History in a Bottle

Brick & Mortar by | Oct 2015 | Issue #105
Photo by Jessica Miller

On January 21, 1937 an unusual 18 inches of rain in 16 days combined with an early snowmelt to submerge much of Paducah, Ky. Unable to absorb the additional water, the Ohio River, which separates this western Kentucky town from southern Illinois, crested nearly 18 feet above its flood stage and poured over its earthen levees.

The rising water inundated Luther Carson’s downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant, trapping him and an employee on the second floor. Fortunately though, a rescue boat floated nearby, and using an empty syrup keg, the two paddled out to it and safety. Reportedly, Carson vowed to build a new plant on the first dry ground he reached. And when he landed directly across from the Red Cross evacuation site, 32 blocks from the river’s edge, he fulfilled that promise with a two-story brick-and-limestone Art Deco building that opened in June 1939.

Then, as often happens over time, the business outgrew its space, finally closing in 2003. Ten years later, Ed and Meagan Musselman, a local husband-and-wife team of real estate investors, bought the old Coke plant with plans to open community-focused businesses in the landmark property.

It already houses a coffee-and-tea shop, and a restaurant is in the works, but the founding venture was the one foremost in Ed Musselman’s mind: Dry Ground Brewing Company, Paducah’s first craft brewery. “The building is beautiful, the building is historical and it needed to be preserved,” he declares. “The brewery … is the mechanism to preserve the building.”

Musselman’s priority was adding the building to the National Register of Historic Places. After accomplishing that, he focused on restoring the structure without compromising its architectural beauty. The removal of a 1960s addition, for example, exposed the original rear of the building. “If there is a wall in a place where we don’t want a wall, we’re going to figure out a way to incorporate the wall, not just tear it down because that’s the easy thing to do,” he says.

Built in the Art Deco style, the 43,000-square-foot structure features terrazzo floors, elaborate, oversized aluminum-clad entrance doors, and a massive copper dome above the rotunda. Half a dozen rows of glass blocks encircling six bands of neon light, each a different color, support that dome. Dark for decades, those lights had once served as a beacon for the surrounding neighborhood, and Musselman was determined to illuminate them again.

“The neon had been off since the ’70s,” he says. “It was one of these memories that the community had … driving past the building and seeing these neon lights.”

Finally, in September 2013, the lights came back on. The community applauded. “We still have people coming up to tell us, ‘Thanks for getting the lights back,’” Musselman says.

Then there was the brewery. Musselman knew his homebrewing forays didn’t give him the expertise he needed to make beer professionally. Luckily for Ed, Todd Walton, a brewer at the new Oskar Blues facility in Brevard, N.C., began an email correspondence with him. A son of Paducah himself, Walton left in 1993 to open and work at beer bars across the country and co-founded Trinity Brewing Company in Colorado Springs, Colo.

When he first walked through the old bottling plant with Musselman in 2014, Walton noted the tall ceilings and detailed brickwork. “We didn’t have to do a lot of finishing to make it look really cool,” he says. “When one thinks of spending lots and lots of time in a space, it’s nice when that space can have an energy about it.”

Walton took the job, and Dry Ground Brewing opened on February 13, 2015. Today, the 10-barrel Premier Stainless brewhouse, tanks, and tasting room occupy 3,800 square feet where Luther Carson maintained and repaired his delivery trucks.

Two of the beer names even acknowledge the building’s history: ’37 Flood, a bright, aromatic American IPA; and Uncle Luther, an amber-hued ESB. “I feel like we’ve really honored that space and the heritage and the region,” Walton says.