It’s Hip to be Square
Kentucky's old-fashioned town squares
Some of Kentucky’s old-fashioned town squares, found in Carlisle, Barbourville, Richmond, Murray, Greensburg, and many other communities across the state, are lively hubs bursting with energy and promise, unself-consciously flaunting that special brand of amity that seems part and parcel to a small-town aristocratic demeanor. Anchored by historic courthouses and trimmed with gardens and flower baskets, parks, and fountains, these town squares provide a fetching backdrop for festivals, concerts, car shows, and other events throughout the year.
Many of these yesteryear community gathering spots have been revitalized—some are on the National Register of Historic Places—and include coffeehouses, dress shops, and old-timey hardware stores, retaining a sense of the past with old-fashioned streetscaping and homey touches like hand-painted flags trimming lampposts, park benches, and nose-in parking even as they invite a more contemporary vibe with one-of-a-kind shops, chef-owned eateries, art galleries, and museums.
“Everyone takes such pride in the downtown area,” says Stefanie Gaither of Carlisle’s town square. Gaither, the resort park manager of Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park, moved to the area from Versailles three years ago. Her first impression of Carlisle was that its motto, “Little Town with the Big Heart,” was spot on: people couldn’t be more welcoming and accommodating, including a pair of shopkeepers on the square. One told a panicked Gaither, who’d forgotten her wallet, to “just come back and pay later”; another became the park manager’s go-to source for everything from hay to an oxygen tank.
A peek into the past
Carlisle is perched in Nicholas County, known for its picturesque rural character—and both town and town square mirror this aspect.
A walking tour with more than 50 historic points of interest, both on and just off the square, alludes to the city’s preservationist mind-set.
Recently, the historic 1883 J.T. Sims/Neal Building was renovated and reopened on the square as the Neal Welcome Center. Comprising museum, arts center, and genealogy library, it is headquarters for both Carlisle-Nicholas County Tourism and the Nicholas County Historical Society, and will eventually include educational programs and a re-creation of the country store that the building once housed.
“The Neal Building is like stepping back in time,” says Gaither. “The atmosphere just makes you feel like sitting down and chatting.”
Besides brochures on local attractions, the Center stocks locally made jams, art, and quilts, and displays the works of local artisans, including fiber art. It is also the home of the Courthouse Square Arts Guild’s annual quilt show.
“There are truly some beautiful quilts in these shows,” notes Gaither. “One quilt had over a thousand pieces of fabric and none were bigger than a dime. Incredible!”
The Corner Studio, home of the Courthouse Square Arts Guild, is on the square not far from the welcome center. Also downtown is the new Kentucky Doll & Toy Museum, Carlisle Gifts & Collectibles, Garrett’s Restaurant, Café on Main, E Z Riders Pizza, the Nicholas County Public Library, plus herb shop, drugstores, and several beauty salons, among other businesses. At the Old Nicholas County Jail, now called The Jailer’s Inn, you’ll find a four-course meal served on the second Thursday of each month, and teas are held four times a year.
Barbourville boasts the quintessential small-town courthouse square with all variety of shops tucked into neatly painted buildings that mingle charmingly with brick facades and march down both sides of Main Street. With lampposts, splashes of red compliments of crape myrtle, and a fountain gurgling near the courthouse in warm-weather seasons, the square is both dynamic and inviting.
Located in southeastern Kentucky, Barbourville is the county seat of Knox and was the location of the first battle in Kentucky of the Civil War. In fact, the battle took place a mere block from the courthouse. Since the days of Daniel Boone, the heart of Barbourville has been a major stop for settlers and travelers, and the town square today remains the crossroads of commerce, culture, and community gatherings and events, including the annual Daniel Boone Festival.
Barbourville’s traditional court square is home to two of the best-known formal dress boutiques in Kentucky: Olivia’s and Carreen’s dress contestants of all ages for pageants from the local to the state level. Expressions by J Photography, also on the square, is a state pageant photography studio. There are beauty salons, thriving pawnshops, hardware stores, and jewelry shops. And though there is neither coffeehouse nor ice cream shop, the square has a full and diverse menu of restaurants.
