Search For:

Share This

Bringing History Alive

Pair history with tourism and you get what Kentucky’s Department of Travel calls “cultural heritage tourism”—our “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present”

Davis was a tough kid. Growing up in Atlanta in the 1970s and ’80s, he was expelled from public school and then an alternative school before anyone discovered he suffered from dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Ignored by society, Davis became angrier and angrier. Soon, he joined a street gang. In his words, he was a “human time bomb.”

But Davis had a mother who was determined to defuse the bomb he had become. She was his champion, insisting that he was not the menace to society many saw him as. “That’s not who you are, Hasan,” she would tell him. “You need to find out what the rest of you is about.”

Despite the odds, Davis did just that. He earned his GED and then talked his way into Berea College despite dismal grades. There was still conflict ahead: he was expelled twice before graduating in 1992. But in his senior year, Davis was elected homecoming king, served as president of the student body, and received the Navy V12 award, one of the highest awards the college has for outstanding contributions to human kindness and interracial understanding. He went on to law school, something no one in his family had ever done before.

With all his accomplishments, however, Davis still hadn’t completely “found out what the rest of him was about.” After graduating from law school, he heard about a program through the Kentucky Humanities Council called the Kentucky Chautauqua Players. The Council was looking for people to act as historical characters. Davis really missed all the theater classes he had taken in college and, more importantly, the connection he felt to an audience when he was onstage.

“I knew Berea College had an incredible history of conflict and community,” Davis says. “There had to be some incredible stories there I could tell.”

There were. The first character Davis played was a man named A.A. Burleigh, a slave in Anderson County who escaped to the Union lines during the Civil War. After the war, Burleigh was the first African-American adult student at Berea.

“In researching and writing the script, I found such a connection to myself,” he says. “I found a connection to history and this country I had never known. I grew up angry and in conflict because I didn’t think there was a reason to be in school and to learn. I thought it was all a setup. I didn’t see myself in history, so I couldn’t see myself in the future. But when I started doing research, I found a lot of black men and women and others of color–Native Americans and Latinos–making incredible sacrifices and fighting for the possibility of the American dream. That gave me lots of hope. It changed my whole view of who I was and what I could do. I found out that 10 percent of the soldiers in the Union Army were black, and that 26 black men received the Congressional Medal of Honor. I wanted to make us a part of American history. Angus Burleigh impacted me to grow and really think about myself and my possibilities.”

Today, Davis sees that same transformation happen in the audience every time he plays a Chautauqua character, historically accurate impersonations of 10 characters from Kentucky’s past.

Davis is now playing York, a slave who traveled with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition that led to the Pacific Ocean. In doing so, York became the first black man to cross the country.

Journals show that York won the respect of his fellow explorers. He was also a big help in dealing with Indians, who regarded his blackness as “big medicine.” But upon their return, Clark refused to free York for more than five years, and little is known of his life as a free man except that he is presumed to have died of cholera in Tennessee.

“When I play one of these characters, people hear his story and his pain and relive his triumph. They can’t disengage. It is incredible how powerful cultural history can be.”

Of course, cultural history takes many forms, coming alive through characters such as York and at places and events throughout the state. In fact, one of the biggest thrusts within the tourism industry in the past few years is what is called cultural heritage tourism.

Carole Summers is cultural heritage tourism manager for the Department of Travel, within the Tourism Development Cabinet. She led a multi-year, multi-departmental effort in state government to put together a cultural heritage tourism plan for Kentucky, a project that began with trying to define cultural tourism and heritage tourism and whether they are the same or different.

After meetings involving some 600 people from across the state, the group decided upon “cultural heritage tourism” and defined it as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.”

“Cultural heritage tourism includes a broad sweep,” says Summers. “It includes historical and cultural sites, of course, but also agricultural related sites, African-American history and heritage, natural history and heritage, arts, and preservation issues–basically anything that tells the story of Kentucky.”

Summers spends her days trying to help communities find their story, preserve it, and interpret it for the traveling public. Route 23 in eastern Kentucky is a good example.

“Route 23 was designated as the Country Music Highway several years ago,” she says, “but they also realized that their history is about coal companies and the people those companies brought in. They realized that there were many folk traditions there, many visual and performing artists with a story to tell. The region really worked together to preserve their small towns and make sure they are ready to tell their story when tourists come to visit.”

