Bardstown is brimming with history

Town story includes outlaws, bourbon and our state song

Contributing Travel WriterApril 1, 2012 

  • IF YOU GO

    Bardstown

    Where to stay:

    ■ The Old Talbott Tavern, 107 W. Stephen Foster Ave. Rates from $69 to $109. Talbotts.com.

    ■ The Jailer's Inn, 111 W. Stephen Foster Ave. Rates from $100 to $235. Jailersinn.com.

    Where to eat: Kurtz Restaurant (418 E. Stephen Foster Ave., (502) 348-8964) for family-style dining. Mammy's Kitchen (114 N. Third St., (502) 350-1097) for breakfast with the locals. The Rickhouse Restaurant & Lounge (112 Xavier Dr., (502) 348-2832) in historic Spalding Hall for sophisticated cuisine and more than 100 bourbons on the menu. Circa (103 E. Stephen Foster Ave., (502) 348-5409, Restaurant-circa.com) for both history (it's in Bardstown's oldest stone building) and cutting-edge cuisine (red onion marmalade flatbread, bourbon-lacquered short ribs with corn pudding and tomato jam); the restaurant has been closed since January but is scheduled to reopen this week.

    Also: This year's annual Bourbon Festival will be Sept. 11-16. Kybourbonfestival.com.

    Learn more: Bardstowntourism.com.

BARDSTOWN — Historically, the forbidding gray stone jail facing the town square has been a place to avoid.

Some people who were incarcerated here wanted out so badly, they went to extremes. There was the inmate who carved a gun out of soap, painted it with ink and held a guard hostage. And there was the 18-year-old female prisoner who took off her clothes, soaped her body and tried to wriggle through a 6-by-9-inch slot in the metal door; she got stuck.

Yet today, visitors willingly check in — spend the night not on a lumpy cot chained to the wall but in a chintz-covered queen bed, and to be offered not water and moldy bread but lemonade and freshly baked cookies.

In the place where outlaws Frank and Jesse James once sneaked in to visit an imprisoned friend from their days with Quantrill's Raiders, guests sleep peacefully, and in the courtyard where the commonwealth's notorious were ceremoniously hanged, they enjoy their continental breakfasts.

Such is the metamorphosis of what was the oldest operating jail in Kentucky (circa 1817) into the Jailer's Inn Bed and Breakfast.

Just next door to the Jailer's Inn is the Old Talbott Tavern, the oldest stagecoach stop west of the Allegheny Mountains, dating to 1779. Modern diners can enjoy Kentucky specialties in the same taproom where Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, Abraham Lincoln and the exiled King Louis Phillippe of France once ate.

If the walls could talk, they would tell of the regular meetings of a group of volunteers known as the Bardstown Mustangs, who left Kentucky to fight in the war of Texas independence, all but one of them dying in the massacre at Goliad.

The walls would tell of how, in 1862, the tavern was taken over for two weeks by Confederate troops, who used it as a staging area for the bloody battle of Perryville.

They would tell of how, in 1858, Alexander Walters, whose mother was a cook at the tavern, was born in the pantry. Walters would lead the National Negro Committee, which later became the NAACP.

Upstairs, the wood floors in the tavern's five bedrooms might occasionally creak with the ghostly footsteps of such celebrated guests as Jesse James, who used a painting on the wall for target practice (you can see the bullet holes), and Gen. George Patton, whose behavior, by all accounts, was more circumspect.

No one can accuse Bardstown of not making the most of its colorful history.

Just a 30-minute drive from Louisville and an hour from Lexington, Bardstown, whose motto is "There's nothing small about this small town," is a genuine slice of Americana — perfect for travelers interested in antiques, country inns, history and bourbon.

A spirited place

Central Kentucky is the birthplace of America's native spirit, and Bardstown can legitimately lay claim to being the "bourbon capital of the world." At one time, the area was home to as many as 22 distilleries, producing bourbons said to "have a bite that would blow your ears off" and were supposedly as harsh as the outlaws and desperados they fueled.

