression — a mixture of horror and delight. I try to figure out how to take my first bite. The po’boy is packed with fried shrimp, vegetables, and sauce that flows like the Ohio River. Offense is the best defense, and I attack my po’boy. In a fit of rage, I eat the entire sandwich. Now, the only thing that will cure the food coma is a brisk walk.
We waddle down to the river and are greeted by Paducah’s most famous — and very long — mural, a beautiful and significant art installation celebrating the city’s history and heritage. The painting spans a 25-meter-long levee to -protect against the many floods that have hit Paducah. The worst was in 1937, when the water rose 18 meters, and 27,000 people were forced to flee. The painting on the levee creates a beautiful and vibrant image of the city, and the first painting is of the indigenous people who lived here. Paducah is the only major city in Kentucky with a name that can be traced back to the indigenous people. The Chickasaw tribe lived and hunted in the area long before anyone else. Settlers began to be attracted to the site in the 19th century because of its strategic location at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, which served as trade routes.
Paducah was traditionally named in 1827 in honor of the legendary Chickasaw chief Paduke. It was Second Lieutenant William Clark who gave the town its name. Clark is best known for mapping the West with his colleague Meriwether Lewis in 1804-1806.
Today, Paducah has a rich history, from the indigenous people who lived here to the Civil War and floods. It is highlighted through many historic sites and events. We are advised by some “Paducians” to explore places like the River Discovery Center, which tells the area’s river history, or the National Quilt Museum, which highlights the city’s creative and artistic heritage. Being the history nerds that we are, we’ll obviously do both.
National Quilt Museum
Paducah is one of nine UNESCO Creative Cities in the US, and it would be foolish to miss out on their pride and joy, the National Quilt Museum. Or would it? I will readily admit that before visiting the museum, my prejudices were so strong that they could crack a walnut. I had heard about the museum before, but my prejudices told me it would be as exciting as watching grass grow.
With a slight sigh of dissatisfaction, I walk through the museum doors and prepare myself for the apparent boredom that would take over my day, which had started so well with that giant sandwich. I step into the first exhibition hall, and I’m hooked! There, in front of me, are lots of colorful and creative works of art. Quilts of all sizes, motifs, and patterns remind me of massive paintings. One quilt represents a farmhouse, a rural idyll. The small details woven and embroidered into the fabric turn the quilt into a world of its own. I can almost hear cows mooing and chickens clucking. Another quilt is so colorful and lively that I almost think it will jump out of the wall and start dancing with me. It’s not just the quilts themselves that are amazing, but also the stories behind them. Each quilt has its own story to tell, a story of creativity and dedication. My guide, Becky, sees my amazement. “Yes, it’s fascinating how each quilt carries a unique story,” Becky says with a smile. “For many people, quilting is so much more than just a craft. It’s a form of self-expression and a way to pass on traditions and memories.”
Founders Bill and Meredith Schroeder had a vision to create a place to showcase this fantastic art form. The museum opened in 1991 and has been a gathering place for textile and art geeks ever since. The over 600 quilts are selected for their artistic beauty, technical skill, and historical significance. The museum also hosts workshops and temporary exhibitions, where artists worldwide are invited to showcase their work.
What to do? My prejudices are crushed into little bits of color and pattern with every passing minute. I admit that I have become a quilt fanatic. Grandma and her sewing friends would be proud of me. It is not a boring museum — it’s a place full of life. I leave with a newfound respect for the art of quilting and a reminder to never, ever judge something again before giving it a chance.
The Taste of the South
The air is thick with the smell of the grills down by the river. Even though there’s a BBQ party during our days in town, we skip it and head for a restaurant and a name we’ve heard about: Freight House. We walk along the river and enjoy the beautiful view of the boats slowly gliding by. It is a peaceful feeling to be surrounded by nature and a calm atmosphere. We pass old art deco houses with their elegant facades and detailed decorations. Outside a picturesque building, a lady sells handmade jewelry. She says she used to work as an architect and shares her know-ledge of the city’s architecture. It’s easy to walk through the town, and it doesn’t take long before we arrive at the Freight House. The restaurant hasn’t opened yet but is already buzzing with life as staff prepare for the evening.
