May 2007 Issue
Learn about Kentucky's fascinating history at sites that tell colorful stories of the past.
With 215 years of statehood and centuries more of Native American history under her Bluegrass belt, Kentucky has done better than most at holding onto her past. There are dozens of historic log buildings, homes, taverns, bridges and complete historic districts to visit - enough to fill several summers of travel.
These four heritage tours, stretching from Bardstown to Stearns, unveil some of Kentucky's tales from her rich past.
Finding 'My Old Kentucky Home'
Ever since Judge John Rowan first flung wide the door of his new mansion and welcomed the first guest in 1818, Federal Hill has had a busy social life. Although the Rowans no longer fill the rooms of their Bardstown mansion, the house that became famous as "My Old Kentucky Home" still keeps a busy social calendar.
Summers are all about music at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, most famously the dulcet strains of Stephen Collins Foster, a Rowan cousin who visited here in 1852. The Pittsburgh musician stayed several times, and may even have started writing "My Old Kentucky Home" on a desk at Federal Hill. He published the song in 1853, and it became Kentucky's state song in 1928. Drive up to the visitor center and you're apt to hear it wafting from the carillon.
The hoop-skirted outdoor show, "Stephen Foster - The Musical," will return June 9 to the outdoor amphitheater, with such Foster classics as "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races," "Beautiful Dreamer" and, of course, "My Old Kentucky Home."
This year, the production company is adding another outdoor show, "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," beginning July 10. The late country musician Roger Miller wrote the score for this Tony Award-winning tale about Huck Finn and Big Jim on the Mississippi. The two shows will play in rotation through August 18.
The amphitheater also will host "Live at the Park" concerts. The lineup is: B. J. Thomas and Billy Joe Royal, June 18; Steve Holy, July 2; "1964: The Tribute," July 16; "Late Night Catechism," August 13; Darrell Worley, August 25; and the Lexington Philharmonic, September 10.
Plan to pull into the park early enough to tour My Old Kentucky Home, or camp there overnight. Much of the grand house is newly refurbished, and hoop-skirted guides want to show it off.
Hand-loomed carpets and vintage wallpapers showcase the collection, 75 percent of which belonged to the Rowans. The home stayed within the family through the judge's lifetime and that of his seven children. Son John Jr. had eight children to fill the manor house, and it's during his tenure that Stephen Foster visited.
Madge Rowan Frost was the home's last mistress, selling the estate to a preservation group in 1920. This unbroken lineage is what makes some of the home's pieces so remarkable: In Madge's bedroom, her well-worn boots lean up against a chair as if she'll be back any second.
The square grand piano with mother-of-pearl keys, a gift from the judge to one of his granddaughters, still hugs a niche beside the parlor fireplace. It takes just one quick flash of imagination to see Stephen Foster playing his tunes on those lustrous keys, ringed by his Kentucky cousins.
My Old Kentucky Home, Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission, One Court Square, Bardstown, Ky., 800-638-4877; www.visitbardstown.com. Performance tickets: 800/626-1563, www.stephenfoster.com.
Getting Up Close Down on the Farm
Even though Kate the Mule is getting up there in years, it's wise to remember her once-mighty kick. "She gets jealous if someone else gets over-petted," Reva Rose says of the old gal.
It's easy to spread your affections around at Mountain HomePlace in Staffordsville beside Paintsville Lake, deep in the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky. Who can resist the goats, sheep, donkeys, ponies and horses, Taffy and Dixie, vying with Kate for attention?
And, of course, you can't dis the biggest stars of the HomePlace farm show, Tom and Jerry, the oxen team. Who would pull the wagon if they got ticked?
The old 1850s farmstead is really a pieced-top quilt of a place, its original buildings gathered up when engineers prepared to flood the region for the 1,100-acre Paintsville Lake.
Let's snap up that two-story barn, the organizers thought; we certainly need a blacksmith shop, too. The village was fleshed out with the 1850 David McKenzie house, the Fishtrap Church and the one-room schoolhouse.
"These buildings came off the lake, and they really are the heritage of our people." Rose says.
Such lives can be revelations for travelers, who are amazed that farm women boiled their laundry to whiten it, and that families had to raise everything they ate.
