A bit of a change of pace here . . . Bardstown is the Bourbon Capital of the World!
Our next stop after Oak Ridge was scheduled to be Louisville, KY. Then we changed it to Lexington and finally settled on Bardstown. Don’t ask what went into the process. But just a few weeks earlier, Rand-McNally’s Best of the Road contest designated Bardstown the Most Beautiful Small Town in America. Your approach to the town keynotes its charm; the traffic roundabout smack dab in the middle of the main intersection features the building at left – the old 1892 Nelson County Courthouse, now the Visitors’ Center. Because of our rather late decision to go there, we didn’t know what else was available besides the bourbon industry. But a quick visit downtown unveiled a whole lot more.
Let’s kick off with the booze stuff. Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling whiskey in the world. Like Kentucky bourbons, it is made from more than 50% corn and under the same conditions and restraints. But it disavows the appellation, choosing to simply call itself Tennessee Whisky. Kentucky, on the other hand, wears the name and title proudly. There are three distilleries very close to town: Heaven Hill, Barton and Jim Beam. Maker’s Mark is about fifteen miles away, and others dot the area. They are easy to spot, because they all have one or more tall, square buildings called either rick houses or rack houses, depending on who’s doing the telling. They are seven stories tall and hold ricks (racks) of 53 gallon charred white oak barrels of aging spirits. Windows at the bottom and top are opened for air circulation; the others just provide light. Houses from both Heaven Hill and Barton are shown in the first two pix below. Note the ugly black stains around the first – it’s mold, and it’s the reason why Barton’s are painted black! Barrels are stored seven to a rack and three racks high on each floor. I don’t remember the volume of whisky stored in each house, but the number astronomical comes to mind. The structure is exceptionally sturdy, to be sure, but there are four plumb-bobs hanging down from the top floor to the bottom, and the first sign of leaning in any direction is corrected with re-distribution. Because of the captured heat, the whisky on the top floor is ultimately the best. The barrels lay undisturbed for a minimum of two years, and some are left for over a decade. They lose an average of 4% a year through evaporation, so you can imagine the concentration of the remainder in a 12 year vintage. The barrels must be in the rack with bung up, so the rickmen develop a formula to determine what position each must start in to end up correctly as it rolls to its final position. Guess they know about π (pi)! All of the barrels are coded, almost down to the minute they were created – Heaven Hill’s are computerized, while a hand-recording system is still used at Barton.
Heaven Hill is a showplace. It’s fronted by a glam Heritage Center, with exhibits, a store and an exquisite tasting room. They charge a small amount for a tour that include a movie and the tasting room. The tour is only to the nearest rick house, and our guide gave us fact after fact as we explored it. She told us about the five Shapira brothers who founded the company in 1934 and have grown it to the largest privately owned distillery in the country. She explained that one of the most critical elements in the success of the spirits industry in this area stems from the purity of the limestone-filtered water that’s available. They bottle not only for their dozens of own brands – every type of hooch you could come up with — as well as providing that service to other beverage companies. She told us that the company shells out between $3 and $5 million dollars for government taxes each week.
The Center includes many exhibits chronicling both the history and the complexity of the industry , including a smell-station where you could get a whiff of bourbons aged and blended differently. Evan Williams is reputed to be the first bourbon distiller, while Elijah Craig, a minister, discovered the technique of using charred barrels. Three factoids: William Heavenhill (one word), a turn of the 19th century distiller, owned the land on which the Heaven Hill Distillery was built. All of the Master Distillers at Heaven Hill have been members of the Beam family; today’s masters, Parker and his son Craig, are descended from Jim Beam’s brother Park. And single barrel output or multiple barrel blends measure 135-160 proof – up to 80% pure alcohol. They are diluted to drinking strength, anywhere from 80 proof to the low 100s. The circular, domed tasting room provided a warm atmosphere for us to sample two different yields, one each bottled under the Elijah Craig and the Evan Williams labels.