“For lunch, everyone goes to Thelma’s Place, Tammy’s Café, the Hillbilly Country Restaurant, or Oasis Pizza, which is simply delicious,” says Betty Cole, Barbourville Tourism/Main Street director. “And we have the greatest Subway in the area and very near the courthouse.”
Due to open sometime in the spring in Barbourville’s oldest building, the former Wilson Brothers Hardware store is Kentucky Communities Crafts. The shop will specialize in Kentucky-made items and visiting artisans will demonstrate pottery, rug making, and other skills.
Also this spring, Barbourville will begin restoration of the H.H. Owens House, built by Governor James D. Black, whosegubernatorial term lasted from just May 19 to December 9, 1919. The house, one of the most architecturally interesting buildings in the city, is being restored as Barbourville’s Welcome Center, Museum and Meeting House. A historical downtown walking tour is also being planned to showcase and share historical facts of some of the longstanding buildings around the courthouse square.
Limestone and architecture
The Old Green County Courthouse in Greensburg, the oldest courthouse west of the Alleghenies, anchors the courthouse square and is one of several limestone buildings on the square. It is now a multiuse facility on the National Register of Historic Places. A former frontier territory, Greensburg is a montage of architectural styles, with examples of Neo-colonial, Federal, Greek Revival—even a log cabin and, farther away from the square, adobe brick mud house—on display.
Other historic treasures line Greensburg’s town square, including Glover’s Station Antique Mall. Glover’s Station, the original name of the town, was established in 1780 by John Glover. With the formation of the new county in 1794, it was renamed Greensburg. A row of limestone buildings, known as Old Stone Row, includes the early 1800s (failed) Independent Bank of Greensburg; Allen’s Inn (Andrew Jackson slept here in 1832), and the Old Clerk’s Office built in 1818, which served as a home for Greensburg’s only college, the New Athens Academy.
“It’s a grand downtown,” says Judy Weatherholt, community and economic development director. “We’ve had four phases of streetscaping over the last six years, and it’s really enhanced the old buildings and the downtown setting.”
Lifelong resident Bill Taylor visits the square just about every day with his wife, Suzanne. He recalls the (WWII) war years on the square when the town would gather for bond and aluminum drives, and beyond when his mother would drive to the square, park, and watch people, back when Fridays and Saturdays were the big days downtown. He remembers when two sections of the square burned, when merchants lived atop their businesses, when parking meters arrived and eventually departed.
“It was a thriving little community,” he says. “It still is. Just about every storefront has a business in it.”
In place of yesteryear’s groceries, barbershops, and round-the-clock restaurant, there are Glover’s Station Antique Mall (in the historic Woodson Lewis Store), Mitchell-Edwards Company (clothing and accessories), The Plaid Peacock (gift and floral shop), Brenda’s Flowers & Crafts, Ron’s Hardware, Green County Tobacco Outlet, the Attic Nook (an alterations shop), and restaurants Lucy Tucker’s (a lunch spot that is now open on Sundays), the A. Ennis Lunchroom/Headhunters (the “home of the famous slaw burger”), and China King.
As a kid, Taylor spent a lot of time “running, playing, and having a big time around the square.” Spruced up with its streetscaping, Taylor says the square remains a beautiful place to spend time.
“The future looks bright and vibrant,” adds Weatherholt. “The streetscaping will entice more small businesses to the downtown. We have a new Snappy Tomato restaurant that opened just off the square and a Mexican restaurant is planned. The Green River House development is under way as a hotel with restaurants that will hopefully be completed at the end of the year. We expect other business will follow.”
The little square that could
Historically, downtown Murray has been the hub of activity, from trading livestock and goods back in the day, to buying groceries and seeing your doctor and, later still, to stepping out for dinner and a movie. The heart of Murray beats loudest on courthouse square where, even in years of decline, it remained “downtown”—with all the epithet implies. This is a symmetrical salute to the days of yore with focal point and four corners, shops, restaurants, banks, and churches. It has a strong foundation of original buildings—the vestiges of early 1900s Murray—when the courthouse was built.
