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Kentucky, Past Perfect

A trip across Kentucky defies the belief that history is old and dull. Whether you are being serenaded by a singing tour guide at My Old Kentucky Home or learning to grind corn and throw a spear at the site of a prehistoric Indian village, you’ll find that history is alive and well.

My Old Kentucky Home

The song that made Federal Hill famous is now being sung and played throughout the antebellum mansion in Bardstown.

Singing tour guides, actors in period costume, break into “My Old Kentucky Home” as they lead visitors through the home and tell the story of the prominent family that lived there and their guest, Stephen Foster, who wrote the song. Pianos, too, play the heart-tugging melody, triggered by the motion of visitors walking by them.

More than a few times, hearing the song “has sent people into an emotional state,” said Matthew Bailey, manager of My Old Kentucky Home State Park. “It is a way to bring the music theme into the mansion.”

It’s part of an effort to enliven tours at one of the state’s most enduring tourist attractions. Actors were hired “to give the tour charisma and nice polish,” said Bailey. A number of them are locals who have parts in the park’s summer musical, “The Stephen Foster Story.”

A new scripted tour tells visitors what they said they wanted to know more about, from inside stories about the Rankin family to stories of how Foster’s song influenced feelings about slavery. Much is still being discovered about the composer and the impact of his music, including “My Old Kentucky Home,” which became Kentucky’s state song. “We are finding new things every day,” said Bailey.

The park’s new culinary add-on tours give visitors a taste of the Southern hospitality that Foster’s song describes. After a walk through a garden of fresh mint, groups can see a mint julep being made the old-fashioned way as ice is crushed in a canvas bag and packed into a silver cup, and house bourbon, spring water and a sprig of mint is added. Everyone gets a julep and a souvenir cup to take home.


Old State Capitol

Weather permitting, tours of Kentucky’s Old Capitol begin outside. Guides point out the lack of front windows, a nod to the temples that inspired the 1830 capitol’s Greek Revival architecture, and the capitol’s setting, a leafy city park.

“We set the scene. The capitol was in the public square; it was the center of town, the hub of everything happening in Frankfort,” said Leslie McWhorter, student programs administrator for the Kentucky Historical Society.

Although the Old Capitol is not large, the role it played in Kentucky’s history is sizable. Tour guides describe its 80 years as the seat of government in an unscripted style that allows the focus to be on visitors’ interests. “We want the tours to be more like a story and less like a history lesson,” said McWhorter.

Architecture is an obvious topic, as the capitol is the impressive first effort of young architect Gideon Shryock, 25 years old when he won the commission in a contest; he would later design other notable buildings in Kentucky.

Politics and the Civil War are also popular themes. Visitors can stand in the upstairs chambers and imagine the heated debates over slavery, war and other fiery issues of the 1800s that took place there, among them the decision that Kentucky remain neutral in the Civil War. Leaders later changed their minds, and Kentucky sided with the Union. Considering that alliance, it is somewhat miraculous that the building emerged from the war unscathed despite being occupied by Confederates, the only occupied Southern capitol to be so lucky.

“It is 186 years old and still as beautiful as when it was first built,” said McWhorter. “Confederate solders walked up those stairs; Henry Clay walked up those stairs. All these major players, not only in Kentucky history but in U.S. history, were in that building.”