This regional cooperation is the hallmark of good cultural heritage tourism, according to Summers, who acknowledges that tourists can have a difficult time determining whether sites are authentic or not.

When trying to determine if a site is authentic, Summers suggests asking a few basic questions, including:

• Does the site really tell a historical or cultural story?

• Is there an experience to be had there, including hands-on learning where possible? For example, can you get your hands dirty by kneading clay or stirring a vat of sour mash? These kinds of experiences make for a wonderful visit, she says.

• Does the site convey something that you couldn’t find any other place? For example, there is nowhere else you can get Moonlite barbecue except western Kentucky.

• By next year, Summers hopes the state will be able to help as well by designating the first certified tourism sites. The certified sites will not include all the sites someone might want to see because some are open only a couple of days a week and, therefore, would not qualify. But Summers says it is a way to guide tourists in the right direction.

Another hallmark of good sites is personal involvement from folks who live nearby. Marsha Jones, owner of Keepsake Treasures, an antique shop in Old Washington, is a perfect example. She is president of Old Washington Inc. and has been instrumental in putting together several festivals, including the Simon Kenton Frontier Festival (third weekend in September) and the Civil War Living History Weekend (second weekend in August). She also works with the seven museums that are part of the complex called Old Washington, a historic district of Maysville.

You can locate good cultural heritage sites by logging on to the Tourism Cabinet’s Web site at Not only can you find an array of choices, but you can also customize an itinerary for your trip.

Meanwhile, check out Summers suggestions below for places you will want to consider visiting. She has included 11 sites that are must-sees. Most of these are better known and well-advertised. She has also included 11 sites that may not be so well-known, but are well worth the visit. Many more details are available on the tourism Web site or you can contact the individual sites directly.

Happy traveling.


Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site

Built at the location of Lincoln’s birth, this solid marble, neoclassical monument houses the historical cabin. Abraham Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek is right down the road, as well as the Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville. Call (270) 358-3137 or go online to

Churchill Downs & Keeneland Race Course These two National Historic Landmarks, Churchill Downs in Louisville and Keeneland in Lexington, are perfect examples of Kentucky’s rich history in horse racing and the equine industry. Call Churchill Downs at (502) 636-4400 or go online to Call Keeneland at (800) 456-3412 or go online to

Civil War Sites
In September 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”

These words sealed Kentucky’s fate in the Civil War. The Commonwealth never officially left the Union, yet more than 30,000 Confederate soldiers left their Kentucky homes to fight for the South. Twice that number fought for the Union, including 20,000 African-Americans. Both sides felt that Kentucky was one of the keys to successfully winning the war and numerous battles were fought in Kentucky. Today visitors can tour the battle sites or take part in living-history re-enactments that commemorate Kentucky’s unique role in the Civil War.

For a listing of Kentucky Civil War sites, go online to, click on “Cultural Heritage,” then choose “Civil War.” Or you can locate all 52 of Kentucky’s designated Civil War sites on the national Civil War Discovery Trail by going online to

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
No different than when Daniel Boone crossed through here, Cumberland Gap is an 800-foot-deep natural break in the Cumberland Mountains. It is the largest National Historical Park in the country with 20,305 of rugged beautiful acres that overlook three states, located near Middlesboro. Call (606) 248-2817 or go online to

Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea
(opening 2003)
Construction is under way for a 20,000-square-foot artisan center off I-75 at Berea, Kentucky’s Crafts Capital. This center will serve as an educational showcase of Kentucky’s arts and crafts.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The Reverend Elijah Craig is credited with developing what would become known as bourbon whiskey in 1789. The story of how Craig invented the bourbon whiskey process by accident is subject to debate, but the tradition lives on along Kentucky’s bourbon trail. Seven distilleries, located throughout central Kentucky, produce premium bourbon and offer free tours to thousands of visitors each year. For more information, contact the Kentucky Distillers’ Association at (859) 336-9612 or go online to

Kentucky History Center
Home to the Kentucky Historical Society, this 167,000-square-foot museum and research facility is located in the state capital, Frankfort. It includes hands-on activities, interactive exhibits, and unique genealogical records for tracing Kentucky ancestors. Call (877) 444-7867 or go online to

Kentucky Horse Park
The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington is a 1,200-acre educational theme park created to honor the animal whose name has become synonymous with the Bluegrass. Call 800-678-8813 or go online to

