Kentucky’s not about the fast lane (unless you’re there on Derby Day). Its gems, both manmade and engineered by nature, populate the state’s small towns, as well as off-the-beaten-trails traveled by explorers, Cherokees, and vigilantes—and, yes, the little green men from the UFO.
Let’s start in Hopkinsville, population 30,000 if you count the Army base. The small town’s museum traces vivid moments in its history, like the raids of the Night Riders in 1904, when small-time tobacco growers donned masks and mounted horses to ignite the storehouses of the agrimonopolies threatening their livelihoods. A newspaper headline ranted: “In the Red Glare of Burning Buildings, Human Devils Gloat over Their Wanton Power to Terrorize Good Citizens”—journalism as yellow as the crop.
That same breed of citizenry remained officially neutral during the Civil War, when brothers fought brothers. Local son Jefferson Davis worshiped here at Christ Church, while another church nearby served as an Army hospital. Later, in the 1950s, observers claimed an invasion of another sort: little green men from a spaceship. The museum tells all.
A transportation museum across the street, in a former firehouse, displays gleaming engines of the past. It recalls an embarrassing moment in Hopkinsville’s history when, in a single week in 1924, the fire station burned down, the police station was robbed, and the sheriff was held up.
Meanwhile, do your own walk through times past in Young’s Hardware (ladders reaching shelves stacked to the ceiling), where its dusty treasury of antiques on offer ranges from a miner’s helmet and a soldier’s brass trumpet to stained glass windows, a Dodge hubcap, and fishing lures.
Go fishing for the best burger in the county at Ferrell’s, a seven-stool diner since 1929, where the 91-year-old matriarch still makes change from the cash box. Waitresses like Joy, Barb, and Sandy sling the double patties stuffed with good ol’ American cheese and sweet pickles. Why do they outsell the town’s McDonald’s? According to Joy, “A lot of folks like the grease.”
Come evening, it’s on to Charlie’s Steakhouse for more hair of the dog, as it were. Amid pine paneling, lino flooring, and oilcloth-covered tables, it turns out a heckuva hunk of beef, enjoyed that evening by every demographic in the county.
Except the Cherokee. They’re long gone from their native land, and it’s a shameful story, retold at the nearby Trail of Tears Commemorative Park—itself, in 1828, a stop on their forced march west. Masks, eagle feather dancing wands, and such remain to testify.
Mosey on to Marian (population 3,000), where, when we parked in front of the mineral museum, I planned to snooze in the car. But never underestimate the persuasive power of Tina, who runs the place with passion, guiding folks through the collection amassed by miner Ben Clement—“a maniac for gem rocks”—plus the odd fossil, meteorite, and dinosaur bone. “God’s art” is what Tina calls the priceless shimmering, multifaceted showpieces, almost as amazing as the story of his life.
Another lifestyle flourishes around Marian, too: a hundred-family Amish community where, on a self-guided tour (maps available in the Visitors Center), you’ll meet smiling Milo Yoder, with gray beard and black hat, along with his wife, with gray hair covered in a prim bonnet. She sells breads, jellies, fried pie, and homemade ice cream, plus the world’s best sugar doughnuts, each as big as a Frisbee.
Swing by Spring Valley Rustic to say howdy to its furniture-maker extraordinaire, whose wife fabricates boutique soaps and lotions. Greenhouses, goats for sale, and a general store as well.
Fueled by pulled pork from Marion Pit BBQ (pass it up at your peril), it’s off to nearby Princeton, where, in contrast, more-is-more is the mantra at Adsmore House, circa 1850, owned by the same prestigious family until 1984. It displays their elite possessions, from Limoges on the dinner table to trunks full of high-fashion shoes, hats, and what-have-you.
The town’s current gentry—a pair of married doctors—have launched Black Oak Winery on five acres, where they produce a fruity Vidal Blanc, an off-dry red Chamboucin, and more (including apple, pear, and berry wines), which weekend visitors are welcome to taste gratis. Why winemaking, Doc? “It’s a nice combination of science, art, culture, and agriculture,” he wearily responds.
Paducah (population 27,000) is an artistic showplace of another sort. At the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, historically it has been a potent river town, as murals of its history on the floodwalls bring to life. Riverfront Discovery Center documents it via steamboat models, roustabouts’ songs, and topographical map of the disastrous flood of 1937, upon which you watch rivers burst their banks as rain sweeps from the ceiling. In an adjoining room, grab the steering wheel, and choose your challenge, as you “navigate” your rolling ship through day or night, calm or storm. (I crashed us on the shoreline—sorry.)
Step on over to the National Quilt Museum, displaying magnificent contemporary quilts as artworks—winners of intense international competitions. Guys, digging their heels, get dragged in here, then refuse to be dragged out at closing time.
Paducah boasts a vibrant Artist Relocation Program, inviting artists of all stripes to move here, buy an historic house for peanuts, and set up shop. The 26-block district, listed on the National Register, boasts close to 30 gallery-workshops, where you can watch the artisans at work.
Or, join in. Several of these creative people offer Working Artist classes, including Charlotte, a papermaker, from whom we learned to make—and take away—our own beautifully mottled book-lining papers. We practiced printmaking at another studio.
At Aphrodite, we ogled jewelry fashioned from precious stones and patina’d metals, and at Terra Cottage, clay work in the making.
If all those blue-road tracks still are to beaten for your taste, head for the wild, green forests called Land Between the Lakes—two manmade, rambling bodies of water created by damming parallel rivers. Here, several state parks boast classy resort compounds. Reserve a room, then take a swim, play tennis, hike the trails, ride a horse, rent a canoe, or drive the three-mile Elk and Bison Prairie to try your luck at spotting critters. Or relax, as we did, dining on catfish, hush puppies, and fried green tomatoes as a thunderstorm swept in, providing a sound-and-light floorshow unparalleled in Vegas.