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/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.
The beauty and spirit of the land would eventually lure one of America’s great Utopian communities – and an amazing place to visit today. Need proof? Best Choice Review named Harrodsburg one of the “50 Best Small-Town Downtowns in America” in 2015, Smithsonian Magazine named it one of the “20 Best Small Towns to Visit” in 2014 and BBC NEWS Magazine recently declared it one its “Five Hidden US Travel Destinations.”
Where Kentucky Was Born
To see how far Harrodsburg has come, 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.
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.
Area Attractions Aplenty
If Old Fort Harrod is a reminder of Kentucky’s 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 variety of architectural styles highlighted on a walking/driving tour.
For a tour of a different kind, let Central Kentucky Tours do the driving. They’ll pick you up at your Harrodsburg hotel and whisk you away for fascinating, tasty tours of the area’s bourbon distilleries.
The Beautiful Beaumont
To best experience Harrodsburg’s architecture and hospitality, pay a visit to the Beaumont Inn, a stately hotel/B&B that celebrates its 100th year of innkeeping in 2019. 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 – one of only five 2015 recipients of James Beard America’s Classics Award – 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, two-year-cured country ham, desserts, bourbon list (100 strong!) and pre-Prohibition cocktails also deserve attention. You can even experience a personalized bourbon tasting with the innkeeper or pop in the casual Old Owl Tavern, one of Bourbon Review’s “80 Best Bourbon Bars in America.” No worries for you non-bourbon drinkers (gasp!) they serve up fine wines, spirits and craft beer as well.
Elsewhere around town, two other historic properties welcome guests for overnight stays in their B&Bs: Canaan Land Farm B&B on an 18th century farm and Coleman House B&B downtown.
When it comes to food and entertainment, Harrodsburg has plenty to offer as well. 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.
When you're ready to wet your whistle, Lemons Mill Brewery (the area's first tavern or taproom since before the 1920s) is the newest stop on Kentucky's Brewgrass Trail. Olde Towne Distillery (the first in the U.S. to produce hemp moonshine) also features Elkhorn Bourbon, giving a nod to early Appalachian distilling culture, and a Battlefield Collection of spirits that recall the region's Civil War struggles.
The area’s gorgeous farms provide unique experiences of their own. Black Watch Alpaca Farm offers tours and a gift shop; Devine’s Farm & Corn Maze features a new two-acre "Cornstalk Wars" paintball area, zip-line racers, a farmers’ market and “Field of Horror” Halloween weekend; and a new pavilion graces the Mercer County Farmers Market at the fairgrounds.
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, while The Burgin Barn offers live country music every Friday night.
Quality outdoor summer theater is presented Thursday through Saturday evenings in June ("Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is on tap for 2018) and “James Harrod: The Battle for Kentucky” plays at James Harrod Amphitheatre on the grounds of Old Fort Harrod State Park in July.
And those looking for a little more active outdoor pursuits can ride horseback at Big Red Stables or 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, along with a new “Birdies to Bourbon” package for guests. You can also take advantage of many marinas and fishing opportunities in the area, or stop by Good Time Paddling for canoe/kayak rentals for trips on the Chaplin River.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Head northeast on U.S. 68 and you’ll make your way to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, America’s largest restored Shaker community and one of only five places (in the world!) named a Founding Discovery Destination Member by the Discovery Channel. 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 – and an immersive chance to step back in time. 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’ Table.
And when fall colors are rising to a jubilant pitch, Shaker Village’s 115-passenger riverboat, the Dixie Belle, makes two cruises a day beneath the towering limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River Palisades.
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
Old Fort Harrod State Park
Harrodsburg Downtown Historic District,
Harrodsburg & Mercer County Driving & Walking Tour
Central Kentucky Tours
Dedman Drugstore / Kentucky Fudge Company
Lemons Mill Brewery & Taproom
Olde Town Distillery
Ragged Edge Community Theatre
The Burgin Barn
Big Red Stables
Bright Leaf Golf Resort
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Dixie Belle Riverboat at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill