Get into the spirit of things in Bardstown, Kentucky, with the town’s famous whiskey, ghosts and Civil War history
Bardstown, Ky., gets a lot of attention for its status as the Bourbon Capital of the World thanks to its many bourbon distilleries, but this warm, welcoming small town has so much more to offer. Former mayor, historian and author Dixie Hibbs believes one of Bardstown’s greatest attractions is its history — the kind you can reach out and touch in one of Kentucky’s oldest cities.
“I find that tourists want to come to small towns with beautiful old buildings,” said Hibbs. “They like that they can literally walk around and touch the hand-laid brick, carved woodwork and limestone walls from 150 to 200 years ago. There are not many places in the United States you can still do that.”
One of Bardstown’s most prominent buildings is the Old Talbott Tavern, which has offered shelter to weary travelers since 1779. The tavern has had its share of famous guests over the years, including Abraham Lincoln (as a young boy), Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, French King Louis Philippe, legendary outlaw Jesse James and many others. In fact, legend has it that bullet holes found in one of the rooms were left behind by James, although some discount those claims (Frank and Jesse James made a number of trips to Bardstown during their heyday, fueling a distinct connection to the town).
The Tavern still operates as an inn and restaurant with rooms named in honor of some of its more notable guests and a menu offering popular Kentucky dishes like the Hot Brown, burgoo stew and Southern fried chicken.
Next door to the Tavern, you’ll find the Jailer’s Inn that served as the county jail from 1819 to 1987. Few other jails in the United States have remained in continuous operation for such a long period of time. It’s now a bed-and-breakfast, offering visitors the opportunity to spend the night in one of the old jail cells. During a tour, you can reach out and feel the cool, 30-inch-thick limestone walls that held some of the county’s most notorious criminals, push against the 800-pound cell doors and walk into the courtyard where local authorities conducted public hangings in years past. As you move from cell to cell, you can read old newspaper articles mounted on the walls about some of the more unusual inmates, while tour guide and owner Paul McCoy fills you in on other unique jail stories. On one of the walls, you’ll also come across a photo of former Nelson County Sheriff Donnie Pence, some unknown men and women, and Frank and Jesse James.
“Frank and Jesse James stayed here,” said McCoy. “They stayed as guests, not as prisoners. They were friends of the sheriff.”
As the story goes, the James brothers visited Bardstown and visited often, but never caused any trouble out of respect for their friend Sheriff Pence. In return, as part of a possible gentlemen’s agreement, everyone left them alone. The James brothers were not the only high-profile guests to move through the jail.
“I’ve been told by the jailer’s grandson,” added McCoy,” that John Dillinger spent one night here under an assumed name as he was being transported back to Crown Point, Ind.”
Both the Old Talbott Tavern and the Jailer’s Inn are in the middle of downtown Bardstown, close to shops and eateries and other businesses. You can also walk up the street to visit St. Joseph’s Cathedral, America’s first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains, built in 1819.
Hibbs said that’s part of Bardstown’s charm, the fact that so many of its historic structures are still standing and still in use right in the center of town.
“In an area of about four square blocks, you’ve got the core of the early buildings built in the first 50 years of
She said the approach has been to hold on and preserve the past while making it work for the present. You’ll find many businesses operating out of older structures that other cities might have gutted a long time ago.
“If we can’t turn it back into a residence, we turn it into a commercial building, such as a lawyer’s office or something. We don’t just throw them out (old buildings) because the town needs more offices or something else.”
Traveling throughout other parts of Bardstown, you see that same reverence and respect for history just about everywhere you turn. There’s Federal Hill, a mansion built in 1812 that sits in My Old Kentucky Home State Park and inspired the Stephen Foster song with the same name.
Another popular spot is the 1828 Wickland Mansion. Beautifully decorated with period furniture, the mansion served as the home to three Kentucky governors and is now said to be home to several ghosts and spirits. Group tours are available through the week, but visitors in town on a Friday evening can take part in “A Visit With the Spirits of Wickland.” A medium guides the tour and will introduce you to some of those who lived in the home a long time ago. Those ghostly inhabitants range in age and background, as well as their reasons for still hanging around. An interesting demonstration with divining rods might surprise even the most ardent disbelievers.
History buffs will recall that Kentucky played a critical role in the Civil War, something well-documented in a local Civil War Museum that ranks as having one of the best collections in the country.
“Lincoln said, ‘I have to have Kentucky or the game is over,’” noted Bob Llewellyn, who serves on the Board of Directors that oversees the Civil War Museum, and four other area military museums. “And he made a strong bid in 1862 and ’63 to get a firm hold in Kentucky, which he did. In Kentucky there were two Union soldiers for every Confederate who served as soldiers here.”
Popular museum items include a flag taken from Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan (leader of a daring group known as Morgan’s Raiders) when he was captured in Ohio, and a somewhat controversial portrait depicting Confederate Leader Jefferson Davis as wearing women’s clothing when he was captured. (Llewellyn says Davis was actually captured wearing a raincoat and shawl.) “The Union guys twisted it and said he was dressed as a woman, which he wasn’t,” Llewellyn continued.
A nearby women’s museum chronicles the role of women as nurses, spies and even Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Another museum covers military conflicts from the Revolutionary War through Desert Storm, with many pieces donated by families of those who served.
A look at Bardstown’s rich history wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the strong influence of the bourbon industry. You can do that by visiting the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History or one of the nearby bourbon distilleries. The Barton Distillery has been operating in Bardstown under its current name, or as the Tom Moore Distillery, since the late 1870s. Josh Hollifield is the manager of the visitor center there.
“If you look at all of the distilleries that are close, and you think before Prohibition there was even more, bourbon was a big part of the economy,” said Hollifield.
Heaven Hill and Willett also operate distilleries in Bardstown, while Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are just a short drive away. Right now, Kentucky makes 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. (There are specific guidelines required to carry the straight bourbon whiskey label. For example, bourbon must be made from a grain mixture of at least 51 percent corn and be aged in a new, charred white oak barrel for at least two years.) Due to resurgence in the bourbon industry in recent years, it’s helped provide not only an economic boost to Bardstown, but to the state of Kentucky as a whole. Bourbon is big business.
“There are more barrels of bourbon aging in the state of Kentucky than we have people,” said Hollifield.
Bardstown also hosts an annual Bourbon Festival every September (this year’s festival is scheduled for Sept. 16-21), which attracts some 30,000 people, many of whom return year after year.
People who visit Bardstown tend to do that — come back again and again. There must be something about the charm and hospitality of this small town that knows exactly where it came from, embraces what it is and cherishes sharing it with everyone else.
For More Information
Civil War Museum
502-349-0291 | www.civil-war-museum.org
Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Lil’ Patch of Heaven Campground
My Old Kentucky Home State Park Campground
888-778-5340 | www.parks.ky.gov
Old Talbott Tavern
502-348-3494 | www.talbotts.com
White Acres Campground
502-348-9677 | www.whiteacrescampground.net
|Pam Windsor is a freelance writer and photographer in Louisville, Ky., who enjoys traveling and sharing the stories of the many fascinating people and places she finds along the way.|