The history of Appalachians in Cincinnati is one of the main concerns of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. Often, this means things like pouring through archives and historical materials to build a narrative of urban Appalachians. Other times it means simply looking around at our community and taking note of those urban Appalachians who have been here for decades. Tucker’s Restaurant on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine is something of a living monument to the presence of urban Appalachians in Cincinnati. I am fortunate to count Joe and Carla Tucker as friends and took an opportunity to talk to them about the story of Tucker’s and the place it occupies in the community to this day.
Joe gave me a little of the pre-history of Tucker’s. His mother and father opened the place in 1946. Ebscom and Maynie Tucker came to Cincinnati in 1941 from Russell Springs, Kentucky looking for work. Like so many people from rural Appalachia, the promise of a decent job in a factory took them from home and launched them in what we now call the urban Appalachian world. Ebscom worked for a time at Taylor Mobile (now Taylor Machines) making parts for Jeeps and tanks for the war effort. Maynie worked at Baldwin Piano which had been re-tooled to make airplane wings for B-17s. She was a literal riveter. Shortly after the war, the Tucker’s took over the Moroccan Grill on Thirteenth street and transformed this into a diner. This would become the first Tucker’s restaurant in 1946. By 1956 they had three locations, including the one on Vine street that still operates today.
To the huge number of Appalachian migrants that came to populate Over-the-Rhine and downtown Cincinnati, Tucker’s became their family kitchen. These people worked in the factories and many of them lived in small apartments that did not have kitchens. Tucker’s was the place to get a homecooked meal and to stock up on a plate of soup beans for their lunch pails. As Cincinnati became the site of urban Appalachia, Tucker’s became something of a hub; not just get a bite to eat, but also to find some sense of home amid unfamiliar surroundings. In the 1950s, Tucker’s was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Joe told me, “All they had on Thirteenth Street was a grill and a steam table. My mom made all the food in one location and drove it to the others in her car.” By the end of the 1950s, Tucker’s had become a fixture of life in and around Over-the-Rhine.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, as the demographics of Over-the-Rhine began to change, Tucker’s remained. The urban Appalachian struggles from those times were well-known to the Tucker family. Ernie Mynatt was a regular at Tucker’s on Vine, as were a number of other folks who would take up urban Appalachian issues in the form of the Urban Appalachian Council. As urban Appalachians and as features of the neighborhood, Tucker’s had already established itself as far more than a restaurant. Tucker’s was part of the bedrock of community, and this is something that endures to this day.
By 1978, Joe Tucker had begun to take over. In 1980, Carla Tucker came on board after she and Joe got married. The legacy of Tucker’s as it had been established would continue even as everything about Over-the-Rhine changed. As Over-the-Rhine suffered the same economic and social ills that plagued the entire country, Tucker’s on Vine stayed constant. Though the people who came to call Over-the-Rhine home may have changed, Joe and Carla continued to maintain Tucker’s as a feature of the community.
By the 80s and 90s, Joe and Carla were seeing the artists and musicians who came to Over-the-Rhine for cheap rent and the freedom of a neighborhood that did not box them in. Joe and Carla got to know everybody. They told me in those days they were open from 5:00 am to 7:00 pm every day. On the weekends, “there would be 40 people, some in drag, some just plain odd, waiting to get in for breakfast when we opened,” they explained. “We were young, in our 20s. It was a great time for all of us.” Those old Appalachian values of family and community continued to drive the way the restaurant functioned in Over-the-Rhine. Carla told me, “I see people in here now whose grandparents were coming in here when I started. There are grown people who I watched roll around on the floor of the restaurant when they were children.” This commitment to people and to community was established in the earliest days of Tucker’s and drives the way Joe and Carla run the business even to this day.
Over the years Tucker’s has endured much. In ’68, the Tucker family and the restaurant itself caught heat because they routinely hired and worked with black people. While Tucker’s did not discriminate, much of the world did. Joe and Carla have weathered a horrifying shooting and a fire that nearly ended things. Yet, they came back from it all. Joe and Carla Tucker have also provided a real safety net for many people over the years. They saved me some years ago, and I was just one among many others. They have put people to work in the kitchen when there was nothing else available. This has the added benefit of keeping us fed in the best possible way. I learned to make Joe’s sausage gravy but never mastered the biscuits. I am still convinced that requires some kind of wizardry only Joe understands, and I even watched him make them.
The recent crisis of the Covid-19 crisis is taking its toll on things at Tuckers. Joe and Carla never closed and are open now, but business is slow. They have taken all the proper safety measures, cut back on the menu, and cut their hours, but, like small businesses all over, things are tough. I’d say it’s a good time to remember Tucker’s is still there at 1637 Vine, same as it ever has been.
Joe and Carla Tucker are in many ways exemplary of urban Appalachians in Cincinnati. By working hard, carving out a place for themselves, and keeping their hearts in the community, they have shaped life in Cincinnati as much as they are products of life in Cincinnati. From the earliest days when Joe’s mother, Maynie, put on pots of soup beans and meatloaf for the Appalachian migrants who came to work in the factories, to the ever-shifting cultural life of Over-the-Rhine, Tucker’s restaurant and the Tucker family embody the complex and rich culture of urban Appalachians that are at the heart of the work of Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.