Although many of the old businesses have gone the way of full-service gas stations and penny candy, the character of Murray’s square has never changed. Award-winning streetscaping in 2001 and the resurgence of restaurants, including Rudy’s Restaurant and Mugsy’s Hideout, plus retail activity by way of The Bookmark, New Life Christian Bookstore in a fully renovated building that houses both 5th & Main Coffees and the bookstore, Roosevelt & Drake (where a descendent of President Roosevelt sells high-dollar rifles), Yours Mine & Ours (consignment), Wild Raspberry scrapbooking store, Penique’s Mexican pottery, Hello Kitty, Frame Village, Enix Jewelry, The Cake Lady, Music Zone, Main Street Furnishings, and florists Wilson’s and The Cherry Tree, an accessories shop named Serendipity on the Square, and The Trophy Case have all returned courthouse square to the days of half a century ago when a family could spend the whole day on the square—shopping, strolling, dining.
Adds Deana Wright, Murray Main Street program director: “We also have a tenant, Legacy Sword Arts, located in the other store-front of our building, who teaches fencing.”
The Main Street office occupies the circa 1931 post office. One side of the square is lined with 1800s-era buildings. A church sits near each corner just off the square, anchoring the downtown.
It is the yesteryear dynamic that appeals to Brent Armstrong, an elder at the Murray Family Church, which joined the square last year, albeit in the renovated digs of the old appliance store. Says Armstrong, “The square is still vibrant, still an active part of the retail community. It’s neat to see it full of cars, with people going in and out of downtown businesses: the flower shop, bookstore, an antiques store, a restaurant. You can really spend your day downtown. It’s pleasant to be on the square with all the restored buildings and storefronts. It has a nostalgic feel to it.”
The square bustles with events throughout the year: an Easter egg hunt, a car show in June, arts on the square in September, the Lumberjack Festival in October, and holiday events at Christmastime. The Downtown Saturday Market opens in May with farmers and crafters and streets closed off when some two dozen vendors set up shop. It runs through October, concluding with the Lumberjack Festival.
Yesteryear is always here
Richmond, the first city in Kentucky to receive a National Register District designation, is graced with a tidy town square spruced up with polished storefronts, lampposts and American flags, brick inlay, underground utilities, and a new bank whose architecture replicates that of the old structures surrounding it. Regarded as one of the finest restored 19th-century commercial districts in the state, Richmond has the vigor of a cosseted and well-heeled small town with the vibrancy that comes with revitalization.
“Historic” is perhaps the best way to characterize this pocket-sized parcel whose downtown is a stroll into yesteryear—but a yesteryear with a busy streetscape.
“We have a lot of Italianate-style architecture,” notes Rita Smart, Richmond’s Main Street coordinator. “People love the historic look of our downtown.”
They also love that everything is an easy stroll down the block. The square has a handful of art galleries, including the Chestnut Tree Gallery featuring more than 50 different artists from across Kentucky, and the Gallery on Main, where the art keeps banking hours. In the lobby of Community Trust Bank, visitors can enjoy the art during regular banking hours. The gallery hosts regular receptions for featured artists and is part of Richmond’s ongoing schedule of gallery hops. Also on the square: Jett & Hall Clothing and Shoes for men, and eateries including Jimmy Johns Sandwich Shop and Sam’s Hot Dog Stand.
Just two blocks from the square is Irvin McDowell Park, home of Irvinton House Museum. Even closer is Richmond Area Art Gallery tucked into a converted church, and local foodie favorites that include the Paddy Wagon, an Irish pub, Madison Garden, a sports bar and restaurant, and the smoked barbecue restaurant Stop and Go, housed in an old Airstream diner.
Even without a coffeehouse, bakery, and theater (they’re working on these), Smart says the resurgence in downtown activity is noticeable.
A couple of years ago, Richmond developed a downtown historic tour for Thursday nights during July that included costumed actors playing the roles of famous figures, including antislavery activist Cassius Clay, Daniel Boone, the Calloway Girls (friends of Daniel Boone’s daughter and captured by the Indians at Fort Boonesborough), and Laura Clay, daughter of Cassius and suffrage leader, among others. Last year, the tour averaged 75 people a night.
“People miss downtown,” Smart says. “They have a desire to keep the look of the old. Visitors are interested in the square. They want to know its history.”
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: VISITING KENTUCKY'S AWESOME TOWN SQUARES
Why not stroll through your own town square to see what pulls at the memories of your heart or see what’s new. For a guide to these town squares as well as several more that you may want to visit, go to town squares.