Freight House is a famous culinary destination that attracts foodies from all over the world. We sit at the bar and chat with the pride of Paducah and the restaurant’s founder, Chef Sarah Bradley. She is a culinary wizard who combines tradition with innovation.
“Would you like some wine?” Sarah asks. “Of course,” we reply happily, sweat dripping from our foreheads. The walk here in the hot Kentucky sun has made us thirsty, and soon, a glass of foggy white wine is in front of us. Sarah orders a couple of cocktails on the fly. Suddenly, a New York Sour is in front of me — classy!
Sarah is easy to talk to, telling me that her food journey began at a young age when her passion for cooking was ignited in the family kitchen. Driven by her curiosity and an unquenchable desire to experiment with flavors, she followed her dreams through culinary school at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, where she graduated top of her class. Working at various Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and Chicago, Bradley sharpened her skills. Eventually, the homesickness got too intense, so she moved back to Paducah and started the Freight House. In a renovated 100-year-old freight house with a unique charm, she and her team create a dining experience that makes the galley sail. Her passion lies in using local, seasonal ingredients. The menu changes regularly so that her guests can experience the best the region has to offer throughout the year. Sarah actively seeks out the best producers in the area to source the freshest ingredients for her kitchen. She does this not only for herself but also to support local businesses.
“Why don’t you come back in a couple of hours and eat?” says Sarah. I’m on the verge of declining the offer, the po’boy is still an anchor in my stomach. But before I can say anything, my colleague says: “Yes, of course we’ll eat here tonight!” The matter is settled.
The sun has time to set. We step through the restaurant’s doors. The former warehouse is full of guests and the atmosphere is vibrant. We don’t order. Instead, Sarah surprises us with different dishes. The first thing that comes in is beets with goat cheese; our colleague from Paducah, who joins us for the evening, exclaims, “I haven’t had beets since my mama made me.” We laugh and pounce like hungry wolves on each new exciting dish.
We wouldn’t be Trails Finest if we didn’t take stock of each small town’s selection of bars. Like the mosquitoes, our attention is drawn to the neon signs outside the local watering holes. The Silver Bullet looks promising; it’s a real dive bar. We are greeted by heavy cigar smoke, karaoke, and an atmosphere that would make a Swedish hockey game seem like a picnic. Our colleague from Paducah laughs and says, “You’re going to need a shower when you get out of here.” We walk with firm steps towards the bar, the music thumping and people talking loudly; it’s like stepping into another world, where time stands still, and all worries disappear. It’s a typical American saloon with wood panels on the walls and a glittering bar counter in the center of the room. We take a seat at an empty table and order a beer. The bar has a mixed clientele, to say the least; people from all sorts of backgrounds seem to enjoy themselves here. It’s a perfect place to get a glimpse of the local culture.
Our glasses are soon empty, and, as you know, no moss grows on a rolling stone. We step out onto 3rd Street and on to Broadway again; this is where it all happens. Here are several good places, and we step into Fox and Briar. There is a laidback cocktail atmosphere in the room, but we are saved by two elegant ladies and their friends. Our cup of tea. The party soon gets going with loud sing-alongs to classic disco hits and frequent cocktail drinking. It’s a fun and relaxed atmosphere. After many toasts and promises to keep in touch, we hug our newfound friends before laughing as we stumble out onto Broadway, which we appreciate for being – broad.
For a relatively small town, the nightlife is both varied and good. We are pretty much done now and are on our way back to the hotel, but my God, how often are you in Paducah? We deliberate for a short while – a Polish parliament – and set our sights on the Silent Brigade Distillery. What could be better than ending the evening at a distillery? What could possibly go wrong? One bourbon tasting later, we know the answer. Agreeing that fieldwork is not to be underestimated, we continue our round at The Bully Gorilla Bar and finish at Johnson Bar. After that, we have a sound statistical basis for assessing Paducah’s nightlife. We walk home towards the hotel, which, after a short while, rises like a mirage next to the river. Like thirsty desert hikers, although we are not thirsty anymore, we look forward to arriving, and soon, sheets and blankets will embrace our work-worn bodies. The only thing missing is a colorful quilt.