Story by Tania Meek
The moment my eyes rested upon her, I knew she had a story to share. Intuitively, I felt it would be a joy to unwrap the layers, discovering each one.
She did not disappoint.
The enchanting, historic town of Bardstown, Kentucky, is like a genteel Southern lady; beautiful to behold, strong in spirit and willing to share her heart and soul. As I began to watch this town’s story unfold before me, I was both enchanted and smitten.
Pull up a rocking chair. Grab a glass of refreshing mint julep. Join me for a spell as I share a sprinkling of the sights, sounds and scents of the region. The people alone will draw you in. Before you know it, you may find yourself booking your next getaway to the rolling hills of majestic horse country.
Upon meeting Lynell, on the steps of a historic home, my tour guide adorned in hoop skirt and period dress, I instantly sensed she would be both informative and delightful. Little did I know at the time, she would soon become a friend and the perfect example of why I instantly fell in love with this small town.
My story into the sights of the area originates with her for the reason that her story is both worth sharing and symbolic of this town’s allure. Lynell, along with her husband and son, relocated to Bardstown more than 20 years ago to build and operate a bed and breakfast inn overlooking the My Old Kentucky Home estate. But long before that particular dream unfolded, at just the young age of ten she walked through the halls of Federal Hill. This beautifully preserved Federal-style mansion , built between 1812-1818, is the former home of judge and US Congressman John Rowan and has since been renamed My Old Kentucky Home after the famed ballad by Stephen Foster, My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!. With her father’s hand in hers and her heart in her eyes, she looked up at him declaring she wished to live in Bardstown one day. To which he replied, “That would be wonderful.” And wonderful it has been.
You see – Bardstown, with its quaint shops, historical sights, religious history and gorgeous countryside has a way of delighting. It draws you in and asks you to stay a while. And if you’re like Lynell, you might be captivated enough to remain.
One sunny Friday and snowy Saturday morning, my family and I relished a quick trip to Bardstown. With only a day to take in the sights, we packed our agenda with a diverse to-do of activities. We quickly realized that although we were blessed to unwrap countless treasures in those brief moments, it warrants a return trip to enjoy at its fullest.
Our overnight stay began in the historic Millstone Cottage, just around the corner from the thriving downtown. Walking the sights around town was a breeze from this landing spot. The mainstreet area is packed with a variety of shops, eateries, historical sites, and churches. The former Nelson County Courthouse is the ideal starting spot for your visit, as it now houses the Bardstown-Nelson County Visitors Center.
Several downtown delights we stumbled upon were shops like Gallery on the Square, Shaq & CoCo, the Mercantile Store and Making Good Scentz – a mere sampling of the assorted offerings encompassing these few picturesque blocks. Every storefront beckoned us to step inside. And the shop owners, such as Buddy and his three-legged rescue dog River, were a delight to meet. The stories abound in this small town and if you’re willing to slow down, inquire and listen, you’ll walk away feeling like you may have just made a new friend.
Speaking of stories and tall tales, numerous ones abound in the halls of both The Old Talbott Tavern, built in 1779, and the Old Nelson County Jail. Today, they offer opportunities to dine, stay and be entertained. Hear tales of legends such as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Collins Foster gracing the stone hallways. The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History and Bardstown Historical Museum also provide a plethora of stories and displays to engage your mind and interest.
After an afternoon of shopping, dining and milling around downtown, we ventured to the local Civil War Museum (ranked fourth best in the country by North & South Magazine), Old Bardstown Village, War Memorial of Mid-America and the Women’s Civil War Museum. These venues were brimming with historic memorabilia and a reminder of the innumerable lives that have molded the country we are today.
There are numerous year-round opportunities to take in the sights of region. Stroll among classic cars every 4th Saturday of the warmer months hosted by the Whiskey City Cruisers or visit Colorfest at the Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest held each October. Participate in The Bourbon Chase, a 200 mile relay race winding through the bourbon country across the bluegrass state. Sip a cup of coffee on mainstreet as you watch the annual “Light up Bardstown” event ring in the holiday season. Or stroll, as we did, through the annual Bardstown Antiques Show, hunting for a treasure to carry home.
As we stepped into the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral , the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains, our minds and the sounds around us immediately quieted. Bardstown and the region are rich in religious heritage. It is truly a gift to lean in and listen to the subtle sounds of one’s soul. If you find yourself searching for a way to retreat the demands of modern day, the nearby Abby of Gethsemani and the monks residing there offer a beautiful sound and open door to spiritual seekers from around the world.
Investigating an alternative way to listen, the Bardstown Ghost Trek with Patti and the Shadows of Federal Hill Ghost Tours present a way to observe and hear in a uniquely different manner. History has its voices and I sensed Bardstown has its share of them.
A tour of this town’s sounds would not be complete without a visit to The Stephen Foster Story, Kentucky’s official outdoor musical. Entering its 60th season, it brings to life the legacy of one of America’s greatest composers, Stephen Collins Foster, and delights audiences of all ages. The musical features over fifty of his greatest compositions such as “Oh! Susanna”, “Beautiful Dreamer”, and Kentucky’s state song “My Old Kentucky Home”.
Annual events such as the Stephen Foster Festival in June and the Bourbon City Street Concert in July bring the local sounds alive. The Bardstown Community Park hosts a free weekly summer band concert series, and the Kentucky Music Week offers a full five days of instruction on a wide variety of traditional arts.
The sweet smell of bourbon, floating through the air from the numerous distilleries dotting the landscape, awakened our senses the moment we stepped from our vehicle. Since a visit to the area would not be complete without touring one or several of the numerous local distilleries, we chose to make our way to the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown, Barton 1792 Distillery. With 196 acres and 29 barrel aging warehouses, we participated in a complimentary Bushel to Bottle Tour of the facility and manufacturing processes which ended with a tasting of the company’s various bourbons in the Distillery’s visitor’s center. Although we are not bourbon enthusiasts personally, each of us appreciated the educational and enlightening outing. Summing up the tour and the tasting, the words of our tour guide seemed fitting, “Tasting bourbon is like a Kentucky hug to the chest.”
Our Millstone Cottage innkeepers, Colonel Michael and Margaret Sue are well known among bourbon, and hospitality circles. For true bourbon enthusiasts, their venue The Kentucky Bourbon House, located at the Chapeze Mansion, provides numerous opportunities such as tasting a variety of bourbons, participating in classes such as Bourbon University, Cocktail Mixology Class or Connoisseur Bourbon Tasting, or simply enjoying the ambiance and sharing a story or two with the Colonel.
Despite the bourbon influences of the region, there are numerous additional ways to relish the aroma of the area. The My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, operating year round and reminiscent of days gone by, allows you to savor both the flavors of the county as well as the scenic countryside. Or meander back to mainstreet, stepping into Hurst’s Discount Drug and Soda Shop. Take a seat at the soda counter and order up a vanilla coke or root beer float. Find yourself in Bardstown during one of the following festivals and your senses are guaranteed to come alive: the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Craft Beer Festival or Buttermilk Days Festival.
As we prepared to pack up our car and pull out of town, we debated that we might just have to agree with both the USA Today and Rand McNally’s declaring Bardstown as the Most Beautiful Small Town in America. We equally concurred that we would endeavor to return as soon as possible. She had charmed us, welcomed us and woven us into her story – just as any gracious Southern lady should.