Narrow winding roads lead from one small town to another in this part of the country. Many towns have a small post office proudly displaying the American flag and the local variety store selling onion bulbs alongside the bubble gum. Locals flock to the family-owned dairy bars for slaw-dog (hotdog with coleslaw) and milkshakes and men talk shop outside the feed store on hot summer days.
Although the above scenes could easily be found in the coastal villages of Maine or the German towns of Wisconsin, these tree-lined country roads are right in our back yard, in the close-knit Appalachian communities of Eastern Kentucky.
As a gal from the city who married a guy from the holler, I have fallen in love with these quaint mountain towns. Nowadays I yearn for our weekends in the hills of Eastern Kentucky.
One of the best ways, I have found, to explore this area is hopping from one antique shop to another dotted along this rural landscape. They are off the beaten path, some of them only known to locals, and are full of treasures unlikely to be found at stores in the city.
A weekend trip is the perfect amount of time to devote to meandering through these shops, eating the local fare and getting acquainted with this rich culture. Be sure to leave home with as little cargo as possible because you will need space in the car to bring home your treasures.
Here are my suggestions for a day of shopping in Eastern Kentucky:
Early on Saturday morning, start out on I-64 east to Mountain Parkway heading toward Hazard. Continue past Hazard (for now). You'll pass through towns like Vicco and Happy on your way to Whitesburg.
Your first stop is at Pine Mountain Co-op. The large teepee next to the shop is a dead giveaway that you have arrived.
For nearly 20 years, this antique and craft co-op has been a fixture in Whitesburg. Thirty members volunteer to keep the co-op running and full of antiques and crafts. The front porch is filled with primitive pieces of weathered furniture, while inside the walls are lined with glassware and quilts; tables are brimming with dishes, jars and linens.
Anne Bradley organizes the volunteers and is often around the shop to offer her knowledge of local events and attractions. You can also find plenty of tourism information by the front desk.
After shopping, grab lunch at Pine Mountain Grill across the street. The restaurant has its own gift shop with new quilts, pottery and handbags. You can't go wrong ordering the area staple, soup beans and cornbread, or the open face roast beef. They are both delicious, filling and cheap.
Head back on Ky. 15 toward Hazard and turn left on Hwy. 7 at Isom, just about 10 miles.
If you saved room for dessert, stop in Isom (just before the Hwy. 7 turn) and get a locally famous milkshake at Holcomb's Custard Stand. You'll have to navigate through a maze of scrap metal recycling mounds to get to it, but keep pressing forward; you won't be disappointed. The peanut butter and chocolate shake is divine.
With milkshake in hand, head to Gwen's Country Attic. With more than 15 large booths, this could take a while. Gwen Rollins is hospitable and chatty. She will make you feel at home. Rollins opened her shop nearly three years ago. Housed in a long green metal pole barn, this place is one of the greatest around to find true Appalachian antiques and primitives. Before you even step foot into the barn there are treasures to be found. Old tobacco baskets hang on the side of the building, and a wheat thresher sits by the front door next to the large wooden wagon.
Rollins, who also heads up the local garden club, takes pride in keeping a well-organized space. Prices are reasonable. On one particular visit we spotted an antique wooden kitchen island for $20 and a set of antique dishes for $10.
Next, go to Delana's Little Shoppe just four miles southwest on Hwy. 7. Don't blink or you'll miss it. It is a tiny shop sitting on the left. Delana's is a favorite of mine. Her husband, Bob, built the little log shop for her in 2002 and though it is small, it is big on charm and every inch of space is fully utilized. Delana has a keen eye. Most of her wares come from estate sales, although she is so well known in these parts that people often seek her out when they come across something old and unique they think she might like.
Her store is reminiscent of a favorite grandmother's home. The floors are painted in a large checkerboard pattern and the soft yellow walls make the space feel welcoming and homey. Painted pie safes, Hoosier cabinets and old mantles are loaded with linen tablecloths, turquoise glassware, ironstone fixtures, and antique cookie jars, while tin-top tables are brimming with quilt pieces, crocheted doilies and kitchen aprons.
Delana says she likes to "have fun like everyone else" so she doesn't keep consistent store hours. Occasionally she'll open on Saturdays, but your best bet is to call ahead and make an appointment, which is definitely worth the extra effort.
Keep sipping on your milkshake as you meander toward Hazard. This winding road is not for the faint of heart though. Let your foot off the gas and take your time navigating through these small mountain towns.
You will pass Blackey, where Coal Miner's Daughter was filmed.
Continue about 22 miles on Hwy. 7 before you join Ky. 15 toward Hazard. Make sure you arrive back in Hazard before 5 p.m. to shop at PJ's Attic. Paula J. Goodlette started this antiques consignment store several years ago in a small storefront. Two and a half years ago she moved her shop a few doors down to a larger space and she hasn't looked back.
Paula, or PJ as customers know her, fills her store with antiques on consignment and estate liquidations. During our most recent visit we found a rare Polaroid Land Camera for $30. Bolts of fabric, cane bottom chairs, costume jewelry and stately antique furniture co-exist perfectly in this chic and well put together shop. Don't miss the $1 room in the back of the store. It's a treasure-hunter's paradise, if you aren't afraid to dig a little.
Wrap up the day with dinner at Peking Chinese Restaurant in downtown Hazard. Although not country food, locals have flocked to this place for years.