For years, I'd heard about the infamous “Coke Plant in Paducah.”
Stories circulated through Coca-Cola collector conventions and my social media feeds about what might happen to the storied Kentucky plant that had been empty since 2005.
Once considered a crown jewel of Coca-Cola bottling plants, the 1939 facility featured some amazing architecture. The architect claimed that no expense was spared during the design and construction process, and that there were so many curves that the building included only two 90-degree angles. A beautiful terrazzo tile floor in the entryway featuring the Coca-Cola logo was once photographed by noted artist William Edgerton.
A Pioneering Plant
The plant was built by Luther S. Carson. He had worked in Chattanooga for a few years building the incline railroad and had met Benjamin F. Thomas of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. In 1903, Luther purchased a franchise to bottle Coca-Cola within a 65-mile radius of Paducah, Ky. and opened his first plant on March 27, 1903 with his father and brother as partners.
The next 16 years were a time of unprecedented growth for the Carsons as the Coca-Cola bottling business expanded. Luther quickly outgrew his initial plant and moved to bigger facilities in 1904, the year he and his brother John purchased the rights to bottle Coca-Cola in Evansville, Indiana, which John managed. In Paducah, Luther outgrew two more plants, eventually settling in downtown near the Ohio River. Carson continued to buy additional franchises and eventually operated 18 plants throughout Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois.
After the Flood
In January, 1937 a horrific flood occurred along the Ohio River when up to 18 inches of rain fell across the Ohio Valley. Flood damage was widespread from Pittsburgh across Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois. One of the worst-hit cities was Paducah, as the Ohio River crested well above flood levels. At its highest point on Feb. 2, 1937, icy water covered 95 percent of the city. More than 27,000 people, including Luther Carson and his family, were evacuated.
When the rains began, Luther was in Washington for the Annual Coca-Cola Bottlers meeting. He raced home as word of the slowly developing catastrophe spread. His plant was under 10 feet of water, and one story claimed he was rescued from a second-story window and floated to safety on an empty syrup barrel. The Red Cross had built temporary “docks” at the closest dry ground, 39 blocks from the river, where residents who were rescued from their homes and businesses were brought by boat.
With his plant, vehicles and equipment underwater and destroyed, Luther vowed to rebuild his plant at that spot – and that he did. The new plant, described above, opened in June 1939 a block away from the marker that designed the high-water mark of the flood.
An Architectural Gem and a Community Landmark
With its beautiful façade, changing neon lighted rotunda, and sweeping curves, the building became an instant landmark in the community. Luther continued to build the business but handed over day-to-day managemen duties to his nephew, Bill Carson, after Word War II. By the time Luther died in 1962, “The Coke Plant” was famous in most of Western Kentucky. The building was used for bottling until territorial rights were sold to back to Coca-Cola around 1986. From that time until the plant closed in 2005, it was used as a distribution center.
I began to hear about the building after it closed down. It had been such an important part of the neighborhood and was considered an architectural gem, so many groups wanted to save the building. It became a geographical landmark, too. When people Paducah give directions, they often use the "Coke Plant" as a reference point. "Go to the Coke plant and take a right..."
Time was not kind to the plant, however. After years of vacancy and several failed attempts to fix the roof and sell the building for other purposes, it sat empty, except for the pigeons who used the holes in the roof to infest the building. It was about to be sold and demolished when Ed and Meagan Musselman stepped forward to buy it. Ed described the building for us the first time he entered it in 2012. “The roof had actually been stripped off with exposed wood decking," he said. "There were four inches of water and muck through the warehouse area. If you came in right after a rain or a humid time, it was like a cloud was passing through the entire building. It was liking walking through fog.”
The Musselmans had a clear vision of what they wanted for the property. First, they wanted to restore the building to showcase its beautiful architecture and details. Then they wanted to find tenants who would help revitalize its surrounding area and of create a community gathering place. They quickly had the building added to the National Registry of Historic Places and found a contractor who cared as much about the building as they did. After countless interviews where they were told it would be too expensive to restore the building, Chris Black of Ray Black and Son actually encouraged them to keep and reseal the original windows, revive the 9,000 square feet of terrazzo tile, restore the neon dome and bring the building back to its 1939 Art Deco glory.
The Perfect Partner
Once work started, the plant began to take the shape of the neighborhood center the Musselmans dreamed of. A coffeehouse, brewpub, yoga studio, recording studio, ice cream parlor, Web design company and other small businesses leased space. But they still an anchor tenant.
And that's where Mellow Mushroom and Coca-Cola re-enter the story. Mellow Mushroom and Coca-Cola have a long and cooperative partnership. Home Grown Industries (the parent company of Mellow Mushroom) is based in Atlanta and was founded in 1974. Mellow Mushroom has always been a Coca-Cola customer, and we've collaborated on designing and decorating several of their restaurants. Their collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia is unmatched. So when the Musselmans approached Mellow Mushroom about their building as a potential location, it was a natural fit.
Click through this gallery for a look at the Mellow Mushroom space:
I was approached by the Mellow Mushroom Coca-Cola account team nearly three years ago to see if our team could assist a new Mellow franchisee. When I heard the potential location was “The Coke Plant,” I was so excited. We have extensive files on the plant in our archives, and we hold all of their business correspondence from 1903-1979. It's the largest collection of documentation of any specific American bottler in our collection.
My team visited the plant a full year before construction began and offered to open our archives to the Musselmans. They spent several days pouring over the correspondence and documentation. We did high-resolution scans of all of the documents which the Mellow Mushroom design team then developed into a wallpaper telling the story of Luther Carson, the Paducah Kentucky Coke plant and entrepreneurial spirit.
'The Coke Plant' Reclaims Her Glory
When I asked Meagan about her favorite document from our Archives, she replied quickly. “A note Luther Carson had written to his brother went something like this: ‘Dear brother, we’re broke. Please tell dad to cash the land bond. Need that $700 now!’"
Meagan continued, "I said, ‘Ed, look at this. He was broke, too!’ Living with the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur, but to go back to that document and see that he was struggling, too. It was a risk, and I'm sure he had a ton of people saying, ‘You're crazy.’ But it gave me hope and inspiration.”
I attended opening night of the new restaurant and was excited to see the creative vision of the Mellow Mushroom team at its finest, and to witness the dedication and entrepreneurial spirit of the Musselmans in this restored beauty of a building. It made me believe anything is possible. I was so glad that the whispers I'd heard about the old plant being torn down were in the past.
She has regained her glory and will be a place people in Paducah gather for years to come. I just wonder if the directions will now be: “Go to the Mellow Mushroom and turn left.”
Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company.
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