By Marty Rosen
On a sunny autumn day – when the Kentucky air is as crisp as a ripe apple and children are scampering around the grounds of Old Fort Harrod State Park – it’s hard to fathom that Harrodsburg (then called Harrodstown) was once the only, fragile English-speaking outpost to be found in the wilderness west of the Allegheny Mountains. Today it’s a thriving town less than an hour from Lexington–the Horse Capital of the World.
Once upon a time, this was dangerous ground. When Captain James Harrod and his crew of pioneers arrived in 1774, a farmer setting out to work his crop of corn or turnips needed to have two tools close at hand: a hoe and a rifle.
Life is much different here today, but for those first settlers and for the Native Americans who challenged their arrival, Harrodsburg and Mercer County was a place worth fighting for. Eventually, the settlers would win their peace, and those early battles would give way to prosperous, thriving communities and lush green farms. And the beauty and spirit of the land would eventually lure one of America’s great Utopian communities.
Where Kentucky Was Born
To see how far Harrodsburg has come, visitors will do well to begin at the beginning – and Old Fort Harrod is literally the beginning of Kentucky. Here, the Commonwealth’s first town was founded and its first crop of wheat was harvested. And the beams and blockhouses of the fort – a replica of the original stockade – are not just a vivid reminder of the pioneer experience, but also a lesson in military architecture.
These were the first fortifications built in this part of the country, and they became the template for later defensive fortifications all across the frontier. Within these walls today, history is brought to life through reenactments of pioneer crafts and by exhibits that highlight Native American life and Civil War history – and notably by the cabin where Abraham Lincoln’s parents were married in 1806.
Despite its rough beginnings, modern day Harrodsburg is about as calm and cozy a town as you’ll find anywhere. When you stop in to pick up some maps and brochures at the Diamond Point Welcome Center, home of the Harrodsburg/Mercer County Tourist Commission, friendly staff treat you like a family member who’s been out of town for a while and needs a few reminders about the places you need to visit.
And there are plenty of places to visit, both in the town and out in the countryside. Mercer County offers some of the most interesting things to do in Central Kentucky.
A Variety of Area Attractions
If Old Fort Harrod is a reminder of Kentucky’s military past, the graceful architecture that lines Harrodsburg’s streets is a tribute to the prosperity and craftsmanship that shaped Kentucky’s Bluegrass region during the 19th and 20th centuries. Harrodsburg boasts a dense concentration of residential, commercial, civic and church architecture, much of which is accessible via short walks near the town square, along South Main Street and Beaumont Avenue.
In fact, walking – preferably while you read a copy of the carefully researched, meticulously specific “Harrodsburg & Mercer County Walking & Driving Tour” brochure – is the best way to take in the beautifully preserved details of homes that date back as far as the 1780s and include a rich variety of styles: Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Federal, Italianate, Victorian and Georgian.
To best experience Harrodsburg’s architecture and hospitality, pay a visit to the Beaumont Inn, a stately hotel/B&B. If you have the yen to stay in a guest room that’s more than 150 years old, the Beaumont can accommodate you. Once serving as a women’s college, the main building dates back to 1845 but is now the oldest family-owned Inn in Kentucky.
Even if you can’t spend the night, this charming place is worth a visit. As the former home of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John M. Harlan, the grounds are home to beautiful gardens and public areas have the feel of a lived-in museum, with outstanding furnishings, art and decorations. There’s a well-stocked gift shop, and the dining and bar service are splendid.
The restaurant’s specialty is “yellow- legged” fried chicken – locally-raised, corn-fed chicken fried in lard. But the corn pudding, country ham, desserts, bourbon list and pre-Prohibition cocktails also deserve attention.
Speaking of food, Harrodsburg has plenty to offer. If you prefer casual dining or crave some real homemade fudge, Dedman’s Drugstore in the heart of Harrodsburg’s picturesque downtown has the feel and menu of an old-fashioned soda fountain, complete with sandwiches and malts. It’s also home of the Kentucky Fudge Company, so there’s plenty of fresh fudge on hand.
