- J.T. Crawford
Paducah Life Associate Editor J.T. Crawford and wife Wendy take to the westward trail in search of Paducah (the other one)
I eased the car to the edge of the highway as we slowly crested the ridge. The crunching sound of pea gravel under the passenger-side tires segued into near silence as we came to a stop. Here, the Texas countryside shrugged, elevating us gently higher toward the sky. The spot afforded us a broader view of the ever-expanding prairie. The horizon, miles in the distance, felt like a dream—a mirage.
The lemon-yellow sun governed upon the azure curtain of the sky, its tincture infusing into the firmament below, dripping like honey upon the golden-hued winter grassland before flowing like a great flood across the terra firma. Before us lie iridescence—a swelling, swirling pool of hues that felt like it could be dripping off the earth’s horizon in one great, gleaming waterfall. Vistas that stretch for an indeterminate amount of miles are rare for us Kentuckians. We sat, beholding what seemed to be the longest sunset one could experience. Was it because we could see so far? Or had time slowed in this place, it too taking ease, stretching with a great yawn, granting itself extra moments to experience this glory unfurl?
We watched the final rays of light succumb to the horizon. The whole time, we’d not seen another living being. Not a single car passed. We’d spent the day exploring Paducah, Texas, the only other Paducah on the planet, and now we sat just a few miles just outside the city limit. The town of a little over 1,100 residents is a well-defined oasis amid Cottle County southeast of the high plains of the Texas panhandle.
We’d been spurred here by a curiosity that many of us in Paducah, Kentucky have about Paducah, Texas. The name “Paducah” is unique and specific to our west Kentucky hometown. So how did this Paducah over in Texas come to be? And what is it like there?
THE FOUNDING FATHER
The story of the town’s founding is sparse. Its official history is adopted from Carmen Taylor Bennett’s book Our Roots Grow Deep: A History of Cottle County. In it, she wrote that Paducah, Kentucky native Richard Potts moved to the area in the mid-1800s. He secured large tracts of land, and, as the population increased and Cottle County formed, he offered land to new settlers in exchange for voting to name the growing town after his home city and make it the county seat. Residents established the Paducah post office in 1891 and the newspaper Paducah Post in 1893. By the early 1890s, the population was around 150. Shortly thereafter, two rail lines came through the town, and, with the increase of traffic and newcomers, the population jumped to around 1,300 by the end of the decade. Paducah, Texas was officially incorporated in 1910. Cottle County was named after George Washington Cottle who died defending the Alamo.
Beyond the initial founding, little is known about Richard Potts. In 1909, he sold all his land in Paducah for $2500 to A.A. Neff who has sometimes been mistakenly named as a Paducah, Kentucky native. The quitclaim deed, however, lists Neff as hailing from California.
With what seemed to be the longest sunset we’d ever experienced now complete, we started the car and headed back to town, watching the red wine sky pour into the blackness of evening creeping across the plains. We returned to our abode for the night, the Hunter’s Lodge Motel. As the name denotes, the small motel is often an overnight rest for hunters. The building, once home to one of the town’s funeral homes, provides a cozy respite. Unexpectedly, the motel was full. The next morning we discovered that a long-time Paducah resident had passed away, and many had traveled to town for the funeral, the notice of which we saw posted on the door of the town’s only grocery store.
The next morning, we stopped at Paducah’s lone gas station for breakfast—fully-loaded breakfast burritos with homemade salsa and an optional jalapeño from the gallon jar next to the cash register. Paducah is home to several restaurants—the Dixie Maid Drive-In, Double G, and a popular BBQ spot. On this Monday morning, however, nothing is open for breakfast. At the station, in one of two corner booths, we notice a group of older men discussing Sunday morning’s sermon. No doubt this is a long-standing ritual.
We then make our way to the court square and the buildings owned by Paducah native, businessman, and city Alderman Richard Gregory. The Cottle County courthouse is an imposing, four-story, Art Deco structure. It is stark and monolithic, conveying a beauty derived from respect and history rising in strong fashion from the sandy Texas soil. Surrounding the courthouse are rows of buildings that represented the once-active business district. Some of the spaces are in use and show signs of life. Others are not. On one side of the courthouse, a strip of buildings is nearly hollowed out, the first step in coming renovations.
Well-defined blocks of residential areas surround the center of town. The houses are simple. Many of the neighborhood streets are dirt. Some are brick, laid by one man in the days of WPA. Outside of Paducah, all county roads are dirt. And there isn’t a single stoplight in the entire county.
As we park near the courthouse, we notice deer tracks in the dirt along the sidewalk. A gentleman exits the courthouse. He’s sharply dressed, wearing jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat—a still fairly common ensemble in Texas. It’s Karl Holloway, Cottle County Judge executive—one of our interviewees. Judge Holloway greets me warmly before turning toward Wendy. He tips his hat and utters in the most polite fashion imaginable, “Ma’am.” We are also joined by 83-year-old Jimmye Taylor. Jimmye is a native of Paducah where she worked for the Paducah Post since 1963. Now, her daughter and son-in-law produce the weekly paper from home. Jimmye still writes a column titled “Just Ramblin’.”
Richard owns a couple of spaces along the court square. One houses his residence upstairs and the office for his business Buck Creek Meats downstairs. Buck Creek Meats is a third-generation, family farm specializing in 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef and lamb along with free-range chicken and pastured pork. The neighboring building, where we conduct our interview, was once Paducah’s main drug store replete with a grill and soda fountain. Much of the old drug store is exactly as it was decades ago. There are old wooden booths where youngsters would hang out after school and on Saturdays. There’s the old counter with a row of stools. “That’s one of only five working soda fountains in the state of Texas,” says Richard, pointing over to the chrome contraption in the center of the bar.
