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Henderson: Historic Southern River Town

Stars Under the Stars

Henderson: Historic Southern River Town

Henderson sits high on the river’s banks, just a few miles across the Ohio from Evansville, Indiana, and make no mistake, it is a true river town. Folks around here like to say proudly that Henderson sits on the Ohio, not in it, as some other Kentucky cities do when it floods.

Its official history dates back to 1797, when records reveal the town was mapped out by the Transylvania Land Company.

Once dependent on river traffic and tobacco for its existence, Henderson laid claim as the richest per capita town in the United States. The Ohio River provided the town with a means to ship the region’s tobacco worldwide.

Plenty of evidence of the town’s early wealth still exists in the beauty of the numerous stately homes that line the 100-foot-wide streets. The recent revitalization of the city’s River Front Park and community grounds is like a magnet to anyone who visits, especially kids who love to play in the fountains that shoot up from the ground.

Henderson is much like many river towns from years gone by. At one time they turned their backs to the river. But not anymore.

A good way to kick off a visit to Henderson is to take in the W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival, June 11-19. Celebrating 15 years, this free, nine-day festival attracts about 50,000 visitors and honors past Henderson resident William Christopher Handy, who is considered the Father of Blues. The festival kicks off on Saturday, June 11, with fierce competition and plenty of wonderful food at Taste of Henderson Barbecue on the picturesque waterfront at Central Park, and lots of live music from blues and zydeco bands from across the nation. Live music at the scenic Audubon Mill Park on the Henderson Riverfront continues every night beginning Wednesday evening, swelling toward the all-day music extravaganza on Saturday, June 18. There are other events throughout the week as well, including a poker run, Mardi Gras-style Street Strut, Handy lunch breaks at local eateries, lectures, dance classes, and much more.

A “have to stop” is the John James Audubon State Park. Named for world-renowned naturalist artist John Audubon, the grounds offer visitors a glimpse of the peaceful surroundings he must have experienced while he studied the wildlife of his paintings.

The park’s main attraction is the John James Audubon Museum and Nature Center. It houses a collection of the famous woodsman’s original watercolors, oils, engravings, and personal memorabilia. Be prepared to spend some time here as it is very kid-friendly. The museum is open year-round, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, closed Thanksgiving Day, one week during the Christmas holidays, and New Year’s Day.

Rental cottages, camping, and a 28-acre recreational lake that offers fishing and non-motorized boats are all available in the park.

Henderson also offers thoroughbred racing at nearby Ellis Park from July through Labor Day. Even during the off-season, inter-track wagering is available.

Downtown shopping is at least one full day. Alles Brothers Furniture Com-pany at 219 First Street has been run by the Alles family since its beginning in 1899. And nearby Simon’s Shoes at 100 N. Main is legendary for their shoes and odd sizes. People shop at both of these stores from surrounding states.

Ralph’s on Green Street is the place for breakfast. It’s a locals’ thing, but visitors fit in nicely.

John James Audubon State Park
3100 U.S. Highway 41 North
(270) 826-2247

W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival
Main Street at Central Park
(800) 648-3128

Ellis Park
3300 U.S. Highway 41 North, between Henderson and Evansville, IN
(800) 333-8110

Henderson Convention & Visitors Bureau
101 North Water Street, Suite B
(800) 648-3128

More in Henderson
Ramada Inn, (270) 826-6600, is newly renovated and is Henderson’s largest lodging facility with 117 rooms. It is a full-service property with meeting accommodations.

Wolf’s, (270) 826-5221, has been a restaurant and tavern since 1878 at the corner of First & Green streets, first opening as a bakery. The bakery is still there as well as a very good restaurant and bar.

Towles-Sasseen House at 232 South Main Street is where the founder of Mother’s Day, Mary Towles Sasseen, once lived. She began her efforts in 1887, and in 1914 President Wilson proclaimed it a legal holiday. The house is on the Henderson Historic Walking Tour (not available for inside tours); call the Henderson County Tourist Commission at (800) 648-3128 for more information.

Amici’s Italian Eatery, (270) 827-2400, sits at 108 Second Street near the riverfront. A varied menu makes it easy to find something the entire family will like.

L & N Bed and Breakfast, (270) 831-1100, at 327 North Main sits next to the tracks and is only a short walking distance to the river and three downtown parks.

Gary P. West is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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Stars Under the Stars

Summer’s here. Crickets chirp and the Milky Way stretches high across the night sky as the curtain rises on another Kentucky outdoor theater season.

“There’s nothing like outdoor theater,” says Honus Shain, manager, producer, playwright, and founder in 1987 of Pine Knob Theatre. “When you flip on the floodlights, there are no walls or ceiling. Everything’s natural and beautiful.”