The experience at Barton was less showy but much more informative. Our tour guide, Jill Sutherland, started us off in the rack houses, but the tour continued into the bottling plant and through the steps that take place prior to the aging process. There was a seasonal issue, however; the stainless steel fermentation tanks are outdoors, and the current heat spell was not conducive to proper conversion. Thus, the stills inside that we viewed were also shut down for maintenance, and we could see its inside workings. The tour ended, of course, at the tasting bar, where Jill served up the statutory limit of one ounce each of their two leading brands. She was also the person that taught us about backset, the non-alcoholic residue in the bottom of the tank that is added to the next batch — much as in the ongoing creation of sour dough bread.
While we didn’t visit Jim Bean, we did have a third look at the industry. Spaulding Hall, an 1826 building originally housing St Joseph College, now devotes its first floor to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. Getz was one of two men who purchased the Tom Moore Distillery after prohibition, then changed its name to Barton. An avid collector of business artifacts, he opened a small museum at the distillery until his death, at which time his widow turned the collection over to the town of Bardstown. The result is room after room of nostalgia, which covers not only the history of the industry but also of America’s drinking habits — and attempts to alter them!
An adjacent set of rooms displays the history of the building itself. In addition to housing St. Joe’s College and Seminary, it was an orphanage, a hospital for both sides during the Civil War and the home of St. Joseph’s Prep from 1911-68. One of the most remarkable items in the collection is a hat which belonged to Jesse James. The generations of scholarly occupants were also chronicled.
Thus endeth the Bourbon Tour. Our next adventure engaged America’s best loved homespun songwriter, Stephen Foster. Of his hundreds of compositions, My Old Kentucky Home, now the official state song, looms larger than others. The town was plastered with his name, and a musical of his life is performed multiple times each week. In our usual naiveté, we went looking to find his birthplace, his home, his grave and whatever else was the town’s monument to him. Well, we found My Old Kentucky Home, all right, but it was simply a place visited by Stephen, a Pennsylvanian who died impoverished in New York’s Bellevue Hospital at age 37. It was his inspiration for just one of the true airs of Americana that he created in his short lifetime.
The home was built and owned by Judge John Rowan, a scion of Bardstown who was Stephen Foster’s cousin. Essentially Greek Revival in design, it originated in 1795 but was modified and supplemented over the next 20 years. It was surrounded by Rowan’s 245 acre gentleman’s plantation, and it remained in the family for three generations until it was sold to the Old Kentucky Home Commission in 1920 for $65,000. The Commission gave it to the state in 1922, and today it is s state park, including campground, golf course and other community benefits. The house is shown only by tour by costumed docents, and no pictures are allowed inside. The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable about the history; a separate person does each of the two floors. At the rear are three auxiliary structures, including a rare connected smokehouse. A wood building downslope from the front was Rowan’s law office – an opportunity to get away from the confusion of a child-filled household. The Visitors’ Center building is lovely; it is designed to accent the mansion and also provide a space for receptions and other events. It features a documentary on Foster’s life.
Museum Row in town was our third theme. Four museums line the left side of First Street like a strip center: Civil War Museum, War Memorial of Mid-America, Women’s Civil War Museum, and Wildlife Museum. Down in a ravine below the last is Old Bardstown Village, a reproduction – using real historic buildings — of Bardstown as it was in 1790.
The Civil War Museum is the headquarters. We paid a fee that included all four buildings and the Village. We’ve never seen a more comprehensive gallery exhibit of the War. We first witnessed a series of posters that defined each step.
Every other type of exhibit imaginable – except dioramas – was employed, including photos, paintings, weapons, featured battles, naval and artifacts. What you’re seeing is just a tiny part of the whole.
Right next door, in a small building, was the Wildlife Museum. It was a far cry from several major exhibits of kind that we’ve encountered during our journey, and it seemed out of place in this story.
