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Kentucky Main Streets

Kentucky’s small towns have been home to some big characters.

From groundbreaking naturalists to innovative distillers, horse farm owners and even a famous chicken-frying colonel, groups can get to know some of the most memorable people in Kentucky history at small towns throughout the state. The next time you’re in the Bluegrass State, consider incorporating Henderson, Shelbyville, Paducah, Danville and Georgetown into the mix.

Henderson 

They say birds of a feather flock together. James Audubon, the famous ornithologist, lived in Henderson longer than anywhere else — and it’s here that he started his famous Birds of America collection. 

“We house the largest collection anywhere in the world and we’re pretty proud of that,” said Abby Dixon, executive director of Henderson County Tourism. “Visitors can’t come without spending time at the Audubon Museum. It’s incredible even if you’re not particularly into birds.” 

Other options are readily available as well. Henderson’s downtown on the Ohio River benefits from a topographic advantage. 

“We say ‘We’re on the Ohio River but never in it,’” Dixon said. “Henderson is high enough to have never been flooded by the river, so we have untouched beautiful historic architecture.” 

After letting your group’s curiosity take flight, sample your way through some of the town’s local barbecue joints. 

“Each place has its own special flavors,” Dixon said. “We have trendy downtown barbecue joints and hole-in-the-wall dive bar atmospheres too.”

During the trip planning phase, check with the tourism office to learn about any upcoming celebrations. 

“Our festival scene in the summer is top-notch,” Dixon said. “The W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue festival is the largest. Think Nashville-style listening rooms like the Bluebird Cafe without the hustle and bustle.” 

hendersonky.org

Shelbyville 

With so many horse farms, Shelbyville’s claim to fame is as the Saddlebred Capital of the World. 

“Motorcoaches love to do the farm tours, as well, just to experience horses up close and personal,” said Janette Marson, president of ShelbyKY Tourism. 

Today, Shelbyville is one of the only places left in the state whose small businesses offer guided trail rides. “When you get to Kentucky you want to do two quintessential things: bourbon [tours] and saddle riding,” Marson said. 

Speaking of bourbon, with Bulleit and Jeptha Creed distilleries, Shelbyville is on the state’s Bourbon Trail. “We have two more distilleries in the works and hopefully even more than that,” Marson said.

After a tour and possibly a tasting, head to downtown Shelbyville. There, plan to let your group explore the Mainstreet boutiques, shops, dining and coffee shops. 

To dine all under one roof, look up the Claudia Sanders Dinnerhouse. 

“Near the end of his life, Colonel Sanders wanted to create a restaurant for his wife,” Marson explained. The restaurant features Kentucky fried chicken and an array of Southern cuisine. “And if you call in advance they will roll out the red carpet,” Marson added.

visitshelbyky.com

Paducah 

Some towns anchor themselves on the map with showy landmarks. Others, like Paducah, stitch together their reputation one patch at a time. 

One of only nine UNESCO Creative Cities in the United States, the creative hub in western Kentucky draws visitors from far and wide for its cultural contributions, including the National Quilt Museum. Influential Paducah residents and founders of the American Quilters Society envisioned a museum that would celebrate quilting and the fiber arts. Today, their vision welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually. 

“Paducah is unique because of its big city feel and small-town culture. Here we like to say you can go to the symphony on Friday night and tend chickens on Saturday,” said Liz Hammonds, director of marketing for the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re known for our signature cultural and artistic experiences. See the quilts, then a movie at Maiden Alley Theater, the region’s only nonprofit movie and art house.” 

Other popular attractions include the River Discovery Center, Paducah Railroad Museum and the Hotel Metropolitan, a hotel where African American legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday once stayed. 

paducah.travel

Danville

“Our history is what sets us apart in Danville and is one of the things that draws people here, especially to our downtown area,” said Kendall Clinton, CEO of Visit Danville. In 1792, delegates drafted and signed the state’s constitution at what is now Constitution Square Park. Groups can visit these hallowed grounds in Danville throughout the year. 

Just across the street, groups enjoy touring the famous and slightly macabre McDowell House. 

“The McDowell House is another legendary location, where Dr. Ephraim McDowell removed an ovarian tumor from a Ms. Jane Todd Crawford in 1809 without any sort of anesthesia,” Clinton said.

And it wouldn’t be a Kentucky town without paying homage to the state’s favorite beverage. 

“Whether you are a bourbon drinker or not, a tour and optional tasting at the Wilderness Trail Distillery is another popular stop for visitors to Danville,” Clinton said. 

Contemplate history just 10 miles to the town’s west. 

“Many people stop in to check out the Perryville Battlefield, where the most important and one of the most deadly Civil War battles was fought in Kentucky,” Clinton said. At the Perryville Battlefield, find miles of trails, a Civil War cemetery, and wildlife and butterflies. 

If your group visits in June, incorporate the Great American Brass Band Festival into your plans. It takes place on Centre College’s campus. 

danvillekentucky.com

Georgetown 

“The little downtown is what sold me on Georgetown,” said Lori Saunders, executive director of Georgetown Tourism. “During the spring and summer, we have these hanging baskets with flowers that almost touch the bourbon barrels that are underneath them. And the American flag is always flying, with beautiful banners during each season. It’s everything I expect a patriotic town to be.” 

Georgetown is a magnet for history buffs and bourbon aficionados. 

“We were founded in 1784 by none other than Reverend Elijah Craig, an enterprising Baptist minister renowned for his innovations in distilling bourbon,” Saunders said.

Bourbon isn’t the only asset in Georgetown. Whether it’s horses, horsepower or small-town charm, Georgetown has unique Bluegrass experiences around every corner. Hoof it to the expansive Kentucky Horse Park or the Old Friends Retirement Farm. 

“Nothing’s better than feeding carrots to a racing star of yesterday, getting to pet them and taking a selfie with them,” Saunders said. “It’s the perfect start to a Kentucky day. And you always feel better when you’re around horses.”

After a horsey start to your day, stroll the lively display of local shops, boutiques, restaurants and Kentucky artistry in Georgetown’s historic downtown. 

“Our downtown is a not-miss,” Saunders said. “It’s a huge attraction in and of itself.”  

Your group may also find themselves drawn to experience Georgetown’s Toyota Plant, the largest Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant in the world. 

“Groups love it, especially if they have a Toyota, since they get to see where it was made from beginning to end,” Saunders said. “Visitors ride on a tram; a guide tells them about the plant as they go through, and it’s an amazing tour. Everyone who goes through, it loves it.”

georgetownky.com

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