Day Tripper: The living seems easy in Augusta

The freestanding Augusta Community Clock, dedicated in 2002, is on Main Street.
The freestanding Augusta Community Clock, dedicated in 2002, is on Main Street. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

AUGUSTA — A handwritten sign on the door of Bertha's Folk Art Shop, comfortably housed in a rustic log cabin on Main Street, alerts customers to store hours:

Open most days about 9 or 10

Occasionally as early as 7

But some days as late as 12 or 1

We close about 5:30 or 6

But occasionally about 4 or 5

But sometimes as late as 11 or 12

That laissez-faire attitude seems to sum up the general feeling of residents of this close-knit Northern Kentucky community: We'll get to it when we get to it.

They'll happily serve you when they are there, but if something more interesting comes up, they know you'll understand. More interesting can mean anything from a surprise visit by local boy George Clooney to the tempting aroma of a freshly baked loaf at Adonai's Daily Bread.

The slow and easy approach to life is part of the charm of this picturesque town on the banks of the Ohio River about a 90-minute drive from Lexington. The late Kentucky historian Thomas Clark put the town of slightly more than 2,000 on his list of the commonwealth's top 10 places to see. It's easy to understand why.

History looms large here. Although it was incorporated in 1797, after a Revolutionary War land grant was given to Capt. Philip Buckner by the commonwealth of Virginia, artifacts have been discovered that indicate that Augusta was probably the site of a prehistoric Native American village.

During the Civil War, the town's pro-Union sentiment led to it being looted by the Confederate Morgan's Raiders, and a two-story white house overlooking the river, the Gen. John Payne Home, was known to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Today, that history lives on in 18th- and 19th-century mansions, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Other historic gems include the 1811 jail, the oldest intact jail in Kentucky, and Beehive Tavern, dating to 1796, which is closed but is expected to reopen in the fall.

Information about Augusta's rich history, along with a map for a self-guided walking tour, can be found at the Welcome Center, in the red train caboose at the river end of Main Street.

But anyone who thinks Augusta is simply a musty paean to the past should wander along Main Street, with its collection of unique shops and restaurants housed in colorful buildings that wouldn't be out of place in Charleston, S.C., or Savannah, Ga.

In addition to the aforementioned Bertha's, there's Amy's Blue Daisy, The Nest, Augusta Art Guild Gallery, Augusta General Store (known for its homemade chocolate pies) and Nina's (famous for its proprietress, Nina Clooney, wife of Nick and mother of George).

The Clooneys, of course, are Augusta's first family. Nick and Nina live on Third Street, and Nick's sister Rosemary bought a beautiful yellow house overlooking the river, where she lived part-time for 20 years until her death in 2002. It was then bought by another famous Augusta native, Heather French Henry, Miss America 2000, and her husband, Steve, a former lieutenant governor.

In 2005, they opened the house as a museum dedicated to Rosemary's life and career (there's also an upstairs bedroom showcasing Heather's accomplishments). You'll have no trouble finding the house: It's always beautifully decorated for Christmas, in tribute to Rosemary's most famous film, White Christmas.

When you get hungry, you have a number of options: Adonai's and Bravo Café for casual dining (try the Reuben sandwich at the latter) and Parkview Inn Restaurant for something more formal (the dining room is known for its country-style buffet).

Definitely save time for a leisurely stroll along the riverfront promenade, with its lovely landscaping; you might even opt for a ride on the town's ferry, the Jenny Ann, which makes the crossing to Brown County, Ohio, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily ($5 with car, free to foot travelers).

Other communities have First Friday gallery hops, but Augusta has a First Friday Ohio River cruise (free from June through October), complete with a DJ and door prizes (remaining dates this year are Aug. 5, Sept. 2 and Oct. 7).

If you are near Augusta over the weekend, stop in for a tour and tasting at Baker-Bird Winery, the oldest commercial estate winery in America and one of only 22 on the National Register of Historic Places. The winery is open 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

If you think those are strange hours for a winery, remember: You're in Augusta, where if they have something better to do, you'll have to come back. But don't worry — after one visit, you'll want to do just that.

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