We are highlighting two Good Towns – Metropolis, Illinois and nearby Paducah, Kentucky – this month. Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place.
Metropolis, Illinois got its name in 1839, when a town center was designed a mile west of the mighty Ohio River. Early founders provided the ahead-of-its-time name in the hopes that it would develop into a major transportation hub.
Almost a century later, Metropolis became known for something – or someone – else.
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape in Metropolis. Not when he stands two stories high and weighs a couple of tons. Especially not after reading the granite marker under his feet that says it all: “Truth – Justice – The American Way.”
For most of the nation, Superman is a fictional creation. In Metropolis, a town just across the Kentucky border created by the river, the Man of Steel is a hometown hero, drawing 1,500 to 2,000 visitors a day. For the recent annual Superman Celebration, those numbers swelled to 75,000 for a week-long party.
DC Comics officially declared Metropolis the “hometown of Superman” in 1972. Jim Hambrick got his first taste of Superman long before that, as a 5-year-old in Southern California. A gift of a metallic Superman lunch box motivated him to sprawl on the living room floor every afternoon for grainy black-and-white reruns of the Superman television series starring George Reeves.
“I became interested in everything about George Reeves and Superman, and I investigated his case for 22 years,” Hambrick said.
Hollywood legend says Reeves took his own life in 1959, frustrated with a lack of roles because of typecasting. Hambrick spent nearly a quarter of a century proving there were other forces at work. The original autopsy report, which Hambrick acquired and housed in Metropolis’ Superman Museum, and his own theories became the basis for research for the book Hollywood Kryptonite, which led to the movie Hollywoodland. Starring Ben Affleck, the movie shatters the notion that Reeves pulled the trigger, weaving illicit romance and criminal ties into a whodunit.
“I believe what I know, and that’s George Reeves didn’t take his life,” Hambrick said. “It’s a matter of fact, not guesswork.”
Inside the Super Museum, across the street from the imposing statue on the fittingly named Superman Square, Hambrick has assembled a treasure trove of memorabilia that dates back to the comic book’s 1933 debut and original 1948 15-part movie serial starring Kirk Allyn. Costumes, keepsakes and movie props from the blockbuster movies that followed are included in a rambling layout that takes considerable time to meander through and absorb.
At the entrance of the museum are vintage comics, action figures, coloring books, games and posters for purchase. According to Hambrick, the museum’s gift store sells more Superman merchandise “than anyone on this planet.” Parked on the curb outside is a 1940s-era green-and-white sedan with the Daily Planet standard on the side door. The Daily Planet, of course, was the fictional newspaper Superman moonlighted for as a reporter under the pseudonym Clark Kent.
The Great Outpost of Virginia
Long before there was Metropolis, there was Fort Massac. Reportedly a stop on Hernando de Soto’s adventures in the 16th century, the original fort was erected as a western outpost during the French and Indian War and later became the base of operations for George Rogers Clark and his “Long Knives” regiment during the Revolutionary War. Clark’s detachment of 150 soldiers eschewed a river approach, instead going over land from Fort Massac to capture the British outpost at Kaskaskia, using the element of surprise to secure the installation without resistance.
After the War, as part of the Illinois territory for the state of Virginia, Fort Massac became a penultimate bastion of civilization for expeditions exploring the uncharted land. Clark’s brother, William, teamed with Merriweather Lewis to launch their Corps of Discovery expedition to the West, recruiting Canadian scout George Drouillard from the encampment. The military advance, led by Capt. Lewis and Lt. Clark, explored territory from the Louisiana Purchase while collecting scientific data and information on local populations.
Known today as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the team crossed the Rockies, and then reached Oregon and the Pacific Ocean.
Today, Fort Massac State Park offers expansive hiking and biking trails, camping, swimming, boating and the original view of the river.
But the centerpiece remains the fort itself – well, a replica of the 1802 American military setting of two barracks, officer quarters and blockhouses. A statue of George Rogers Clark surveys the great river.
Art You Can Hang on a Wall
The wide Ohio separates Illinois and Kentucky, but I-24 makes the journey across to Kentucky quick and easy, with no fuss. For those a little more adventurous, the Brookport Bridge (officially named the Irvin S. Cobb Bridge after a Kentucky-bred author) provides more of a thrill ride. Just two tight lanes across, and with metal grates below your tires, the 1929 truss bridge spans 711 feet, elevates quickly and will test the anxiety of anyone who has the slightest fear of heights.
The journey is worth it, though, because the road from Bridgeport to Paducah leads straight to one of the world’s most unique galleries, the National Quilt Museum, and it’s consistently ranked one of America’s best attractions.
