History, Hospitality, Bourbon Draw Visitors To Bardstown
by Joseph F. Persinger
An occasional travelogue of area day-trips
Let’s wander father afield, heading south on Interstate 65, across the Ohio River, beyond Louisville to Exit 112, which leads to Bardstown, Ky.— from Jackson & Scott County a drive of only an hour and a half.
Named “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in 2012, Bardstown appeals to tourists for a variety of reasons.
First settled in 1790, when the hilly, wooded area was still a part of Virginia, it’s the second oldest city in Kentucky. The historic district consists of 26 blocks with a total of 279 properties. Over one-third of the buildings are of Federal or Georgian architectural style dating from the 1780s to 1850s.
Bardstown is home to the Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre, which displays artifacts from both the Union and the Confederacy. Women of the Civil War Museum tells the stories of women as nurses, spies, soldiers in disguise, plantation and factory workers during the conflict. Old Bardstown Village is a recreation of a 1790s settlement representative of the first westward movement. The General Hal Moore Military Museum is dedicated to Bardstown native Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, a hero of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Local artifacts also are displayed in the Bardstown-Nelson County Historical Museum.
Federal Hill, a mansion built in 1812, inspired composer Stephen Foster to write “My Old Kentucky Home,” which is now Kentucky’s state song. Visitors may tour the home, located in My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
The park also hosts “The Stephen Foster Story,” an outdoor musical drama featuring songs of the prolific composer. The story focuses on Foster’s early life as he struggled to gain recognition for his music while also trying to win the hand of the lovely Jane, the inspiration for “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” The production features a large chorus of men, women and children in colorful period costumes and is performed numerous times during the summer months.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site is located in nearby Hodgenville, and there are several other museums and memorials in the area dedicated to the 16th President.
As these are just a few highlights, it’s easy to see why history buffs are so attracted to Bardstown.
Whether you’re interested in railroads, a “foodie,” or just looking for a romantic evening out, My Old Kentucky Dinner Train may be the answer. Passengers enjoy a gourmet meal of their choice prepared and served on board restored 1940s dining cars. The two-hour round trip excursion provides passing views of the Jim Beam Distillery, the outlaw Jesse James’ safe house, and the Jackson Hollow Trestle in the Bernheim Forest.
The Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven offers a 22-mile excursion through the Rolling Fork River Valley.
Kentucky’s recent “bourbon boom” is another reason tourists flock to the area. Whiskey has been made there since the 1700s, but the explosion in bourbon sales in the past decade has prompted most of the major distilleries to invest in multi-million-dollar “welcome centers” and tasting rooms, where visitors can learn about how bourbon is made, tour the distillery, and wind up in a tasting room to sample some of the products. These new showcases usually include gifts shops, offering bourbon-themed hats, tee-shirts, cigars, chocolates, glassware and many other items, and some have a restaurant on the property.
Some familiar bourbon names in the area include Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, and Barton, and there are several newer distilleries also welcoming visitors.
The bourbon theme carries over into some of the gift shops in downtown Bardstown and many of the restaurants, which advertise “bourbon-inspired Southern dishes.” Mammy’s Kitchen, for example, offers “Southern favorites and more than 150 bourbons.”
If, like the Wanderer, you’re not that interested in whiskey, you may prefer a visit to one of the area wineries. Chuckleberry Farm and Winery and McIntyre’s Winery and Berries both specialize in sweet fruit wines. Springhill Winery, in nearby Bloomfield, offers dry white and red wines as well as some sweeter varieties — and yes, a Cabernet Sauvignon aged for a time in a charred bourbon barrel.
No visit to Bardstown would be complete without lunch or dinner at the Old Talbot Tavern. Housed in a stone building constructed in 1779 on the courthouse square, the tavern and inn served as a stop on the stagecoach line. Abraham Lincoln’s family spent a night there when the future President was about five years old. Other famous and infamous guests have included composer Stephen Foster, Jesse James, and Gen. George S. Patton.
Five of the original rooms are still available for guests, along with additional lodging in a newer building next door.
There are several bed-and-breakfast establishments in Bardstown, and a number of national motel chains are represented. Camping is an option at My Old Kentucky Home State Park and at least two private campgrounds.
Because this brief account can provide only a few highlights of Bardstown as a tourist destination, you may want to find out more on your own. If you go to www.visitbardstown.com or call 800-638-4877, the visitor center staff will mail you a handy guidebook.