Over the Easter holiday I took a roadtrip from my home in New Orleans into the heart of Appalachia to watch country folk singer Ian Noe perform live in the mountains. Along the way I found myself in the small railroad town of Corbin, Kentucky. The hamlet’s leaders saw fit to make alcohol consumption legal over a decade ago and since then the city’s downtown has become something of a success story.The Baptist preachers and regional bootleggers are none to happy about it but you can now purchase a cold beer to go with your chili buns and onion rings.
Prior to alcohol legalization the downtown area was desolate and forlorn. A few legacy businesses had somehow held on but the overall air of the town was that of despair.
Nowadays there is little vacancy on a Main Street that runs from south to north in the center of the village. With a few hours of spare time I decided to do an impromptu street shoot. Here’s what I saw:
The Krystal Kitchen had a long run in Corbin selling dirt cheap cheeseburgers and homemade custard cones but these days the only thing that remains is the ancient floor. A fire destroyed the building many years ago.
The Fad Pool Hall was famous in its day for scratch chili buns that are still fondly remembered by local old-timers. It’s long been shuttered and the recipe lost to the sands of time.
The city of Corbin has done a good job of playing up the Colonel Sanders angle. He lived in Corbin for many years and founded Kentucky Fried Chicken here. The old restaurant has been turned into a museum and you can still get a box of pricy fried chicken in the new facility.
The Pinball Museum is just around the corner from where the old Odyssey Arcade used to stand. At the Odyssey you had to feed a quarter into each machine for a few minutes of fun. Nowadays you have to pay $15 at the door of the Museum but are then afforded endless play.
I walked in the front door of the Wrigley shortly after they opened in 2014. Back then the owners planned on being a brewery with a gastropub theme. In the years since they’ve dialed in bringing craft brews from outside sources while focusing the kitchen on Appalachian-sourced ingredients in the now honored “farm to table” manner. Chef Kristin Smith runs the show here and is well-respected as a chef who gives a fuck about her food and community.
The Smokin’ Quartz is a bong shop and crystal parlor with a nice sideline of incense sales. I can imagine the old Baptist folks that used to run the town are none too happy with its existence. When I walked in the counter gal was playing Hank IV.
Hardee’s was the first fast food chain to open in Corbin, beating McDonald’s by a couple years back in the 70s. It’s been at the same location for nearly 50 years but endured a severe remodeling that snatched all the charm away roughly a decade ago. The mornings used to see a large group of old timers gathered around the “liar’s table” but when the city banned tobacco smoking indoors the regulars dispersed to god-knows-where.
Tattooed ruffians abound across the globe, and Corbin is no different. This is where the jackanapes and layabouts come to have their skin etched in what must surely be intriguing patterns.
Dry County Clothing sells cutesy, regional-specific t-shirts, coozies, and ball caps in the former Jack’s convenience store building.
I walked into the Depot on Main in 2004, bought a Killians Irish Red lager, paid the barkeep, gave him a nice tip, guzzled my beer and exited the building. Soon enough the barman was pursuing me down Main Street yelling that I needed to pay my tab. I patiently explained to him the nuts and bolts of our transaction and he apologized. I’ve never been back.
I’m not sure what the nature of this business is.
Gibson’s Music store opened in the 60s and has survived some 50 years of operation by selling pianos and various other music instruments to the good people of the Tri-County region. It’s slightly down at the heels but with little competition they could easily be around for another half-century.
Axe throwing businesses have been sprouting up across the US for nearly a decade. The formula is simple: rent a building, install some lanes and targets, buy a few axes and run ads targeting young men who this business model may appeal to. Oh, and have a bar where everyone can get drunk.
The French Broad River Pullman car was built by the Pullman-Standard Manufacturing Co. in 1949 for the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas & Pacific Railroad Company. Pullman operated the car until 1969. This car hauled tourists between New York and New Orleans for many years before shifting to routes that serviced travelers between Cincinnati and Miami. The old girl was retired in 1982 and has called Corbin home since 2015. Eventually she will be opened up to visitors when her restoration is complete
The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks restricted membership to whites-only from its inception in 1868 until 1973. By 1995 womenfolk were allowed to become members. I spent a lot of time in an Elks Lodge in Austin, Texas in the 90s and aughts. It was a short walk from my home and their rules on liquor consumption were decidedly laxer than the rest of Texas. And they booked a lot of live music. I did not get a chance to step inside the Corbin outpost.
The sand volleyball courts in Corbin occupy the hallowed ground that used to host a squat red brick building where Odyssey Arcade was located. The mural game is weak here but the sand does look quite inviting.
$12 milkshake parlour.
Folktale Coffee and Bakehouse occupies the former You and Me Coffee and Tea cafe located in the old Cottongim Drug building. You and Me…opened back in 2012 and had a great run before the business changed hands allowing new owner Barry May to nearly run the operation into the ground. Blaring loud, sadly-outdated music both inside and outside the shop led to the regular patrons fleeing. May wisely sold the concern to DJ Allen, a minority owner of the store’s earlier incarnation. Allen has restored order and hopefully can steer the business into a long-running success. A recent visit found John Prine and Sierra Ferrell both being featured on the Hi-Fi.
End notes: There are dozens of other downtown Corbin businesses that I do not have the space to cover. Perhaps on another visit. It’s heartening to see a village that was gasping and wheezing just a few years ago have fresh life breathed into it via the magic of beer, wine and liquor. I’m sure the local ministers would have preferred a slow, agonizing death for their town but thankfully the citizenry were able to decide the matter for themselves.
Corbin, Kentucky is located on the I-75 corridor halfway between Knoxville, Tennessee and Lexington, Kentucky.