These aren’t your grandmother’s quilts. They are works of art – elegant tapestries. A piece called “The Map Makers” by Cassandra Williams honors the region’s Lewis and Clark past. “Adventure Awaits,” by award winner Sue McCarty, provides a design-rich tableau of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic, The Hobbit. In the world of high-end quilting, this one is a sequel to her earlier “Tribute to Tolkien,” and it takes hours of intense scrutiny to uncover all the surprises.
There are hundreds more, ranging from quilts using traditional sewing techniques to those that look like giant photo images with 4K detail.
The museum is an ode to contemporary artists, occupying 27,000 square feet and three distinct galleries. One tour, and it’s obvious that the talent and love of the artform isn’t limited to the states.
Thirty-four quilts from Japan fill one gallery, and they offer a stark contrast to everything else. Mt. Fuji, the rising sun and cyclonic clouds take center stage, sometimes framed by metallic fabric and often using indigo material – a Japanese tradition.
“The Japanese artists were inspired by American quilters, but they’ve taken it to the next step,” explains Victoria Caldwell, the Marketing Director for the museum. The National Quilt Museum is the sole US museum that will be getting this exhibit during its current tour.
Another exhibit, scheduled to continue into the fall, Fly Me to the Moon, features quilts honoring the 50th anniversary of the first walk on the moon and all things NASA, plus romantic vignettes and Apollo lunar landings.
“I’ve lived in Paducah all of my life, and my grandmother was a quilter, so this is in my blood,” she says. “the museum collection is exclusively modern quilting, all artwork made within the last 40 years.”
Meals and Murals
The museum sits on the edge of downtown Paducah, filled with tree-lined streets, mid-20th century storefronts and abundant night life, even on a weeknight in June when the humidity drenches a visitor like a swim in the river.
A casual stroll from the museum straight down Broadway takes you to the front door of Doe’s Eat Place, a Mississippi-based steakhouse and James Beard Award winner that’s so popular that, even on a Monday, you need a reservation. As the two-pound, bone-in ribeye steak arrives on your table, you understand why. It’s cooked to perfection and makes an ample meal for at least two ravenous patrons. The baked potato and salad with a house-made vinaigrette complement the main dish.
The other restaurant choices are numerous, ranging from American cuisine to Italian and Mexican. No matter where you wind up, the only choice for dessert is the Ice Cream Factory, where a double scoop waffle cone puts the exclamation point on a memorable – and hearty – meal.
Now it’s time to burn calories. On cue, just a block away, is the Paducah Riverfront, a great place to watch barges traverse the river or to just take in the swift currents of the Ohio. Steps and a path will get your blood flowing again. You’ll need it.
Because on Water Street, you’re going to stop and savor more art.
A collection of murals from artist Robert Dafford lines the street on floodwalls meant to avoid another disaster like the great flood of 1937. The fact that the floodwall is on a bluff way above the river sends a chill down your spine with the reminder of how devastating Mother Nature can be.
Paducah’s “Wall to Wall” murals encompass everything from Paducah’s early history to the modern age, focusing on the city’s mercantile and shipping roots to its nickname at the height of the Cold War as an “Atomic City” due to a uranium enrichment plant.
Where the Buffalo Roam
Horace Greeley said, “Go west, young man,” long after Lewis and Clark showed the way. But after spending time in Metropolis and Paducah, the best direction to head is south.
Bring a fishing pole, comfy shoes and a big group. You’ll need the time and company to explore Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
This 170,000-acre playground is situated between two bodies of water – Lake Barkley on the east and Kentucky Lake to the west, and offers boundless opportunities for fun.
Lake yachts fill all slips at Good Sailing Marina. Green Turtle Bay Resort offers boat rentals, condos and a health club. For those who want to leave cares behind – and get a workout to boot – Land Between the Lakes is included in the Tennessee Valley Water Trails, offering 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline for paddlers.
Want more? There are trails for off-road biking, horse riding, campgrounds and the Golden Pond Planetarium & Observatory. But to seek an adventure from another point in time, head to the Elk and Bison prairie, smack dab in the middle of the park.
For a nominal fee, a carload can ride a 3.5-mile paved loop through native Kentucky grassland that takes you back centuries, when the animals were commonplace and provided sustenance for the Shawnee Nation. The elk and bison freely roam the 700-acre enclosure, as do wild turkeys and other prairie mammals.
The Elk & Bison Prairie is open daily, and best viewing times are early in the morning or just before dusk, away from the heat of the day. Stay in your car, however. The elk and bison are known to charge, and while they look friendly, they are serious about protecting the herd from intruders.
It’s a great day trip, but you’ll be better served if you set up camp or get a condo and spend days on end.