Up top, we made our way through the Women’s Exhibit. It featured many levels, ranging from the wives and mothers who manned to home front to the women who disguised themselves as men to join up. In between were the all-too-busy nursing corps, many of them sisters of one or another convent, to the wives of the presidents, to the ladies who made a difference, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Julia Ward Howe and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The War Memorial offers a collection from each of the American wars, from the Revolution to Desert Storm. It does it both with collections and artwork, focusing on each war and interspersing with features, like the story of Alvin York, and the air battles of WW I. One of its most prized artifacts is a flag that was found, undamaged and un-motheaten, in the false bottom of a trunk, hidden so it didn’t have to be surrendered to Federal victors.
A solemn memorial stands nearby. In 1836, 35 Kentuckians from the First Volunteer Regiment, led by Captain Burr Duval of Bardstown, headed south to Texas to help win the war against Santa Ana. They were captured and were among the hundreds summarily executed by the Mexican butcher in what is known as the Goliad Massacre.
Finally, the Village. It includes ten buildings and a mill with a long wooden sluice – already. It is a work in progress. Buildings include cabins, a tavern, broom and candle shop, log cabin church and school, and the Neal Spaulding Indian Museum. Most came from within several blocks of their final resting place, and all provided their own historical perspective on their times.
Stay with us, folks; there’s just one more adventure to come.
About thirty miles south of Bardstown lies Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace, in Hardin County just below today’s Hodgenville. Next to an underground passage that gives the site its name, Sinking Spring, fifty six steps lead up to a granite monument – one that would look more in place in Washington, DC – that houses the birthplace. New York businessman A.W. Dennett purchased the 300 acre Sinking Spring Farm in 1894, and it was subsequently purchased in 1905 by Robert Collier, founder of Collier’s Weekly magazine. He and others, including Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan and Samuel Gompers, raised the funds to build the memorial, which was dedicated in 1916. The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Park is now under the auspices of the National Park Service.
From the start, it has been acknowledged that the house is not the original Lincoln family cabin, but rather a symbolic representation — a very old, typical cabin of the area and the times. We duly climbed the steps – one for each year of Abe’s life – and visited the humble dwelling.
Of more dramatic interest, however, was the museum in the Visitors’ Center.
In addition to typical storyboards and artifacts, it featured a dozen authenticated life-size tableaux chronicling key events in the Great Emancipator’s life. They are sponsored by groups from local service clubs to banks to a Coke bottler. Six are shown below.
On the way back to Bardstown, we stopped at the site’s extension, the Knob Creek Boyhood Home. With the title in question in Sunken Spring, Thomas Lincoln moved his family here in 1911, when Abe was two years old. The 230 acre plot was a tenth the size but more fertile, and the boy had growing chores of his own. Abe’s brother Tom was born here but died shortly thereafter. He and his sister attended school, taught by Caleb Hazel, a strong believer in emancipation (as was Abe’s father), who moved membership from their church to a separatist Baptist congregation. In 1815, the family moved again, this time out of Kentucky to the free state of Indiana. Years later, President Lincoln penned to the editor of the Frankfort, KY Commonwealth: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not think so, or feel.” The Lincolns’ actual cabin was destroyed, and the one on exhibit belonged to neighbor Austin Gollaher. Legends claim that Gollaher saved Lincoln from drowning by rescuing him from the Creek with an extended branch!
In 1928, Hattie and Chester Howard purchased the Knob Creek Farm. They built a hand-hewn tavern building adjacent to the Lincoln’s home to preserve the land and tell Lincoln’s boyhood story to the many visitors stopping there. The building is closed, but the N.P.S. is hoping to restore and reopen it as today’s tourist focus for the site.
Wow! What a busy and fruitful week. This is one of the longest and most picture-laden chapters in the entire travelogue. I haven’t told you the end of the story yet, but since it’s continued, I’ll mercifully save it for the next chapter.