Frankfort, Kentucky: The little capital that could

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With 27,000 people, Frankfort, Ky., is one of the smallest of the nation’s capitals. Only Vermont’s Montpelier, South Dakota’s Pierre, and Maine’s Augusta have fewer residents.

But this small town is an overachiever when it comes to attractions. Surrounded by rolling wooded hills and bluegrass pastures, its character has been shaped by an assortment of eccentric adventurers, distinguished statesman, and more than a few scoundrels. Today Frankfort blends warm Southern hospitality with a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, making this a city on the rise.

The best place to begin a tour is the neoclassical Kentucky State Capitol, a Beaux-Arts structure with imposing columns and staircases big enough for a parade. A 14-foot bronze statue of Kentucky’s most famous son, Abraham Lincoln, dominates its grand rotunda. He looks so lifelike that you almost expect him to step down and start talking about his childhood on a farm 80 miles southwest of here.

“This is actually our fourth capitol building,” said tour guide Annie Denny. “It was completed in 1910 after six years of construction. Workmen used marble from Georgia and Tennessee and granite from Vermont and topped it all with a dome that’s 18 stories high. It’s one of the most beautiful capitols in the nation.”

A few blocks away, the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History takes visitors on a journey, telling the state’s history through stories of citizens that include Lexington madam Belle Brezing and William Goebel, who was appointed governor after being shot by an assassin in downtown Frankfort in 1900. He served for just three days before he perished from his wounds. Other exhibits explore the tragedies and complexities of the Civil War era and the fight to desegregate Kentucky during the 1950s and ’60s. One of the most significant artifacts on display is the pocket watch carried by Abraham Lincoln (when Steven Spielberg was making his acclaimed movie about the president, he came here to record its ticking).

History buffs also will enjoy touring the Old Governor’s Mansion, home to 33 governors from 1798 to 1914, and Liberty Hall, a Georgian-style mansion with beautiful gardens. Nearby, the Capital City Museum focuses on the quirkier aspects of local history, including the dramatic life of its founding father James Wilkinson. After serving as a general during the Revolutionary War, Wilkinson bought the land on which the city sits and platted its first streets in the 1786 — but the military hero had a darker side.

“Wilkinson was a secret agent for the Spanish crown, but he double-crossed almost everyone during his life,” said curator John Downs. “He’s just one of many unusual characters who’ve lived in Frankfort through the years. In the early 1800s, especially, Kentucky was a magnet for adventurers, the ambitious, and the second sons of wealthy Virginia families, who came here to make their fortunes since they couldn’t inherit land at home.”

Buffalo Trace Distillery, which sits on an ancient trail once traveled by bison, preserves another part of Kentucky history: its liquor-making traditions. As the nation’s oldest continually operating distillery, it’s been in the bourbon business for more than 200 years (though during Prohibition it made “medicinal” drinks). Visitors can explore Buffalo Trace on six tours that range from a hard-hat exploration of its behind-the-scenes operations to one focusing on the ghost stories connected to its historic buildings that date back to 1792.

Bourbon also plays a key role in two local businesses that welcome visitors. Rebecca Ruth Candy was founded in 1919 by a couple of schoolteachers who were more interested in candymaking than teaching. Though one left the company after a few years, Ruth Booe kept the business going through ups and downs that included the Great Depression. In 1936, she developed a recipe for a confectionary she dubbed bourbon balls: covered in chocolate and topped with a pecan, they have a creamy center flavored with bourbon. The company, which still is family-owned, offers tours of its down-home manufacturing facility in a Frankfort residential neighborhood.

Almost a decade ago, Tony Davis launched his own bourbon-related enterprise, Kentucky Knows. He began by making handcrafted items such as cutting boards and serving trays from used bourbon barrels. Then he started experimenting with bourbon-infused coffee, first roasting the beans and then storing them in barrels that had previously held liquor. The result has caught the fancy of coffee aficionados across the country, as well as visitors who stop by his storefront enterprise in downtown Frankfort.

“I founded my company in Lexington, but I moved it to Frankfort last year because I wanted to be closer to Buffalo Trace Distillery,” said Davis. “I also like what’s happening in Frankfort — there’s a renaissance going on here and I’m happy to be part of it.”

After touring Frankfort, visitors can explore the surrounding countryside. Rockin’ Thunder Jet Boat offers excursions on a heavily forested and sparsely populated stretch of the Kentucky River between Frankfort and Madison, Ind.

“This river hasn’t changed much since the 1840s,” said Captain Paul Nicholson. “We use a sturdy, flat-bottomed boat because there’s little help out there if we run into trouble on snags.”

The Salato Wildlife Education Center gives more information on the diverse ecosystems of Kentucky, from its eastern mountains and lush bluegrass region to lowland marshlands. Visitors here can learn about the non-human inhabitants of the state, including alligator snapping turtles and copperhead snakes. The 262-acre complex also has two fishing lakes, wooded trails and outdoor enclosures with bison, black bear, bobcats and elk, all species native to Kentucky.

Finally, Cove Spring Park and Nature Preserve preserves 250 acres of wetlands, waterfalls, forest ravines, and streams. It’s a good place to reflect on this small capital with a big history, a meeting place between North and South.

Where to eat If you go

l Serafini: 243 W. Broadway St., Frankfort, Ky., serves upscale dishes in a historic storefront; www.serafinifrankfort.com; (502) 875-5599

l Cliffside Diner: 175 Old Lawrenceburg Rd., Frankfort, Ky.; a 1950s-style eatery with checkerboard tiles and red vinyl seats; (502) 352-2454

Where to lodge

l Capital Plaza Hotel: 405 Wilkinson Blvd., Frankfort, Ky.; www.capitalplazaky.com; (502) 227-5100

More information

l Frankfort/Franklin County Tourist & Convention Commission: www.visitfrankfort.com; at (800) 960-7200

l Kentucky Department of Travel: www.kentuckytourism.com

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