Tour historic Frankfort and celebrate Kentucky’s statehood
As Kentuckians observe the commonwealth’s 225th anniversary of statehood this year, there’s no better time and no better place to revisit our roots than in the capital city. From history to politics to popular culture, Frankfort is packed with discoveries. Many are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from one another. And if skipping is not your thing, there’s always the free trolley.
Long gone are the days when learning about history was boring. One visit to the Kentucky Historical Society’s history campus immerses visitors in a variety of learning adventures for one admission price. Included is entry into the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, a multimillion-dollar facility with two permanent exhibits and the Martin F. Schmidt Research Library, the Kentucky Military History Museum, and the Old State Capitol.
Start at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, where “A Kentucky Journey” brings 12,000 years of state history to life. Here the commonwealth’s earliest inhabitants mingle with pioneers, Civil War soldiers, and 20th-century heroes all heralding milestones and contributions of Kentuckians. Visitors use this self-guided exhibit to walk through time with artifacts and vignettes of life throughout Kentucky’s history.
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One of the Center’s signature artifacts includes Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch, one of two known to exist, the other is in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections. The gold watch with porcelain and onyx fob bearing the initials AL by maker J. Jacqueson dates to 1860. The sound of the watch was featured in the 2012 film Lincoln, recorded from the actual watch owned by the president.
The Kentucky Military History Museum is housed in an imposing structure that served as the state arsenal for more than 100 years. It’s easy to imagine sharpshooters on the roof of this Gothic Revival building, furiously defending their city in 1864. Inside, two floors of artifacts tell the personal stories of brave Kentuckians—from a young boy who received a medal of honor during the Civil War to a brother and sister who served in Vietnam.
Among the rare weaponry and military memorabilia is the Burgoyne Cannon, named for the general whose British troops lost it to American forces in 1777. The British took it back in 1812, but Kentuckians wouldn’t let them have it long. They recaptured it at the battle of the Thames in 1813.
Capitols, old and new
The Old State Capitol has a story to tell before you even enter the historic Greek Revival building. On the brick sidewalk leading to its door is a marker denoting where William Goebel was shot. Goebel is the only U.S. governor to die in office as a result of an assassination.
Tour guides share other intriguing tales within its marble walls, like how the citizens of Frankfort literally built this building by offering the materials and money needed to ensure their city would be chosen to house the Capitol; how a 25-year-old Kentucky architect won a contest to design the structure; and how slaves, prisoners, and skilled laborers worked together to build a self-supporting stone staircase that continues to amaze people 187 years later.
It may be “new” compared with the Old State Capitol, but the 1910 Beaux-Arts style building has enough art and history to keep visitors mesmerized for hours—and admission is free. The commonwealth’s Capitol offers hour-long tours that can be arranged at the tour guide’s desk, but visitors also can explore the grounds and building on their own with the help of tour maps that point out highlights like historical Kentuckian figure statues and busts, the pediment, state seals and symbols, and the Kentucky Floral Clock.
Take time to study the rotunda murals that were added in 2010, suggests Linda Stevens, who has worked at the Capitol 17 years. They offer a mix of history and art, making Kentucky’s Capitol one of the most beautiful capitols in the country—a remark Stevens often hears from visitors. Add the fact that this is where the state’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches make decisions, and it’s a virtual classroom at every turn.
Be sure to include the Governor’s Mansion in your visit; it’s only a two-minute walk away and one of only a few executive residences in the U.S. open to the public, offering free tours Tuesday and Thursday by appointment.
Don’t leave Frankfort without exploring its wilder side. Bison, a bear, bobcats, and an eagle are just some of the animals and birds that kids will discover at the Salato Wildlife Education Center. The 262-acre complex offers hand-on activities to learn about Kentucky’s diverse natural habitats and the creatures who inhabitant them.
In addition to educational activities (check the calendar for special events) there are 4 miles of hiking trails, two fishing lakes, and a picnic area with grills. No pole? No problem. Salato will lend you one and children under 16 can fish the stocked lakes without a license. More information, here.