“And that’s where I first saw my husband!” exclaims Jimmye. “I was sitting in that booth over there with a friend. It was 1956. I was 18. Frank walked in wearing his Airborne uniform, and I froze. I thought he was the handsomest man alive.” Jimmye set her sights on marrying Frank. By the end of the year, he accomplished her mission.
We ask Richard how he would describe this part of the country. “The term for this area of Texas is the Big Empty,” he says. “There’s just not much out here. We’re two-and-a-half hours from Amarillo and two hours from Lubbock, Wichita Falls, and Abilene. Childress, which has about 6,000 people and is 30 minutes away, is the next biggest town. That’s where the Walmart is. And resources like doctors.”
“There’s just a really small population out here,” adds Judge Holloway. “Everything is scattered out. Every little town is about 30 miles apart with nothing in between.” Indeed, that is what we’d noticed on our drive. It’s been described as the land of open road and enormous sky. The two-lane highways are so level and straight that the speed limit is set at 75.
In the early 1900s, in this wide-openness, Paducah had made a name for itself as a growing city. The intersection of railroads and a few major highways made it an ideal home for farmers and ranchers. By 1930, Cottle County had grown to nearly 9500 residents, Paducah was a hub. “Then came the drought in the 50s,” says Jimmye. “It lasted for seven years. People left in droves. They couldn’t make a living. We’ve always depended on cotton farming here.” Even now, most of Cottle County is an expanse of cotton farms. We found cotton nearly everywhere—remnants in fields, along fence rows. Tufts of the white fluff lined the edges of the highways.
In addition to cotton, there are some cattle ranches. “This is kind of one of the last cowboy strongholds,” says Judge Holloway, “although a lot of that is starting to change. When I came here, there were some still doing things like running chuckwagons out to the men working.” Judge Holloway came to Paducah from the Fort Worth area in the 1980s. “I was a state trooper,” he continues. “I’d never even heard of Paducah. I had to do a year before I could transfer. But I liked it here. I was a trooper for 27 years and retired. There used to be little communities all over the county. Now, everything is kind of compressed into Paducah. Even in the 80s, there were still a lot of businesses around the square. But then a lot of young farmers went out of business and had to go to bigger towns to make a living. Slowly, businesses started to close.”
“A lot of that had to do with the Conservation Reserve Program,” adds Richard as he discusses the second big hit to Paducah. “That was the government program that paid farmers not to farm.” As land returned to a natural, prairie state, farming support businesses closed. As they left town, general businesses lost revenue and shuttered. There was once a movie theater, a hospital, a large county hotel, multiple auto dealerships, hardware stores, and more. There were also 33 schools throughout the county that have now been consolidated into one in Paducah.
The domino effect continues. The city swimming pool, for example, built by Jimmye’s father as part of a slate of WPA projects in the 1930s was closed for the first season last year due to a maintenance issue the city has been fighting for a long time. The cost to replace the pool is too high for the community. The loss of the pool means the loss of a well-used community resource—a summer gathering spot for young people and families. The only other pool in town is privately owned.
Despite years of slow decline, some brought on by outside forces, some by a previous aversion to change, Richard, Jimmye, and Judge Holloway see potential. “I’ve seen a lot of positive things in the last five years,” says Judge Holloway. “There’s been a new focus. We’ve pursued a lot of grant funds. And we have seen more people coming back here to retire. They went off to make their livings, but it’s expensive to stay where they are. And they miss the homegrown environment. And we’re hearing more about young people relocating to these rural areas with their kids because they want them to experience the small-town environment. Everybody gets along here. We are fairly racially diverse. We all know another. If someone is having a hard time, the community bands together to help them.”
“And it helps now that we know a lot of people can work remotely,” adds Richard. “We do have several people who live here whose jobs are somewhere else. I’m kind of that way. We ship everything. None of it stays in Paducah. Funny thing is, Amazon changed a lot of that for us. A year ago, when I shipped my products, I had to drive to Wichita Falls two hours away. The local driver that came here came from 90 miles away. He’d pick things up, stay the night at his house, then go on to Witchita Falls. Everything I have is frozen I couldn’t take the extra day. Because of Amazon, FedEx comes every day and goes right back to Wichita Falls. That helps my business to happen. I think 90% of everything that comes into Paducah now comes in on the UPS and FedEx trucks.”
In recent years, an investor from east Texas began rehabbing buildings around the city square as it is part of an Opportunity Zone. Locals have bought some of the other buildings with plans to rehab them. New business owners are finding ways to make a living by diversifying their services. There has been an increase in women-owned businesses. And Judge Holloway says there are needs in the community that would keep people with certain skills busy in perpetuity. Additionally, investors from larger Texas cities have been buying land in the county for hunting getaways and as an investment. “There’s a lot of hope and belief that things can happen,” says Judge Holloway. “There are pieces that are coming together. Personally, I know I wouldn’t be anywhere else. And others are discovering why many of us feel that way.”
Later, as we take to the highway to head back to Paducah, Kentucky, we drive by a commercial building that, at first glance, appears vacant. Then we notice an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair sitting near a large window. A solitary figure amid a large, empty floor, he soaks in the sun, watching traffic go by. It’s Arvis Davis, the man who owned the town’s Chevrolet dealership for decades. Upon retirement in 2020, he auctioned off his inventory and shuttered the doors. But he still goes in out of habit. He watches the town Paducah, thinking about what has been and what might be. He wonders if others will see what he saw when he began a fruitful career in this Texas oasis.
For decades, many saw decline. Now, city leaders see opportunity—and they hope that others will too. The beauty of the wide-open plains and the small-town charm are an irresistible draw. In Paducah, Texas, we met some of the most friendly and helpful people one could find. The city simply waits, as it did in its earliest days, for pioneers with a vision for a new, American frontier.