The last night on the road during our recent travels, my husband Tom and I found ourselves in the most unlikely place of Paducah, Kentucky. Exactly and geographically at the confluence of “them Rebel Rivers” of a recent Bob Dylan song, the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. We were dog-tired and had called ahead for hotel reservations in yet one more “big box” hotel just off of the freeway. Imagine how interesting the hotel and restaurant zones on the interstates are. After throwing the bags into the room, and doing a quick freshen up, I went back to the hotel desk and asked “Wanda” if she could point us in the direction of some food. She said, “Have you seen our Downtown?” A prophetess had spoken and directed us to one of the most charming stops of the entire 16-day road trip.

In a ten block square area situated right on the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, there stood the old river town of Paducah, three miles from the freeway intersection hotel zone. We drove its streets, marveling at the beautifully restored buildings of yesteryear. Sunday night was quiet in the downtown; only a few restaurants were open. It was early evening, but still light enough to get a good look at where we had the good fortune of landing. We drove the streets, looking and wondering what was behind the restoration here. What forces drove a decaying old river town to this rebirth? A new performing arts center with a big entertainer bus in the back parking lot explained the steady stream of folks in that direction.

Shandi’s was one of many local restaurants offering a full menu and bar at a reasonable price. We had met three ladies when we parked and asked them what their dinner recommendations would be. In delightful southern accents, they all named several different places…but agreed that the meatloaf sandwich at Shandi’s was their favorite!

“Honey, we had lunch there on Tuesday with my sista’s…” was all we needed to decide.

The three-story building had once been a mercantile store with an upstairs steak house, both of which were still etched into the crown/cornice around the very top of the building. Tables at Shandi’s were set up a step or two into what must have been display windows years ago. We love dining by windows, and from that vantage point we could savor the architecture of the buildings, watch the street, and check out the inside of the building. Seating was also available on the main floor near the long, antique looking bar. Directly above the main floor hung an enormous chandelier with perhaps a hundred off white candles flickering, casting a warm glow over the tables below. The size of the fixture was something to see; a large round wheel on which the candles were set was suspended by a heavy rope or cable. Tom (ever the electrician) figured that the wheel was on a hoist or pulley system to light the candles. We learned from our waiter that it was actually an electric fixture built for this space.

Our waiter, Jason, told us about the building and the town, and how he had come from Miami seven years ago, planning only to stay a few months. He explained that when the city underwent a downtown renewal under the Main Street Program, the city participated in an artist relocation program. Artists were invited to set up studios in empty buildings with living space above for very low rent. As more and more craftsmen and artists came, the need for food, clothing, and other supplies led to commerce returning to the downtown, even though it is off of the freeway. Soon, the locals were returning to downtown to shop and dine, and to live. Economic development here appears to have been driven by the influx of the visual and performing arts. Now, many condos are owned by local people who love living in the downtown.

We did not see the revered meatloaf sandwich on the menu; however, Jason told us a meatloaf dinner was available. He warned us of the gigantic portions and advised us to share it. The chef made special gravy for Tom for the garlic mashed potatoes. Dessert was a chocolate brownie creation with frozen Kaluha whipped cream, and excellent coffee. Service could not have been better. The cost was reasonable, considering the ambience and the history lesson from the well-informed Jason.

After leaving Shandi’s we walked a little and looked into the windows of the general store to find all one would need…even Cascade dishwasher soap, displayed along side of artist supplies. Now that’s a general store worth seeing. We walked toward our car only to be attracted to the corner by artists firing their clay pieces in a wood fired kiln on the corner. We stopped, chatted with them, and learned that “Art on the Corner” takes place every Sunday night in the winter and more often in the summer. Every artist is scheduled to work on that corner to help promote his or her art and the downtown area. We took in the murals along the sea wall panels and in doing so, had an even deeper appreciation for the history of Paducah. Chief Paducah’s story is worth the trip alone, even if you are not into history.

Our downtown in Winsted is suffering the fate of many small towns across America. Though we are very different from Paducah, and much smaller, we share a common problem. Local merchants cannot compete with the big box stores and Wal-Mart. It now costs $10 or more to drive to larger towns such as Hutchinson, Buffalo, Waconia or Chaska to shop. That doesn’t seem to deter us. What story do we want our empty storefronts to tell? We talked about Winsted after leaving Paducah, noting that we, too, are off the beaten path. We have a history and a well-deserved reputation here in Winsted of getting things done; plans are afoot…and I wonder as I write this if someday, someone out on Highway 1 will say with pride to a stranger, “Have you seen our downtown?”

by Mary Wiemiller, Winsted Arts Council board member

From our periodic column with the Herald Journal