Finding the real America along the Great River Road
Seems like it’s getting harder for me to tell one town from the next out on the interstate highways. The restaurants, stores, and gas stations all look the same—symbols of big, corporate chains. But far from these well-traveled routes, there is still a real America that has proudly held on to its heritage, uniqueness, and postcard charm. These are places where Mark Twain would still feel right at home, and so would I.
The real America can be found along a route in western Kentucky called the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. The byway skirts the Mississippi River from Minnesota near the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana—and through four Kentucky counties: Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman, and Fulton.
Practically all of downtown Fulton is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and antebellum homes line the streets adjacent to the downtown district. I can picture Rhett Butler in the front parlor of one of these old Fulton homes saying, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a…”
The city of Fulton is also the site of the International Banana Festival. Why a banana festival here? It all began in the late 19th century when the Illinois Gulf Railroad developed the first refrigerated rail cars, preserving bananas for distribution across the country. Fulton, then a railroad town, became a major stopping point where the Fulton Ice Company re-cooled the banana-packed cars with large blocks of ice. So, more than 50 years ago, residents created an annual banana festival. It’s held each September with the highlight being the 1-ton banana pudding, likely the world’s largest.
Perched on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River is the small town of Hickman, the Fulton County seat. Mark Twain is said to have called it “the most beautiful town on the Mississippi.”
Today in downtown Hickman, you’ll find another example of the distinctiveness of this region—and it’s totally nuts. Since 1940, the Kentucky Nut Corporation has been packaging pecans grown locally along the Mississippi River. You can grab some pecans and other treats at the gift shop, but the company, whose owner Karen Langford is a member of Hickman-Fulton RECC, also does a booming online order business and will even include a personalized handwritten message in the package for gifts.
If you like sampling local flavors while traveling, I can tell you the barbecue in this area may be the best you’ve ever had. And each October the best of the best barbecue cooks gather at the Carlisle County Fairgrounds in Bardwell for the CarlisleFest barbecue competition and cook-off. But the real winners of this contest are the folks who come out to sample all the delicious pulled pork, mutton, ribs, and chicken.
Not to be outdone, Harper’s Country Hams near the community of Clinton in Hickman County will seduce you with the aroma of hand-rubbed, hickory-smoked hams as soon as you get out of the car. The Harper family has been in the business since 1952, curing its hams for three months in rooms that simulate Kentucky seasons.
Long before white settlers began raising livestock and farming the land, Native Americans made a living along the banks of the Mississippi. Mound builders occupied a site from 1100 A.D. to about 1350 in what is now thecommunity of Wickliffe in Ballard County. Today, Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site is a much-studied archaeological site with a museum, gift shop, and walking trails.
Columbus-Belmont State Park in Hickman County is the location of more recent history.
The park was the site of a Confederate fortification and stronghold. The Battle of Belmont took place in 1861, just across the Mississippi River from the fort. This engagement wasn’t on the scale of the larger battles that followed, but President Lincoln nevertheless took notice of someone here. The little-known commander of the Union forces possessed an impressive and much-needed strong will on the battlefield. His name was Ulysses S. Grant.
The 25th observance of Civil War Days is October 9–11 at Columbus-Belmont State Park. Living-history camps and battle re-enactments are on tap as well as a Civil War ball and a ghost walk.
The bluffs at Columbus-Belmont offer splendid views of the Mississippi River and surrounding natural areas, where there is a historic walking trail and a nature trail where a variety of trees, birds, and other wildlife can be viewed.
Ballard Wildlife Management Area is a birding and photography paradise, as several wintering bald eagles and thousands of waterfowl, including approximately 100,000 ducks, use this wetland habitat. In spring and summer the many oxbow lakes, created by former river channels, offer canoeing, kayaking, and hiking.
Cataclysmic events created nearby Reelfoot Lake. In the winter of 1811 and 1812, a series of earthquakes believed to be some of the strongest in North American history caused a 25,000-acre chunk of land to literally sink. The waters of the Mississippi eventually filled the depression and Reelfoot Lake—part water, part wetlands—was born. Today this scenic lake is a must-see for the Great River Road traveler. Nestled in the cypress trees along the shoreline, mom-and-pop hotels and restaurants have an air of Americana, offering visitors a room, boat, and motor for a reasonable price.
In this region just about everything is reasonably priced, but what I found is priceless. It’s Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and little river towns with old-fashioned charm and individuality. It is the real America.
October events around the Kentucky Great River Road
La Center Day at La Center’s City Park on Broadway St. 10 a.m. parade, food and crafts vendors, kids’ beauty pageant, afternoon entertainment, and many fun events planned. Admission free. Call Elaine at (270) 331-5294 for more information.
River Country Music Festival, from noon until dark at the Cunningham Veterans Park on Hwy. 62 next to the Cunningham Community Center in Cunningham, Carlisle County. Free admission. For more information, go to Facebook, The River Country Music Festival, or call (270) 564-3702.
Civil War Days, Columbus-Belmont State Park in Hickman County. Battle re-enactments, living history, period music, Civil War ball, and ghost walk. For more information call (270) 677-2327 or e-mail email@example.com.
CarlisleFest barbecue competition and cook-off at the Carlisle County fairgrounds in Bardwell. Vendors, barbecue, live music Friday night. For more info, see the CarlisleFest Facebook page or call the Carlisle County judge-executive’s office at (270) 628-5451.
CarlisleFest Monster Catfish Tournament, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, open to the public to observe weigh-in. For information or registration, contact the Carlisle County judge-executive’s office at (270) 628-5451.
The Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum Turkey Shoot is held at and benefits the museum in Wickcliffe in Ballard County, on Ky. Hwy. 286, across from the Town & Country supermarket. 12-gauge, full-choke shotguns only. Cost is $2.75 per person per round; first round begins about 10 a.m. One to two prizes per round, including turkeys, hams, restaurant dinners, and more. Call (270) 210-2452.
Columbus Halloween Festival in Columbus in Hickman County, next to the fire department, from 5–9 p.m. Hayride, Halloween maze, and plenty of candy. Special activities for kids 5 and under. Admission $5. For more information, call (270) 677-2092.
Un-BOO-lievable Weekend, Columbus-Belmont State Park.
Campground trick or treating, best-decorated campsite and best costume, chili and dessert cook-off, followed by a Civil War ghost hayride. For more information on camping and log cabin rentals call (270) 677-2327 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clinton-Hickman County Halloween Parade, starts at 3 p.m. on Court Square, 114 E. Jackson Street, Clinton. This free event, coordinated by the Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by local businesses, includes a candy drop and free refreshments. For more info, call Deena Pittman, (270) 653-4301, or go to the Clinton Hickman County Chamber site.
Fulton Kentucky Zombie Walk, 3 p.m. in Fulton’s Pontotoc Park. Sponsored by Twin Cities’ Men’s Organization and co-hosted (and filmed) by Nerd Domination Films. Live music from Caging Elliot, food vendors, and more. Admission to this family-friendly event is three or four cans of food or dried food (beans, etc.), to the local Twin Cities food bank. For more information, go to Fulton Zombie Walk on Facebook or call (270) 208-1008 (leave message).
For detailed information on all events go to www.kygreatriverroad.org/2015Calendar or e-mail KyGreatRiverRoad@gmail.com.