My brother and his wife had probably lived in Kentucky for 10 years before I decided to make what friends warned could be a 10-hour, white-knuckle drive from the Finger Lakes, negotiating big-city traffic outside Cleveland and Cincinnati. (Yikes, nobody had mentioned Columbus!)
It was early November, and while I lamented missing the lushest of the greenery that comes to mind when I think of The Bluegrass State, the timing suited our work schedules. There’s also a lot to be said for avoiding summer heat, crowds and the worst of the traffic, which turned out to be manageable, thanks to very detailed GPS assistance.
Leo and his wife, Robin, live in Frankfort, the Commonwealth’s capital, where he owns a political consulting firm and she teaches at a community college. With the election just behind him, Leo was able to devote a few days to providing an insider’s tour of a city that’s much smaller (pop. 28,000) and homier than our own state capital.
I’m a sucker for opulent architecture and found the Capitol building in south Frankfort breathtaking in its use of white Georgia marble, gray Tennessee marble and dark green Italian marble. Architect Frank Mills Andrews chose a Beaux-Arts style and incorporated French interior designs, including copying staircases from a Paris opera house. (A touch of irony: Pronounced Ver-sigh in France, the nearby Kentucky community of Versailles opts to say Ver-sales.)
Less than two miles from there, we visited Frankfort Cemetery, sitting atop a bluff overlooking the Kentucky River. While it’s interesting that 17 of the Commonwealth’s governors, U.S. Vice President Richard Johnson, and prolific impressionist painter Paul Sawyier are buried here, it’s the controversy over frontiersman Daniel Boone’s grave that keeps people talking. In 1820, Boone was buried near his wife in Marthasville, Mo. After the Frankfort Cemetery opened in 1845, his Kentucky relatives say they dug him up and returned him to Kentucky. But, Missourians claim the wrong body was exhumed. No one knows for sure.
Regardless, the tall Boone monument with four carvings of him and his wife is the highlight of a visit to the cemetery, which is one of 20 stops on the Frankfort Public Art tour. We went to a few others, including the 100-ton Kentucky Floral Clock near the Capitol (a prime spot for prom photos), and the Old Capitol downtown, where William Goebel suffered a fatal gunshot wound in 1900, the day before he was sworn in as governor from his deathbed.
High on my list of places to see was Mammoth Cave National Park, two hours southwest of Frankfort. We realized too late that reservations would have helped; the only cave tour with openings was a fairly basic 90-minute walk along dim, damp walkways.
After buying the tickets, we had a couple of hours to kill before the 1 p.m. tour, so we headed back to touristy spots we’d passed along the way, Dinosaur World and Magaline’s Antique Mall, which had a little bit of everything, including ostrich eggs for $100 each. Combine Dinosaur World with gift shops and Kentucky Action Park (horses, mini-golf, go-karts), and I could imagine families finding plenty to do.
The cave tour, one of 19 excursions offered, was a good fit for us. Encased artifacts (pottery, gourd bowls and woven cloth) along the way were interesting; no crawling was involved; and I managed to not obsess about being underground, even after the guide mentioned that a ceiling section had fallen not long before. The most physically taxing part of the tour was the 200 steps up and out of the cave. But most people would find it manageable. A few of the tours accommodate wheelchairs.
Home of Lincoln
If you didn’t know it ahead of time, it would be impossible to visit this area without realizing you were in the land of Abraham Lincoln. From the statue at the Capitol building (rub his shoe for good luck) to the Frankfort Barracks on Shelby Street to the various historic buildings dedicated to our 16th president, his era is still part of the culture here. We visited the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in Hodgenville and Lincoln Homestead State Park in Springfield, where we saw the early home of his mother, Nancy Hanks, and a marker engraved with “All I am and ever hope to be I owe to my angel mother.” He was only 9 when she died at age 34.
Shopping and eating
As with most travel, the stops along the way were as enjoyable as the main attractions.
One place I’ll never forget is Laha’s (said Lay-Hay’s) hamburger joint at 21 Lincoln Square in Hodgenville. When we walked in around noon, the six or eight counter stools were full. There was a take-out row of people behind them, and a kitchen crew hustling in front of them. We had to wait outside. But it was a beautiful fall day to relax on the nearby park bench. Besides, I had to find out what had kept this place in business since 1934. It’s clearly what I’ve read in dozens of reviews since: The good food, the low prices ($1.60 for a burger) and the fast, friendly staff. One cook who looked to be around 75 paid us no mind until after we’d been served; then she casually but deliberately wandered our way to ask how things were. I got the sense she took pride in what she’d just rustled up for us. That’s a good sign in any restaurant.
Another spot Leo thought I’d enjoy was Nettie Jarvis Antiques in Bloomfield. It may sound like all we did was drive, but these places aren’t too far apart. Plus, we’d decided to forgo distillery tours, which helped keep us moving. (Of note: Buffalo Trace Distillery, home of the rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, is right in Frankfort, and Maker’s Mark is a little over an hour away in Loretto. Next time, for sure.)
Part of the reason we stopped at Nettie Jarvis’s was that it’s owned by Linda Bruckheimer, a novelist and photographer married to Jerry Bruckheimer, the guy responsible for the “CSI” TV franchise, “Armageddon,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and more. Upon entering, we were offered complimentary coffee and pastries from a domed glass pedestal plate. Linda Bruckheimer is also big into historic preservation, and restored several buildings in Bloomfield. Her photographs are among the new items for sale at the shop, and I was glad to find one of tobacco drying in a barn because I’d missed taking that shot myself earlier in the day.
My sister-in-law, Robin, had been scheduled to work through most of my visit, but on the last day she accompanied us to a couple of her favorite places, starting with Poor Richard’s Books across from the Old Capitol building. It’s home to thousands of books, new and old, plus games and various gifts. The highlight for anyone hoping to make a great find is the shotgun-style attic, packed with tall, dark bookcases and a row of chairs sitting barbershop-style on the long wall. It’s the perfect place to poke through the inventory or pull a title off a shelf and start reading.
The great thing about a trip to Kentucky is there’s always reason to go back, whether you like the outdoors, shopping, city life or learning about the history of the South. Frankfort is 45 minutes from Lexington and an hour from Louisville, so there’s plenty to see and do. You can take just a few days like I did...or expand it to explore the entire region.
Story topics: Out & About