Don Dampier remembers in the 1950s that the Nicholas County jailer’s wife was such a good cook, some local boys didn’t mind if their drinking landed them behind bars for the weekend. At least they would be well fed.
People still come to the former jail for a great meal — but with no hard time required.
For more than 20 years, a group of women in this town of 2,000 people 40 miles northeast of Lexington have put on a four-course luncheon on the second Thursday of each month, from March through December. Local high school students dress up to work as servers.
This all-volunteer effort raises about $12,000 a year for the county tourism commission and the county historical society’s restoration of the old jail complex, which was replaced by a new jail in 1982.
The old jail, whose “dungeon” dates to 1857, needs a lot of work. But the attached jailer’s house, built from 1821 to 1823, has been restored and furnished with antiques and local artifacts.
Two lunches are planned in December, with country ham and trimmings, egg kisses, fresh apple cake and other desserts. The lunches ($18 a person) are at noon Dec. 1 and Dec. 8. There also is a “high tea” ($20) at 1 p.m. Dec. 3. Reservations are required; call 859-749-7986 or 859-289-5592.
“There’s a lot of history here,” said Gladys Shrout, who has been organizing the lunches since the beginning. “We’re proud of our little town.”
I met Dampier a couple of years ago when I spoke to a civic group in Frankfort. When he found out that I had never been to Carlisle, where he was born and raised, he was determined to show it to me.
“We’ve always kidded that you have to have a reason to come to Carlisle,” Dampier said as we drove up U.S. 68. “It’s not a pass-through place.”
That beautiful fall day was a reminder of something Kentuckians take for granted: picturesque small towns, rich with history and beautiful architecture that speaks to the prosperity they enjoyed when local agriculture economies thrived during the 19th and early 20th centuries. But these towns’ greatest assets are friendly, hard-working people who wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Tobacco and manufacturing kept many Kentucky towns healthy through the end of the 20th century. But since burley quotas were abolished and many factory jobs were sent overseas, many towns have struggled to protect their identities and reinvent their economies.
Carlisle is a good example. Its big blows came in 2000 and 2004, when the Jockey underwear company shut down its sewing and knitting plants, putting more than 400 people out of work. Only a fraction of those jobs have been replaced.
To try to keep their community strong, Carlisle residents have focused on their heritage. Dampier drove me past the log cabin where Daniel Boone was said to have lived from 1795 to 1799; Forest Retreat, home of Kentucky’s 10th governor, Thomas Metcalf; and the 1895 one-room Hildreth School, which was moved to town and restored several years ago.
Downtown Carlisle is filled with beautiful 19th-century buildings, several of which are being restored. We toured the old J.T. Sims/Neal Building, an 1883 store that has been turned into a local history museum and welcome center. Nearby, in another old building, is the Kentucky Doll and Toy Museum.
We visited the old Carlisle High School gymnasium, which Rodney Hatton bought and is restoring as event space. Hatton said he had so many great memories of playing basketball there that he couldn’t bear to see it crumble.
The old jail restoration shows that Carlisle has a sense of humor, too. One cell was recently cleaned up to display old records, including who was locked up when and for what. “You look through and think, oh my, I didn’t know that person went to jail!” Shrout said.
The “dungeon” walls contain prisoners’ graffiti dating to the Civil War.
“It’s been a struggle,” said Shrout, who remembers touring Madison, Ind., with friends years ago and admiring how the Ohio River town had restored its great old buildings. “We were so amazed that we thought, we could do that in Carlisle. Now, there’s young people stepping up to carry on what we started.”