Famous pit stop

The Rowlett legacy lies
at the end of the bridge

The Kentucky Souvenir Shop has a storied past

By Don Ward

MILTON, Ky. (July 1999) – It all started with fireworks.
But looking back now, it seems that no matter what the late Raymond Rowlett did business-wise, it always turned to green.
Cash, that is.

Raymond Rowlett and Doc Thompson

Photo provided

The late Raymond
Rowlett (left) built and operated the Kentucky
Souvenir Shop but
spent much of his time
fishing for Ohio River
catfish with his
friend, the late
Doc Thompson (right).

Proving the old adage that location is truly the key to business success, Rowlett's original store at the foot of the Milton hill and at the end of the Ohio River Bridge over the years has grown into a virtual enterprise, providing his family with a gold mine that continues to thrive today.
In fact, Bobby Rowlett and his wife, Mary, have expanded the Kentucky Souvenir Shop in many ways, including the most recent addition in February of a B.P. Food Mart and Deli, complete with gas pumps.
Never mind that a Swifty gas station sells cut-rate fuel across the street. "I don't make my money selling gas, but everybody kept telling me I should get some fuel pumps out there, so finally I thought, 'Why not?' Bobby said. "The competition is good for business."
He should know. The Rowlett legacy is well known throughout Trimble County, Ky., in nearby Madison, Ind., and among hundreds of travelers who stop in each year.
Bobby, the second of Raymond and Eleanor Rowlett's two sons, enjoys telling visitors about how his father got started, and he likes showing them around the store. He brags that although his father had little formal education, he was "a good hustler and salesman."
But fireworks – that's what most local residents remember most about the place.
And during the annual Madison Regatta, which has been held for the past 48 years, usually over the Fourth of July weekend, Raymond Rowlett has probably made more money in three days than other local businesses made in a year.
"I remember as a kid spending hours in the back room splitting open packs of firecrackers and putting them in bushel baskets for my dad to sell up front in the store," Bobby Rowlett recalled. "He would keep them down behind the counter, but all you had to do was ask and he'd pull them out."
It was – and still is – illegal to sell such items as firecrackers, bottle rockets and cannons in Kentucky. But when the Trimble County sheriff and his deputies showed up to raid Raymond, as they often did, he would simply claim he was wholesaling the goods to people passing through, and that because he was selling the goods in bulk at below-retail prices, it wasn't illegal.

Bobby and Mary Rowlette

Photo by Don Ward

Today, Bobby and his wife, Mary,
run the Kentucky Souvenir Shop
with other family members.

"There was really no law on the books for the police to charge him with, because wholesaling fireworks technically wasn't illegal," Bobby said.
But the sheriff would make Raymond pay a small fine, anyway.
Some say Raymond was often tipped off to when the sheriff was coming, so he'd simply hide his fireworks before the police arrived. The deputies would search the store, but they rarely found what they were looking for.
Fireworks weren't Raymond's only trade. He liked to travel out West and buy Indian artifacts and pottery. Often, if he saw something he liked, he'd order boxes of it shipped to his store in Milton, where he'd sell it to his customers.
You can still find all sorts of leather goods, rugs, pottery, knives, jewelry, mocassins and T-shirts lining the walls and shelves of the souvenir shop – part of the store's legacy.
In the 1950s and 60s, Raymond would hang his rugs outside, just across the street where he sold concrete figurines and flower pots. Today, the Rowletts' Bluegrass Car & Boat Wash, built in 1994, sits on the site.
Raymond also liked to have fun. In the early days, his Gulf station was a well-known haunt for late-night poker games. He'd also make regular runs to Tennessee to buy his "wholesale" fireworks. Bobby, who inherited his father's love for poker and fishing, has heard the stories about those Tennessee trips as well.
Raymond Rowlett died in 1986, but you can still find his name in the Milton telephone book. His widow, Eleanor, still lives in the white house at the foot of the Milton hill – the crash site of several runaway semi-trucks over the years. Now 78, Eleanor stays out of the day-to-day business operations, but she is part-owner of the car wash with her two sons, Bobby, 52, and James, 59.
The family remains close. Bobby and Mary Rowlett live in the house next door to Eleanor with their two children, Andrew, 8, and Michael, 4. Jimmy lives up the hollow just behind them.
Bobby also has two children from a previous marriage – Sean, 31, and Shannon, 28. Sean and his wife, Andria, help run the souvenir shop. Shannon, an artist and photographer, lives in Philadelphia.
"When I first came here, all I heard were stories about Raymond and his fireworks," said Mary Rowlett, 37, a native of Vevay, Ind. "And he was quite a collector of junk."
For instance, during the 1997 flood, the floor of the store had to be replaced. When they pulled up the old boards, they found all sorts of old pottery under the floor – many pieces still intact.
"That was really weird," Mary said. "Who knows what else is down there?"
By being situated just across the bridge from Indiana, which had yet to start a state lottery, the Rowletts in 1989 found themselves thrust into the Kentucky Lottery frenzy.
"The first year, it was just scratch-off tickets," Bobby said. "We normally opened at eight, but we were going to open at 7 a.m. the first morning they went on sale. At 6 a.m., there were people outside standing in line waiting to buy tickets."
Merchants who sold that first game, called "Beginner's Luck," had to stamp each lottery ticket. "It was a real job," Mary recalled.
As they neared the end of their six initial boxes of tickets, Bobby realized he would run out before noon. He called Louisville and arranged to meet a lottery official at La Grange, Ky., to get more tickets.

Rowletts Store

Photo by Don Ward

The Rowletts in February expanded the
store to include a B.P. Food Mart &
Deli, and began selling gas.

By the end of the day, the Kentucky Souvenir Shop had sold more than 15,000 tickets at $1 each, easily topping any other lottery outlet in the state.
The store remained No. 1 in state lottery ticket sales for two years, until Indiana started its own state lottery. Even with competition from the Hoosier Lottery, the store continued to rank in the top 10 in Kentucky Lottery sales for five more years. Currently, the store ranks in the top 10 in sales in the region.
In yet another business venture, the Rowletts in 1990 tore down the old restaurant next door and expanded the original building to include a full-service restaurant. "We wanted a Cracker Barrel-like atmosphere," Mary said.
But business was slow, so they closed the restaurant in 1995. Several window booths up front in the deli area still remain.
Today, the Kentucky Souvenir Shop continues to bustle with locals and travelers in search of lottery tickets, gas, food, souvenirs or a place to sit and talk over a cup of coffee. The state tax advantage over Indiana has made discount cigarettes the store's No. 1 seller.
"We get a lot of people just wanting to come in and browse, or they come through here every year and want to see what changes we've made to the place," said Dorothy Ward, a 30-year employee. "And we get a lot of truckers who are lost or missed their turn and stop to ask for directions.
"One guy came in here one day and asked, 'What's the oldest thing you've got in here?' I looked around the room and said, 'You're looking at it.' "
In the latest structural addition, connecting the souvenir shop to the deli, the Rowletts have added a large collection of Boyd's Bears and even sell some Beanie Babies.
And there's still a small table of "tame and legal" fireworks near the front window. Just don't ask Bobby if he's still got any of the good stuff hidden down behind the counter.
"Those days are over," he said.

Back to July 1999 Articles.



Copyright 1999-2015, Kentuckiana Publishing, Inc.

Pick-Up Locations Subscribe Staff Advertise Contact Submit A Story Our Advertisers Columnists Archive Area Links Area Events Search our Site Home Monthly Articles Calendar of Events Kentucky Speedway Madison Chautauqua Madison Ribberfest Madison Regatta