Mammoth Cave National Park
The park was established to preserve Mammoth Cave (at 350 miles, the longest cave in the world), scenic Nolin and Green River valleys, and the hilly country typical of south-central Kentucky. The park offers cave tours, hiking trails, campgrounds, hotel/motel accommodations, canoeing, and horseback riding. Call (270) 758-2251 or go online to

Museum of the American Quilter’s Society
Paducah is home to the National Quilt Museum, which features changing exhibits of new and antique quilts. The largest quilt museum in the world, this state-of-the-art facility has more than 150 quilts on display. Call (270) 442-8856 or go online to

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
One of Kentucky’s two Shaker historic sites, Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg is the largest restored 19th-century Shaker village in America. It is a National Historic Landmark, offering living-history tours, riverboat rides, music, crafts, hiking trails, horseback riding facilities, and more. Call (800) 734-5611 or go online to


Coal Region (Cumberland/Benham/Lynch/Stearns)
In the southeastern part of the state there is a region that interprets and celebrates its heritage–and that heritage is coal. Located along the Kingdom Come Parkway and surrounding areas, you can stay the night in the School House B&B, visit a coal mining museum, go into a real underground mine, take a train to an abandoned coal camp–it’s all here. Call (606) 848-1530 or go online to

This incredible attraction is housed in a renovated manufacturing company at 9th and Market in Louisville. Glassworks offers an insider’s view of the fascinating art of glassblowing and the making of contemporary glass pieces. Experience the excitement as the country’s finest glass artists create signature pieces in the glassblowing and flame-working studio. There are many glass businesses housed here as well as a café, museum, and gift shop. Call (502) 584-4510 or go online to

Historic Homes & Museums
There are literally dozens of historic homes and museums for touring located throughout Kentucky. Each offers a unique glimpse of cultural heritage tourism.

International Bluegrass Music Museum
Located in the beautiful RiverPark Center in Owensboro, the International Bluegrass Music Museum displays the history of bluegrass music through interpretive exhibits, posters, costumes, and instruments. The museum offers opportunities to see, touch, hear, and explore Kentucky’s rich bluegrass music heritage. Call (270) 926-7891 or go online to

John James Audubon Museum
Located in the John James Audubon State Park, the museum and nature center house a unique collection of Audubon’s watercolors, oils, engravings, and personal memorabilia. The nature center features a wildlife observatory and a discovery center, with displays explaining bird locomotion, feeding, habitat, and behavior. Call (270) 826-2247 or go online to

Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center
The hamlet of Hindman is full of craft history. The Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center houses an art gallery with exhibits that change every four to six weeks. The Center has a retail sales outlet to market artisan wares in a 49-county region of eastern Kentucky. Call (606) 785-9855.

Kentucky Folk Art Center
Folk art both national and regional is displayed and interpreted at this wonderful museum, located in a renovated old grocery in Morehead. Call (606) 783-2204 or go online to

Locust Grove & Big Bone Lick State Park
These two sites are the only ones in the state to be named as stops on the National Lewis and Clark Trail, but they are only part of Kentucky’s story of that famous expedition. Kentucky and southern Indiana are working together to commemorate the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial 2003-2006.

Locust Grove, a National Historic Landmark, is a Georgian mansion and museum situated on 55 acres in Louisville. Call (502) 897-9845 or go online to Located at Union, contact Big Bone Lick State Park at (859) 384-3522 or go online to

Local Performing Arts Centers
There are state-of-the-art performing arts centers located all over the state, and each has its own fabulous line-up for the season, featuring everything from music headliners to musicals to local talent.

Maysville and the Underground Railroad Story
This historic city is full of great architecture, early Kentucky history, and an incredible collection of sites related to the Underground Railroad. Make sure to catch nearby Augusta and Old Washington as well. Call (606) 564-6986 or go online at

Outdoor Dramas and Seasonal Theater
Examples include Daniel Boone Outdoor Drama, Humana Festival of New Plays, Jenny Wiley Theater, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Kincaid Regional Theatre, Lexington Shakespeare Festival, Pine Knob Theatre, Pioneer Playhouse, Stephen Foster–The Musical, and Twilight Cabaret.

Don't Leave! Sign up for Kentucky Living updates ...

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.