By Renée S. Gordon
Virginia Governor Patrick Henry granted 1,000-acres to David Bard in 1780. Bardstown, once called Salem, would become the second oldest city in the state and the first stronghold of Catholicism west of the Appalachians. The city was chartered in 1790 and the Dioceses of Bardstown was founded eighteen years later. www.visitbardstown.com
Catholics began migrating west to establish faith communities and settled in Central Kentucky about 1775. Their numbers and impact on the region resulted in the area becoming known as “the Kentucky Holy Land.” “Leagues” of Maryland Catholics entered the territory in 1785, the majority of these individuals and their slaves were from coastal colonies. The first priest to be ordained in America, Stephen Badin, arrived in 1793.
In 1808 the Pope created the first inland diocese in the US and appointed Benedict Joseph Flaget, the first bishop in the West, as its head and Bardstown became the center of the Catholic Church. Flaget would be instrumental in the founding of several colleges that would train church leaders up to the present time.
One of the leaders who heavily impacted history was Daniel Rudd, born a slave in Bardstown in 1854. He was the 12th child of Catholic parents. In 1884, in Ohio he began publishing The Ohio State Tribune. Two years later he changed the name to The American Catholic Tribune, “The only Catholic Journal owned and published by Colored Men.” In 1889 he organized the first National Black Catholic Congress. Philadelphia’s Overbrook Seminary holds the only extant copies of his newspaper.
Rudd’s story as well as that of other African Americans is told on a self-guided walking tour that visits 18 locations. Sites interpret the contributions of Joseph Cotter, one of the founders of the NAACP, and more than 30 African Americans who enlisted in the US Colored Troops during the Civil War among others.
Bardstown has developed a guided tour of its historic religious sites and the jewel in the crown is the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral. The limestone and brick church, which replaces a 1798 log building, was begun in 1816 and completed in 1819. St. Joseph’s is a massive 138-ft. long, 64-ft. wide and 60-ft. high, topped by a 140-ft. steeple. Interior tours reveal several notable artworks including The Martyrdom of St. Bartolomew. St. Joseph’s is a National Landmark and tours are offered daily. www.stjoechurch.com
More than 200 of Old Bardstown’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and 46 of the sites make up a 4.5 sq.-block historic walking trail. The buildings include churches, homes and businesses and date from 1785 to 1927. The focal point of the tour is the 1892 Old Nelson County Courthouse. It was the second on the site, the first being a Georgian structure built in the 1790s. The courthouse serves as the Nelson County Welcome Center and from there you can obtain information on sites, stagecoach and carriage tours and the renowned Old Bardstown Ghost Hunter Walks led by certified ghost hunters.
The spirits are active in Old Bardstown and you can connect with them at several locations along the route. The 1797 Old Talbott Tavern was constructed as a store but in the early 1800s began operation as a tavern and remains the oldest stagecoach stop in the West. It was known as the Newman House from 1885 to 1912 and thereafter as the Talbott Hotel and it is difficult to find a more impressive guest list, Lincoln, Jesse James, General Patton, Daniel Boone and Washington Irving. Several of the “spirited” guests have elected to stay and there have been sightings of James and a mystery woman. The Talbott is currently a B&B, with rooms named after former guests and a restaurant, pub and gift shop. www.talbotts.com
The Old County Jail, built in 1819, was in use until 1987. It is actually two jails with the “newer” portion constructed in 1874. The jail has 30-inch walls and iron bars and tours are a step back in time. Visitors can opt to spend the night in the Jailer’s Inn, complete with modern amenities, or serve your sentence in a jail cell. The jail’s most famous ghost is Martin Hill, a man who died in his cell prior to being executed for the murder of his wife. Other, unidentified, spirits are regularly heard walking the cellblock. The inn has been designated one of the 10 most haunted places in America by the Travel Channel. www.jailersinn.com
Spalding Hall was erected in 1826 as part of St. Joseph’s College. Today it contains the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History and the Bardstown Historical Museum. The Getz Museum contains a collection of items related to the whiskey industry from the pre-Colonial days to post-prohibition. Gems of the collection include a copy of Lincoln’s liquor license and an 1854 E. G. Booz bottle, a name that is the basis for today’s term “booze.” www.whiskeymuseum.com
The Historical Museum is listed as a stop on the Civil War Trail for its displays on 1860s era artifacts. Among the highlights are Jesse James’ hat and Stephen Foster memorabilia.
