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Historian Robertson releases shorter account of Paducah's past

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

Whether it's Paducah's great 1937 flood, the city's role in the Civil War, or its fabled naming, local historian John E.L. Robertson has worked to recount Paducah's history with utmost accuracy.

Robertson, 85, has come to know Paducah's past well since first publishing a history of the city in 1980. He is a professor emeritus of University of Kentucky and former Paducah Junior College professor, and a frequent author of historical articles and books on the area. He's brought to life the history of Citizens Bank and the Fountain Avenue United Methodist Church, pieced together Paducah pictorial histories and collaborated with the late Allan Rhodes Sr. in creating a collection of three books depicting profiles of past, famous and "not so famous" Paducahans.

His 2014 release, "Paducah, Kentucky: A History" goes back to his first published book, "Paducah 1830-1980: A Sesquicentennial History." The latter work is a pared-down and updated version of Robertson's 1980 work. His daughter, Ann E. Robertson, helped in updating the 1980 version.

He signed copies of the new book Sunday at the River Discovery Center in Paducah.

The 1980 book is 98,000 words. Robertson's contract with The History Press in Charleston, S.C., came with a challenging requirement: the updated book could be only 56,000 words.

"It was hard," Robertson said. "When you cut off a sentence, it cries."

The experienced historian did the necessary trimming, and the new book can be found ready for sale at the River Discovery Center. The book still includes plenty of photographs that show the city's progression over the past 185 years.

"It was difficult. It was some of the hardest writing I've ever done, but it forced me to be economical in my words."

While Robertson may have a better grasp of local history than most natives, the 85-year-old wasn't born here. He was born in Sullivan and first attended Western Kentucky State College before transferring to Murray State, when he went on to work for the Illinois Central Railroad in Paducah as a telegrapher before entering the U.S. Marine Corps from 1951-1953. After rising to first lieutenant, he returned to Illinois Central, when Paducah became his lasting home.

Robertson said one of the most important goals he had in writing his latest book was ensuring the information was cited. When he wrote his 1980 book, he was given the keys to the morgue of the Paducah News-Democrat, when he poured over bound dust-covered copies of former editions, hand-writing his research notes. He went through courthouse and city hall records, and interviewed six former mayors before choosing the most important details of Paducah's past.

Some older historical accounts, Robertson said, include some "grossly inaccurate" reports.

One such report is that of Chief Paduke. While legend portrays that the city was named Paducah after a Chief Paduke, Robertson cited William Clark's letter to his son M.L. Clark that the region was once home to the "once powerful nation of the Padoucas," who were mostly decimated by that point.

Robertson said tales have grown over the years in relation to describing Chief Paduke's height.

"My point is: Is this legend true?" Robertson said. "It was one of the main things that I was trying to set straight."

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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