Blast in the Past

A Bardstown history lesson in bourbon, ghosts, and the Civil War

My wife, Beth, and I graduated from the University of Louisville a couple years ago. She: an Arizona transplant; me: a born-and-bred—and proud!—hometown boy. I like to think that I won her over with my cracking wit and local Louisville knowledge; our dates always showcased the city’s best. Recently, it had become clear that my Arizona gal had transformed into a total native—or so she thought. Baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Beth and I picked a sunny afternoon and hit the road. Destination: Bardstown. It’s Kentucky’s second-oldest city—settled in 1780—a cozy, quaint town with dozens of well-preserved homes, churches, and businesses that pay homage to its storied past. It’s the perfect setting for a Kentucky history lesson.

A sip of Old Kentucky

We began our visit at Hurst Drug Store and Soda Fountain, circa 1940, where a colorful handmade sign urged us to “Try the fresh-squeezed lemonade”—we were happy to oblige. As I glanced through the picture window to the roundabout outside, another sign declared, “Bardstown—Voted the Most Beautiful Small Town in America,” an honor Rand McNally and USA Today gave the town in 2012. The lemonade was a refreshing blend of tart and sweet. Of course, Bardstown is famous worldwide for a distinctly different beverage known for its own flavors: Kentucky bourbon.

Surrounded by big-name bourbon distilleries like Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, and Jim Beam, Bardstown bills itself as “the bourbon capital of the world.” In a state with only 4.4 million people, there are an estimated 5.3 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky warehouses. We hoped to help out a bit with that overwhelming surplus.

Beth and I headed to Barton 1792, the only distillery in Bardstown proper, to see some of those barrels up-close. Founded in 1889, Barton 1792 takes its name from the year Kentucky broke free from Virginia and became the 15th state to join the Union—plus, the tour’s free.

We walked the beautiful grounds, led by a tour guide who told us to look out for a clever-faced fox that makes the occasional appearance. We expected to see barrels but were delighted by how they smelled: deep and rich and so enticing that your eyes couldn’t help but close just to focus on the aroma.

I loved seeing Beth’s brow furrow with curiosity on the tour. She wasn’t too shy to ask our tour guide questions about the bourbon-distilling process and more, such as the distinction between bourbon and whiskey. Even better was how she used that knowledge as we sampled each whiskey, such as the 1792 Small Batch and the Very Old Barton. “Do you taste that vanilla flavor?” she asked.

Stepping into the past

Blast in the Past

A few miles away, we visited the estate once known as Federal Hill. It was the former stomping grounds of “My Old Kentucky Home” composer Stephen Collins Foster. Foster grew up in Pittsburgh, but enjoyed visiting his relatives—the Rowan family, who owned this property—on the outskirts of Bardstown. It’s now known as My Old Kentucky Home State Park, named for the song Foster wrote in the 1850s.

At the Federal Hill Mansion, we were greeted by two guides in period costumes, the man even sported a handlebar mustache. The woman wore a tailored blue hoop skirt that covered her feet, making it look as if she were gliding just above the carpet.

The guides were engaging, sharing information and anecdotes as they led us from room to room, each one exquisitely preserved and recreated. Beth and I listened to tales of duels and intrigue told among fascinating furnishings like the elegant four-poster beds and wooden floors that were more than 200 years old.

Again, Beth took the tours just a bit further, asking the tour guides about details that otherwise might not have been revealed. I think the entire tour group benefitted from her ever-intrigued mind.

We walked a few of the park’s 235 green, rolling acres. There was a wedding taking place just as dusk moved in. Bridesmaids in red dresses posed for pictures, while the group looked on. Our guides mentioned Foster grew up in a troubled home and came to Federal Hill for the first time when he was a pre-teen. This new insight gave “My Old Kentucky Home,” a deeper meaning. Federal Hill was a place you could learn to long for, a place that offered solace.

On the other side of town, another chapter of the area’s history is on display at the Bardstown Civil War Museum. At 8,000 square feet, it’s one of the largest Civil War museums in the country and a history buff’s dream, with everything from soldiers’ hats, glasses, and uniforms to swords, guns and a cannon. Also of note, the Women’s Museum of the Civil War, which highlights the role women played as nurses, spies, writers, and combatants in The War Between the States.

We stopped for dinner at the Old Talbott Tavern, a restaurant and B&B that’s been welcoming travelers since 1779. Its list of guests includes Andrew Jackson, George Rodgers Clark, and 13-year-old Abraham Lincoln and his family.

We could only hope the Lincolns enjoyed their food here as much as we did. Kentucky classics like a Hot Brown, Southern fried chicken, and cornmeal-fried catfish were on the menu. I recalled one of Beth’s and my first dates at a Louisville diner, the first time she had ever seen or heard of a Hot Brown. “Do you remember when I told you about these sandwiches?” I asked Beth. “Yes. I decided to order it immediately—I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Now, I crave them!”

Ghosts among us

I might have had the insider knowledge and the Kentucky pride, but Beth had the inquisitiveness and the game face. We made a good pair, Beth and I. No matter what I had to show, Beth always had a way of finding out more to the story.

My moment of awe for my wife was interrupted only by a group shuffling nearby. Of course—the Talbott is one of the main stops on the Bardstown Ghost Trek, which explores the town’s haunted history. Legend has it that the outlaw Jesse James shot holes in the Talbott’s walls in the 1800s, and he purportedly haunts its halls to this day. We heard the Ghost Trek leader say that guests have gotten pictures of James standing near the B&B’s fireplace, and there are recordings of his voice saying, “Please don’t go.”

Just then, Beth said: “Let’s see what they have to say!” How appropriate to end our Bardstown getaway just how it began: with spirits. I was excited to see where she led me next.

Next, see how Bardstown distilleries make for a classy birthday celebration.