Inspired by Wilderness Road, a play once held in Berea’s Indian Fort Theatre, Shain looked to the history of the community of Pine Knob, which his ancestors had begun. Intrigued by tales of outlaw Dock Brown, the playwright organized a Dock Brown Day 19 years ago. He penned an entire play on the rascal, Dock Brown—Legend of an Outlaw, and built an outdoor theater.

For its 2005 season, Pine Knob offers five plays, all written by its founder. One in particular—Lucy and Ruth’s Diner or “LARD”—is a spoof on the Broadway play Grease, and got a tongue-in-cheek mention in the Wall Street Journal.

Over a ways at High Bridge, another theatrical entrepreneur co-wrote and directs a play about a beloved watercolor artist. Currently in its third year of production, The Paul Sawyier Story is a well-attended labor of love for Nicholasville’s Elexene Cox, who based it on a book by the late Nettie Glenn, an assistant to Kentucky Governor Bert T. Combs.

Combining writing forces with Margaret Morgan of Wilmore, Cox also sewed many of its costumes and helped build the scenery that brings the story to life at the new High Bridge Park in Jessamine County.

“We just knew it would make a good drama,” says 83-year-old Cox. “For five years, Paul Sawyier lived on a shanty boat under the railroad bridge and painted scenes of the Palisades, the limestone cliffs that rise high above the Kentucky River. Now we store our scenery there.”

Musicals, not dramas, are the focus of Music Theatre Louisville, a community-based company begun in 1981 that lights up the city’s 2,400-seat Iroquois Park Amphitheater each summer with local acting talent and professional musicians, a number of whom play with the Louisville Orchestra.

“Our music,” says Music Theatre Executive Director Peter Holloway, “is exceptional. I think we introduce a lot of people to the theater experience at a comfortable level. You can sit outside in a t-shirt and shorts. The kids can eat ice cream. There’s not the intimidation factor of dressing up and going to the arts indoors.”

Most outdoor theater venues are casual, and Danville’s Pioneer Playhouse, begun by visionary Colonel Eben Henson 56 years ago, is no exception. If you go early for dinner, you can definitely eat your fried chicken with your fingers.

John Travolta and Lee Majors both got their theatrical feet wet on the Pioneer stage that will feature five plays and a motivational standup comic in 2005.

Though 2005 marks its 41st season, Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg won’t offer its signature drama, The Jenny Wiley Story, this summer.

“We try to keep the audience fresh by offering it every other year,” says Marty Childers, Jenny Wiley Theatre’s managing director.

But you can count on a riveting summer at Jenny Wiley Theatre with three outdoor theatrical productions, which include Isn’t It Romantic?, an outdoor cabaret.

Jenny Wiley Theatre
(877) CALL-JWT
Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, Prestonsburg
June 10-August 20: Beauty and the Beast
June 10: Beauty and the Beast Kids’ Festival
July 1-August 20: Jesus Christ Superstar
July 29-30: Isn’t It Romantic?

Music Theatre Louisville
(502) 589-4060
Iroquois Park, Louisville
June 17-19, June 22-26: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
July 7-10: Rising Stars
August 5-7, 10-14: Jesus Christ Superstar

The Paul Sawyier Story
(859) 885-4225
High Bridge Park, near Nicholasville
September 16–17

Pine Knob Theatre
(270) 879-8190
Friday nights, June 17-July 15: Down in Hoodoo Holler
Saturday nights, June 11-July 16: Dock Brown: Legend of an Outlaw
July 22-30: At the Hop
Friday nights, August 12-September 23: Lucy and Ruth’s Diner “LARD”
Saturday nights, August 6-September 24: Daddy Took the T-Bird Away

Pioneer Playhouse
(859) 236-2747
June 11-25: On the Razzle
June 28-July 9: Squabbles
July 12-23: The Man Who Came to Dinner
July 28-August 9: The Last of Jane Austen
August 9-20: Death by Golf
August 26-27: Healing Laughter!

More Outdoor Theater
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
(502) 637-4933
Central Park, Louisville
Tuesday–Sunday, June 22-July 17: Macbeth and Comedy of Errors

Lexington Shakespeare Festival
(859) 266-4423
University of Kentucky Arboretum, Lexington
July 6-10: As You Like It
July 13-17: Cyrano de Bergerac
July 20-24: Fiddler on the Roof

Stephen Foster—The Musical
(800) 626-1563
Stephen Foster State Park, Bardstown
Shows alternate:
June 11-August 20: Stephen Foster–The Musical
July 7-August 20: Grease

Katherine Tandy Brown is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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