Civil War Museum
You’ve gotta love the name of this south-central Kentucky town that sits just off I-65, not far from Mammoth Cave National Park.
But is there really a cave called Horse Cave?
No, not now. But there was.
Harry Thomas, the original owner of the cave, felt like he needed a name that offered a little more intrigue, one that would cause travelers on nearby 31-W to want to stop and see it. So in 1916, he held a contest to rename Horse Cave. The name selected was Hidden River Cave and the winner received a $2.50 gold piece.
Horse Cave, like many towns across Kentucky bypassed by interstates, began to die. But almost as devastating was the massive pollution from Hidden River Cave, which had saturated the town with a revolting stench.
The late Bill Austin and his wife, Judy, set out to help reinvent the town and clean up the mess at Hidden River Cave, and by 1989 the town was on its way to making a comeback.
All the while, the Austins and several other community activists went to work establishing an acting theater. After all, they needed something to replace all the lost business. So in 1976, the doors opened for Horse Cave Theater, now known as the Kentucky Repertory Theater.
After the American Cave Museum, the largest museum in the world dedicated to caves, opened for visitors in 1992, Hidden River Cave reopened after being closed for 50 years, with a world-class cave museum sitting right at its front door. The proximity allows visitors to easily stroll from one to the other. In fact, one price will get you into both.
“Visitors get a lot of personal attention when they come here,” says Dave Foster, the museum director. “We’re a hands-on environmentalist attraction as well as tourism. We get lots of school children visiting because of the educational aspect.”
Just at the outskirts of Horse Cave, next to I-65 at exit 58, visitors have a chance to see kangaroos when they visit Kentucky Down Under. As you might expect from the name, there’s an Australian flair created by down-under native Judy Austin. There is an array of other Outback creatures including emus, wallabies, and black swans. The walk-in birdcage takes visitors to another world, but it’s almost guaranteed you’ll leave the park talking about the Woolshed. Sheep are sheared, lambs are fed, cows are milked, and then you can watch those amazing dogs work a herd of sheep.
Your admission to the park also includes a 45-minute guided tour into one of Kentucky’s most beautiful caves, Kentucky Caverns.
Cave Country area, as it is called, is a great family outing for all ages. There’s plenty of lodging, and places to eat.
A travel suggestion: if you want to put a little nostalgia into your trip, get on 31-W and drive through the towns of Upton, Bonnieville, Munfordville, Cave City, and Park City. Also, you may want to check out one of the several concrete statue businesses along the way. There are so many that the locals refer to this portion of 31-W as “concrete alley.”
Hidden River Cave and American Cave Museum
119 E. Main Street, Horse Cave
I-65, Exit 58
Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (CST); Memorial Day through Labor Day 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (CST).
Adults $10, ages 6-12 $5, under 6 free.
Kentucky Down Under
I-65, Exit 58
Open daily mid-March to October 31.
Kentucky Caverns is open year-round.
Adults $18.75, ages 5-14 $10.50, under 5 free.
Kentucky Repertory Theater
I-65, Exit 58
Horse Cave, KY
Season opens in June and runs for five months.
Other Area Attractions
I-65, Exit 48, Park City
Open year-round. Adults $12, ages 4-12 $6, under 4 free.
I-65, Exit 53
Open year-round except Christmas.
Admission: $9.75 adult, $8.95 senior, and $7.75 children under 5.
South Central Kentucky Cultural Center
200 W. Water St.
Historical exhibits, doll collection, and genealogical library. Open year-round. Free.
Mammoth Cave National Park
I-65, Exits 48 & 53
Open year-round except Christmas. Reservations recommended.
I-65, Exit 65
Hart County Historical Museum and self-guided walking tour. Free.
Gary West is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
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Civil War Museum
On Museum Row in Bardstown, Civil War relics expose the somber story of the war that split families, caused millions of dollars in property damage, and killed 2 percent of the U.S. population.
The Civil War Museum of the Western Theater at 310 E. Broadway is the centerpiece in the five-museum set, and outlines the war’s course in areas west of Virginia—Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas.
Containing more than 1,000 original artifacts valued at about $3 million, it holds the personal military collections of Union and Confederate generals, along with photos, portraits, and biographical information.
The area doesn’t merely serve as a final resting place for Civil War history: it also played a minor role. The Battle of Bardstown was an 1862 Civil War skirmish near Nazareth, and Union General Don Carlos Buell camped with 58,000 of his troops in Bardstown that same year.
In one exhibit, an original military surgeon’s smock is still spattered with bloodstains amidst a collection of period medical instruments. With little in the way of medical innovations, 400,000 died of disease and infection during the war.
Rare Confederate and Union flags are proudly posted throughout the museum, along with artillery shells, guns, and swords. The Naval Wars exhibit features The Pride of Macon, a cannon that defended that city.
The museum, founded in 1987, also boasts a vast collection of Civil War-era instruments, and even the tiny black shoes once worn by a young drummer boy.
Located on the historic John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail, the Civil War Museum welcomed 14,000 visitors in 2004 and is a designated Kentucky Educational Facility. It has been named the fourth-best museum of its kind in the nation by Civil War magazine.
Manager Joe Masterson says the museum is especially popular with Civil War buffs, who are impressed with the comprehensiveness of the collection.
“It’s the best collection they’ve ever seen, and they’ve seen them all,” he says.
Just up the hill from the Civil War Museum, in a building known as the old Opera House, is the Women of the Civil War Museum, detailing women’s roles in the war, including spies, nurses, and factory workers. The building also houses the War Memorial of Mid America, with displays and original artifacts honoring war vets from the Revolutionary War through Desert Storm.
Downhill, you’ll see a collection of cabins, portions of which are about 200 years old, that collectively create the Old Bardstown Village. Each creekside cabin holds artifacts and information about different aspects of pioneer life—a mill, Native Americans, a blacksmith’s shop, and more.
Behind the Civil War Museum is the Wildlife & Natural History Museum, featuring North American animal specimens amidst colorful murals representing their natural habitats. Curator Kevin Brumley is happy to tell visitors more about the animals, as well as his collections of fossils and fossilized shells.
The museum is a popular field trip destination for students, Brumley explains, but it can teach anyone a lesson or two about wildlife.
“No one goes out of here without saying, ‘I’ve learned something.’”
Bardstown’s Museum Row
• Civil War Museum of the Western Theater, $6
• Old Bardstown Village, 310 E. Broadway, $2.50
• Women’s Civil War Museum, $2.50
• War Memorial of Mid America Museum, $2.50
•Wildlife/Natural History Museum, $4
A combo ticket for all five attractions is available for $10.
All museums’ hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, March 15 to November 30, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends only from December 1 to March 14. All are located at or adjacent to 310 E. Broadway, off U.S. 150 in Bardstown.
Visits typically include a brief orientation by museum staff with the remainder self-guided. Discounted group rates apply for 20 or more at any time with prior reservations.
Guide to Civil War in Bardstown
For the ultimate Civil War experience in Bardstown, go online to www.visitbardstown.com/tourism/tours/civilwar.htm, which features a three-day itinerary called The Civil War Historian’s Guide.
Civil War EventsCivil War Living History Weekend
April 30-May 1 and June 25
A replicated Civil War campsite includes soldiers in period costume, with cooking and artillery demonstrations. Units from four states will attend.
Pioneer Days Craft Show
Crafts, Civil War re-enactors demonstrate life in that era, and weaponry at the Old Bardstown Pioneer Village/Civil War Museum.
Civil War & More, Family Style
Music and more caps off this Kentucky Bourbon Festival event held in the Old Bardstown Village.
Shannon Leonard-Boone is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
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