Today, only four of those distilleries remain around Bardstown: Barton's 1792, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam and Maker's Mark. They will soon be joined by a fifth. The opening of the boutique, family-run Willet Distillery across the road from Heaven Hill is set for late summer.

In the meantime, there's plenty of sipping to be done at the others. Heaven Hill is America's largest independent family-owned distillery and the second-largest holder of aging bourbon whiskey in the United States. Its inventory exceeds 950,000 barrels.

Visitors can tour the impressive Bourbon Heritage Center and sample Heaven Hill's best in a tasting room, shaped like a barrel.

A disastrous fire in 1996 led Heaven Hill to begin distilling its bourbon at its Louisville warehouses. That makes Barton's 1792, on the site of the old Tom Moore Distillery, the only fully operating distillery in Bardstown.

Just outside Bardstown are two of the world's most famous distilleries, Jim Beam and Maker's Mark. Beam, the world's largest bourbon distiller, specializes in the production of handcrafted small-batch bourbons. It sits amid gorgeous hills in a tableau rivaling anything Napa or Sonoma has to offer.

Maker's Mark, in Loretto, just south of Bardstown, is a collection of distinctive red and black buildings in a rustic setting on picturesque Hardin's Creek. Here, in the nation's oldest working distillery on its original site (since 1805), you can dip your own bottle in Maker's signature red wax.

While you're in a bourbon frame of mind, head back to Bardstown and the wonderful Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, which traces the history of spirits from the Whiskey Rebellion through Prohibition to today.

Occupying the main floor of historic Spalding Hall, the museum's exhibits include the grist mill that George Washington used as part of the distilling operation on his Virginia plantation, a copper still used to make illegal moonshine, and a re-creation of the Illinois general store where Lincoln had his first experience at a bar.

One of the museum's most popular exhibits is What's Your Pleasure, Mr. President?, a whimsical mural showing 42 U.S. presidents holding their favorite libations. From Washington, who enjoyed champagne, to George H.W. Bush, who favored gin and tonic, our chief executives have been a cocktail-loving bunch. Only Harry Truman brought joy to the hearts of Kentuckians, with his choice of bourbon and branch water.

Old Kentucky homes

Bardstown has about 200 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the two most famous are Wickland and Federal Hill.

Wickland, generally regarded as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the state, was the home of three 19th-century governors, all from the same family. Charles Wickliffe and his grandson J.C.W. Beckham were governors of Kentucky, and Charles' son Robert was governor of Louisiana.

It's Federal Hill, however, that has gained worldwide fame as, legend has it, the subject of composer Stephen Foster's My Old Kentucky Home. It was here in 1852 that Foster allegedly traveled to visit his cousin, Judge John Rowan, and was so taken by the beauty of the house and its 450 acres that he tapped out an elegy on his flute. True story or not, My Old Kentucky Home became the official song of the commonwealth, and Federal Hill became the My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

A 2006 renovation livened up Federal Hill's décor — replacing the subdued palette of beige, eggshell white and brown with a spectrum of vivid colors including burnt orange, teal and sunburst gold — but some original pieces remain.

Among them: Foster's portrait in the foyer; the early Empire sofa in the parlor, where Andrew Jackson napped on his frequent visits to see his friend Rowan; and the dining room's mint julep set, made from melted-down silver dollars.

If you visit this summer, take in Kentucky's longest-running (54 years) outdoor drama, The Stephen Foster Story, featuring colorful costumes, lively choreography, 50 cast members and 40 of Foster's nostalgic tunes.

Besides My Old Kentucky Home, Bardstown has My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, where the elegance of 1940s rail travel is re-created aboard three restored dining cars. The train makes a leisurely two-hour trip from Bardstown to Limestone Springs and back through a stretch of Bernheim Forest.

Lunch and dinner by Chef Gil Logan, formerly of Churchill Downs, is served in cars that have been faithfully renovated with mahogany-paneled walls and brass light fixtures.

It's a ride back in time in a town whose appeal is timeless.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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