Old Bardstown Village and the Civil War Museum share a site on Museum Row. The reproduction 1790s frontier village features 11 historic structures relocated from their original sites. Each building is over 150-years old and most are constructed of poplar. Costumed interpreters offer interactive craft programs and tours on a regular schedule.
The Civil War Museum of the Western Theater is one of the top four of its type in the country. Though only a single floor the museum is comprehensive and informative. Self-guided tours are chronological and begin with the years and events leading up to the war. The artifacts are superb and the exhibits are largely the collection of two men. Unique displays contain an authentic 1864 Union army hospital flag, a painting depicting a Union version of Jefferson Davis’ surrender, a display showcasing John Brown’s weapons and a complete war campsite outfitted with original artifacts. www.civil-war-museum.org
Wickland, the Georgian-style home to three governors, was completed in 1828. The ceilings on the first two levels are 14.5-ft. and the floors in the individual rooms are ash with pine floors in the halls. An architectural diamond is the three-story staircase that features a continuous handrail with 174 cast metal balusters. www.historicwickland.com
Ninety-minute Spirit Tours are offered weekly and the sessions are led by twin mediums Michael and Katie Wilhite. Guests are given an orientation and then visit locations within the house where spirits tend to gather. The most interesting aspect of seeking spirits at Wickland is the fact that many of the spirits are slaves who worked on the plantation. This is an exceptional experience whether or not you are a skeptic. Reservations are strongly recommended and group tours can be arranged. (502) 507-0808
The moniker, “Bourbon Capital of the World” is trademarked and is used exclusively to refer to Bardstown, Kentucky. Ninety percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky and 65 percent of that is made in Bardstown. To showcase Bardstown’s most spirited industry the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival is held for five days each September. Now in its 20th year the festival hosts more than 25 events and draws 50,000 people from around the globe. www.kybourbonfestival.com
Many of the first settlers who migrated over the mountains established residence in the newly created Bourbon County. They quickly discovered that rye, previously used in whiskey making, was more difficult to grow than corn. Whiskey at that time was an important commodity because the profits from its sale were more stable than the post-revolutionary currency.
Legend has it that in Georgetown, Bourbon County, minister Elijah Craig distilled the first whiskey in the state using ground corn. People loved the taste of this new whiskey and because it was shipped downriver from ports in Bourbon County the barrels were stamped with their point of origin. Soon people simply referred to it as bourbon. In 1964 the US Congress declared bourbon a distinctly American product that is “America’s Official Native Spirit.”
Bardstown’s portion of the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” is an immersive experience in the history, tradition and creation of bourbon as well as tasting opportunities along the route. There are a number of distilleries that offer tours and each one is distinctive. Visitors can request a passport to be stamped by each distillery for a prize but you must be 21 or older to participate. The trail has been named one of the 1,000 places to see before you die. www.kybourbontrail.com
Heaven Hill Distillery has an award-winning Bourbon Heritage Center and offers trolley tours of the city. The tour begins with a video that explains the history and the process of distillation. This is a great place to start the trail. www.bourbonheritagecenter.com
Barton’s 1792 Distillery is the only fully operating distillery in the city. This is the best place to view the process. www.1792bourbon.com
The newest addition to the trail, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, is an excellent example of a boutique, family-run, distillery that hand bottles in limited number. The distillery is undergoing restoration and will be open for tours this spring. www.kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com
To become a true bourbon connoisseur you must also take the tour of the Kentucky Cooperage and learn how the barrels are crafted. This is a really unique tour that combines demonstrations, videos and a guided plant tour. You must wear closed-toe shoes. www.independentstavecompany.com
Even great things must come to an end and a great way to end your time in Bardstown is to take a ride on My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. You have a gourmet meal in elegantly restored 1940’s railcars as you take a 90-minute train ride. The train travels 22-miles pass glorious vistas of Bourbon Country. This is another of Bardstown’s singular experiences. www.kydinnertrain.com
You will love Kentucky. Start planning your trip now. www.sampleourspirit.com and www.kentuckytourism.com
I wish you smooth travels!
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