My first trip through Union County, in Western Kentucky, occurred during a week of spring floods. Our plan to travel along small, meandering rural roads close to the river was often thwarted by standing water. Although our circuitous route missed the county seat of Morganfield, we did stop in the coal-mining town of Sturgis, established in 1886 by the Cumberland Iron and Land Company.
Coal mines were in operation prior to the “black diamond bonanza” that transformed farmland into grids of streets and buildings. In the last quarter of the 19th century, small mines sold coal to nearby farmers and to steamboats plying the Ohio and Tradewater Rivers. The first post office opened in 1888, as did the first private school in Sturgis.
Although I imagine some remnants of the town’s 19th century history linger, I only saw the landscape shaped by the coal boom of the early 20th century – including the EMBA Building.
The two-story brick building occupies a prominent corner in Sturgis, and within a streetscape of smaller one and two-story brick commercial buildings, it is a giant.
Built in 1928 by the West Kentucky Coal Company, the building was home to the company’s Employees Mutual Benefit Association and five other local business offices.
The EMBA Building was described in a WPA publication as the “center of much of the town’s life” with “varied and ample” facilities. The building contained an auditorium (and stage) on the first floor that could seat 1,500, and not only hosted theatrical events, but basketball games. The second floor boasted a “well-equipped electrical kitchen” and another auditorium that seated 400, used principally as a dining hall.
The facade of the seven bay building is striking – with both the corner two bays and the entrance raised, and stone accents lining the cornice and anchoring the lintels of the windows. Handsome stone cartouches crown the stepped parapet on the corners of the building and the central bay.
The double entry doors are framed by sidelights and topped by a graceful fanlight – and shielded from the weather by a metal canopy. All of these elements are still present, including the original double-hung sash windows and the canopy (though it is a little worse for the wear).
Some windows on the side elevation are boarded up, and the EMBA Building presents a wistful, neglected air. I wasn’t able to find out much about its current function, but as a pedestrian walking by, it appears vacant, its fortunes tied to that of the coal industry, in decline since the mid-20th century.