Guides in mid-19th-century dress show visitors around the four gardens and teach them the crafts of everyday life. Inside the school, the focus is on the Civil War, which the original villagers would have been living through.
In this lakeside setting, the new amphitheater rings with song - bluegrass, country or gospel - nearly every night.
Mountain HomePlace, 745 St. Rte. 2275, Staffordsville. 800/542-5790. www.mountainhomeplace.com.
Chugging into History
What must life have been like for miners swinging pick axes into the Kentucky coal face? And for the wives and children waiting for them up top?
You can hear all their tales, in recorded oral histories, with just the push of a button during the Big South Fork Scenic Railway ride. The train leaves Stearns in southern Kentucky and twists up ridge and down holler into the old mining town of Blue Heron/Mine 18.
This was Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. land from 1937 to 1962, when countless cars carried out the bounty of Big South Fork gorge - tons of coal, stands of trees. Today, much of this hard-used land is part of a national park, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
The excursion starts in Stearns, one of America's last remaining company-built coal and lumber towns. The 1907 Stearns Office Building is now the McCreary County Museum, which covers this rugged part of Appalachia from prehistory through its logging and mining heyday and into its current era of adaptive reuse and rebuilding. The exhibits are free with a train ticket.
The company's founder, Justus Stearns, started with the all-important Freight Depot in 1902. It's now the headquarters for the scenic railway, and the spot where bluegrass and country musicians will play you onto the trains.
The cars are either open-air or enclosed, only 55 feet long to make it around the cliff-line curves and through a long tunnel. They're customized on old flat freight cars, and pulled by an Alco S-1 diesel engine built in 1942.
At the eight-mile mark, passengers can hop off and explore Blue Heron, some heading off to the giant tipple from the late 1930s, which sorted coal with a giant conveyor belt. Others zero in on the National Park "ghost structures," the vanished church, school, company store and family homes, now suggested by metal outlines.
The ghost structures are the place to meet Elmer and Charlie, Jan and Norma, real Blue Heron residents who, at the press of a button, will tell you about the luxury of water at their one-room school or the thrill of going to Stearns for a movie.
Step about 10 feet into Mine 18 and one of those men will tell you "it was scary when I first got in there, but it got to be where I enjoyed it." When Blue Heron mine opened in 1938, miners were hand-loading 12 to 15 tons a day per man - earning 60 cents a ton.
Big South Fork Scenic Railway, 100 Henderson St., Stearns, 800/462-5664. www.bsfsry.com.
Tracing a Bloody Trail
As Abraham Lincoln said, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."
The Commonwealth wanted to remain neutral in the Civil War, but both sides recognized its importance. As a border state, it became a linchpin, with both North and South fighting ferociously in nearly every region. Kentucky has dozens of battlefields, museums, historic homes and cemeteries with their own Civil War tales to tell.
For the fourth year, historic organizations have come together to create a week of activities during the 2007 Central Kentucky Civil War Heritage Trail, July 14â€“22. Some fields will explode with re-enactments, others will simmer with camp fires of the civilians who traveled with the troops.
Ten battle sites are part of this summer's heritage trail, encompassing great Union and Confederate victories. On August 29â€“30, 1862, war engulfed Richmond, a battle that would become famous as the second-largest in Kentucky and the most overwhelming Confederate victory of the entire Civil War.
Yet little more than a month later, nearly 8,000 soldiers were killed and wounded in Kentucky's largest Civil War battle, October 8 at Perryville. Without a clear Confederate victory here, Kentucky remained in Union hands for the rest of the war. Perryville stands as the high-water mark of the Confederacy in the Western Theater, and marked the last major incursion of Confederate forces into Kentucky.
In between these two extremes are camps, supply depots and forts, some built by African-American soldiers such as the one at Boonesboro. Another, Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, was the largest Union supply depot in the state, as well as one of the largest African-American recruiting stations in the country.
The heritage trail, wending through Central Kentucky farmland, hamlets and cities, also helps spotlight conservation. One participating site - the Munfordville Battlefield that saw a Confederate win on September 14â€“17, 1862 - has just been named one of the Civil War Preservation Trust's 25 Most Endangered Battlefields.
For a 2007 Central Kentucky Civil War Heritage Trail brochure, call 800/225-8747 or visit www.kentuckytourism.com or www.kycivilwar.org.