The Old Owl Tavern at Beaumont Inn has become one of the area’s favorite "bar and grill" restaurants, serving fine wines, spirits and draft beer. Better still, the inn offers more than 75 different bourbons to savor, and you can even schedule an exclusive, personalized tasting with the innkeeper, who will take you through the taste profiles, history and nuances of up to six bourbons crafted right here in the Bluegrass.
If you’re looking for a bit of evening entertainment, the Ragged Edge Community Theatre puts on an ambitious schedule of plays and musicals throughout the year. (This season’s offerings include “Babe, the Sheep Pig,” “Bus Stop,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and more.) On Friday nights, The Barn in nearby Burgin offers live country music–easily one of the most fun things to do in Central Kentucky on a Friday night. And those looking for a little outdoor activity can ride horseback at Big Red Stables, tee up at Bright Leaf Golf Resort (which offers 36 holes, including a 9-hole par three course and a full 18-hole championship route) or take advantage of the many marinas and fishing opportunities in the area.
Mercer County Countryside
Leave the city of Harrodsburg for a drive through the Mercer County countryside and you’re deep in the heart of Kentucky’s historic Bluegrass region, where horses canter over rolling hills and the quiet roads are lined with stone fences. Head northeast on U.S. 68 and you’ll make your way to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
For just over a century, from 1805-1910, Pleasant Hill was home to a Shaker religious community that became famous for the quality of its goods (livestock, brooms, fabrics, produce), for its record of technological innovation (complex plumbing systems that were the first of their kind in the state) and for its communal lifestyle.
These days Shaker Village offers lodging for individuals and groups. Livestock roam the grounds (which are bordered by 25 miles of stone fences that surround 3,000 acres and 34 19th century buildings), and the simple elegance of the historical architecture and furnishings can be experienced by anyone with time to spend a night, walk the grounds, or take in a meal – complete with a slice of tart Shaker lemon pie – at the Trustees’ Office Dining Room or in front of a warm wood fire in the Winter Kitchen.
And when fall colors are rising to a jubilant pitch in central Kentucky, the high point of a visit to Mercer County might just be a view of High Bridge. Shaker Village’s 115-passenger riverboat, the Dixie Bell, makes two cruises a day beneath the towering limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River Palisades. That takes it directly beneath High Bridge, the historic railroad bridge that looms more than 300 feet above the river. It was once the highest bridge in North America, the highest railroad bridge in the world, and still connects some of Kentucky’s most dramatic landscape.
With so much to see and do, now is a perfect time to start planning your getaway to Harrodsburg and Mercer County, Kentucky. For more information, call 800-355-9192 or visit www.harrodsburgky.com.
If You Go
- Harrodsburg/Mercer County Tourist Commission at Diamond Point Welcome Center, 859-734-2364, 800-355-9192, www.harrodsburgky.com
- Old Fort Harrod State Park, 859-734-3314, http://www.parks.ky.gov/parks/recreationparks/fort-harrod/default.aspx
- Harrodsburg Downtown Historic District / Harrodsburg & Mercer County Driving & Walking Tour, 859-734-2364, 800-355-9192, www.harrodsburgky.com
- Beaumont Inn, 859-734-3381, 800-352-3992, www.beaumontinn.com
- Dedman Drugstore/Kentucky Fudge Company, 859-733-0088, www.kentuckyfudgecompany.com
- The Old Owl Tavern, 859-734-3381, 800-352-3992, www.beaumontinn.com
- Ragged Edge Community Theatre, 859-734-2389, www.raggededgetheater.com
- The Barn, 859-748-9689 www.theburginbarn.com
- Big Red Stables, 859-734-3118, www.bigredstablesky.com
- Bright Leaf Golf Resort, 859-734-5481, 800-469-6038, www.brightleafgolfresort.com
- Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 859-734-5411, 800-734-5611, www.shakervillageky.org
- Dixie Belle Riverboat at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 859-734-5411, 800-734-5611, www.shakervillageky.org