By Steve Flairty
When it comes to choosing an invigorating location for Kentucky day trips (or half-day trip), my wife, Suzanne, and I often choose Bardstown and the Nelson County area. It’s an easy drive of less than an hour from our home in Versailles, and the lure to go back, again and again, is strong.
We are drawn, first, to the unique scenery of the Knobs region as we approach the town, then to the well-kept nature of the town and surroundings, demonstrating a masterful blend of its past, present, and future. We especially like to take in a meal at Mammy’s Kitchen & Bar or the Kurtz Restaurant and recently watched a show in the outdoor theatre at the Old Kentucky Home State Park.
The locale represents a part of the best that Kentucky offers, and the nation has noticed. A simple visit to Bardstown gives credence to why it has been called the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” by USA Today and Rand McNally. But to get a more enriched and nuanced view of the alluring locale, just ask Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency (NCEDA). She exudes her own heartfelt kind of exuberance in discussing the community, and her latest mode of expression is via her impressive new coffee table book, called Bardstown (Butler Books, 2020,). It follows Kim’s spirited first book, Small Town Sexy: the Allure of Living in Small Town America.
In the Bardstown offering, she has assembled an excellent group of local photographers to showcase 161 images around a town, she says in the introduction, that is “as welcoming as a shot of bourbon on a cold winter’s night… (where) southern hospitality and charm of Bardstownians are our greatest features.”
The book is replete with pictures of well-preserved vintage homes and churches, quaint downtown shops, bars, restaurants, bourbon distilleries, floral and rural terrain scenes, along with gatherings of happy people celebrating community events that make Bardstown such an attractive destination for out-of-towners, as well. The colorful images provide astute narratives in the seeing… and will provoke a stirring interest in wading into greater depths of understanding for this west-central Kentucky hotbed off Marta Layne Collins Parkway.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Kim via email to discuss her beloved town and its surroundings, portrayed so well in the book.
I wondered about other townsfolk across the state who might want to duplicate some of the success of Bardstown’s in attracting tourists. “We have a highly active tourism marketing campaign each year from funds generated from our hotel and restaurant taxes that includes marketing in the contiguous states,” Kim said. “However, most of our national and international PR comes in accolades we receive from major publications like Southern Living and Travel and Leisure. Bardstown seems to always make the ‘Best Small Towns’ lists in many publications. An article in the New York Times about the ‘napification’ of Bardstown resulted in a publishing company offering us a book deal about the rebirth of bourbon (due out in October).”
She recalled welcoming a tourist couple at the town’s visitor center and advised them on an itinerary. “A year later that same couple recognized me while walking down the street and told me that they fell in love with Bardstown on their visit. The couple had purchased a patio home in our golf course community and now call Bardstown their adopted hometown.”
Kim gives credit for the area’s success and its sustainability “to our government leadership who works as a team with our economic development agencies. They are not only focused on making sure we have the infrastructure we need as a community but are also focused on making sure our community is alluring to visitors with beautification and historic preservation efforts. ‘Bridge Nelson County’ is a group of active young professionals who keep us on our toes. We start in high school by offering a ‘Young Leaders’ program that introduces students to all aspects of community development in hopes they may be convinced to start their adult life or career in Bardstown.”
Those of the Roman Catholic religious faith might especially feel at home around here. Though I am not Catholic, I enjoy seeing the cultural manifestations of the faith around the area. I have many of Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s books and appreciated the few hours Suzanne and I spent on a visit to Gethsemane last year. “Catholicism is an important part of our rich heritage and Nelson County is centered in what is known as Kentucky’s ‘Holy Land’ by many writers and authors. From beautiful cathedrals to the retreat experiences at the Abbey of Gethsemane or Sisters of Charity at Nazareth, you can spend days experiencing the Catholic history of Nelson County,” said Kim.
Lots of people like to visit, but what other attributes does it have for those who choose to live there? That’s easy, according to Kim. “My mantra is ‘living large in small-town America,’ which means enjoying the spoils of a small-town life while being able to have many big-city amenities including three school systems, including a private parochial system, plenty of retail opportunities and a variety of housing options from downtown loft living to a life on the farm.”
And what about senior living suitability for baby boomers like my wife and me?
“We have recently become an enticing place for seniors to retire, even those who have never lived here before,” said Kim. “They tell me the livability factors like cost of living, ample housing, walkable community and with plenty of opportunities to volunteer and get involved in community activities. They also like being within a 45-minute drive of a major city and airport.”
During this time of all-consuming pandemic challenges that touch all of us, Kim longs for the time when “pre-COVID-19 normalcy returns,” she said. “My hope is to come out of this pandemic with our residents healthy and visitors coming back for all the events we host each year. Having to cancel the decades-old festivals has been traumatic for us all.”
For sure, the liveliness of festivals and large crowds will be back, and likely Kim Huston and an army of helpers will make things even better. The town of Bardstown is a Kentucky treasure, and this picturesque book rendering of such only adds to its splendor.
To pick up a copy of the book online, visit thebardstownbook.com or Butler Books. Copies are also available at the following retail outlets in Bardstown: At Mary’s; Shaq and Coco; Gartland Art Sales; My Old Kentucky Home State Park Gift Shop; The Talbott Tavern; Bardstown Bourbon Company; and Preservation Distillery.