Preservation Adventure: Henderson, Kentucky

The National Trust is participating in the 2012 Pacifico Beer summer promotional contest, Make Adventure Happen. They are competing for a portion of a $100,000 prize based on the number of votes they receive.

To raise awareness for the contest, they’ve partnered with five preservation fans to highlight “Preservation Adventures” in cities and states across America.  I am not one of those five. I just had so much fun reading their entries, that I was inspired to create a Preservation Adventure for my adopted hometown, Lexington. Then I had so much fun doing that, I decided to create  a Preservation Adventure for my actual hometown, Henderson.  That being said, feel free to click the link above to vote for the National Trust!

So what do Andrew Carnegie, barbeque, John James Audubon, Madonna, the Chicago mob, Tom Hanks, Bluegrass and WC Handy have in common? You got it. As the title of this post suggests, it’s Henderson – a small town on the mighty Ohio River.

First, a little geography. Henderson is located in northwestern Kentucky on the Ohio River, and sits just south of Evansville, Indiana. In fact, the county lies on both sides of the river thanks to a fluctuation of the riverbed defying the common belief that the Ohio River is Kentucky’s northern border!

Just because a town is small (and you’ve probably never heard of it) doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch. There is a lot to see and do  in Henderson, Ky!

Let’s get started!

Stay: Historic B&Bs

Rest your head and weary feet at one of Henderson’s charming Bed and Breakfasts.  Victorian Quarters and the L&N bookend Henderson’s historic downtown and are both within walking distance of downtown attractions. The L&N B&B was built in 1895 as a private residence, but earned its name from a period in the 1930s when an employee of the L&N Railroad operated it as a boarding house.  Victorian Quarters is located in a residential neighborhood adjacent to downtown. It is housed in an Italianate mansion built in 1865 that once overlooked the Ohio River. Both are comfy and cozy and boast of their southern hospitality!

Walk: Riverfront and Downtown

Audubon Bronze

Bronze sculptures of Audubon and a White Crane overlooking the Ohio River and the L&N Railroad Bridge from Audubon Mill Park

Once you’ve settled into your historic accommodations, take a walk along the riverfront. The river was crucial to Henderson’s development. It brought settlers to the region and connected it to international markets.  By the 19th century, Henderson County was a major producer and exporter of tobacco.  Undocumented claims say that in 1860, Henderson ranked second only to Heidelberg, Germany, in terms of per capita wealth!

These days the river is a beautiful backdrop for riverfront activities at Audobon Mill Park. The park was once the site of Red Banks, the earliest documented settlement in present day Henderson.  It was so named because Henderson’s downtown is located on high bluffs of red earth overlooking the river and its floodplains (the height of the bluffs have saved Henderson from even the most severe flooding, most importantly the devastating 1937 flood, and earned it the unofficial motto “On the river, but never in it”).  The view from the park is one of the best in Henderson – a gentle curve in the river, the flat wooded plains beyond, and the L&N Railroad bridge that spans the Ohio.

Civil War Reactors lounge in Audubon Mill Park in 2007.

The park is now called Audubon Mill Park because the renowned ornithologist and painter John James Audubon and his brother-in-law operated a grist mill on the site.  One of the mill stones is still standing, and the foundation of the building is outlined in the grass by a stone path. In 2002, artist Raymond Graf was commissioned to create bronze sculptures based on Audubon’s portfolio.  Fourteen pieces now dot the downtown area. Two of the pieces, a sculpture of Audubon decked out in fringed leather with a musket (looking somewhat like Daniel Boone) and a white pelican, are located in the park.

The park is home to many of Henderson’s biggest cultural events. One of the largest outdoor free concerts in the US, the Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival is held in the park each June.  The festival, which celebrated it 20th anniversary this year, is dedicated to W.C. Handy, a turn-of-the-century Henderson resident and the “father of the Blues.”  It draws national and international Blues acts who take the stage for the three day event. Though Handy only lived in Henderson for a decade, he said of the experience:

“I didn’t write any songs in Henderson, but it was there I realized that experiences I had had, things I had seen and heard, could be set down in a kind of music characteristic of my race.

“There I learned to appreciate the music of my people … then the blues were born because from that day on, I started thinking about putting my own experience down in that particular kind of music.”

Although Bluegrass music is sometimes more associated with the eastern part of the state and the Appalachia region, it has deep roots in Western Kentucky too. The Bluegrass in the Park Folklife Festival, one of the largest free Bluegrass festivals in the country, celebrates this facet of Henderson’s heritage in Audubon Mill Park. It is Henderson’s oldest on-going music festival and marked its 25th continuous year in 2010. Past performers have included Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, John Hartford, Glen Campbell, and other notable Bluegrass artists.

Once you’ve had your fill of the river and the park (which is particularly gorgeous at sunset, I might add), take a walk up Second Street to check out downtown.   Once checker boarded by tobacco warehouses, the lots closest to the river are now characterized by newer development that was constructed after the tobacco trade loosened its grip on Henderson’s economy in the 1940s. (British tariffs on tobacco after WWI slowly shut down Henderson’s export business.  The last tobacco warehouse to close, the Soaper Tobacco Warehouse, closed in the 1980s.)

Henderson boasts luxuriously wide streets and many 19th century commercial buildings.

As you walk up Second Street and stroll down Main and Elm, the newer development gives way to 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings lining extraordinarily wide streets.  Supposedly platted to prevent the spread of fire, the streets are wide enough to accommodate rows of diagonal parking on both sides of the street, two way traffic, AND delivery vehicles in the center of the streets. The availability of surface parking has helped maintain downtown economy.  Make sure you check out some of Henderson’s longest running businesses while on your stroll.   Simon’s Shoes (which specializes in hard to find sizes) and Alles Brothers Furniture have both been operating in downtown Henderson for a century.

Scenes from A League of Their Own were filmed at the Soaper-Esser House in Henderson.

If you head north on Main Street, the commercial buildings give way to large 19th century houses which attest to the former wealth of Henderson’s business class. On the corner of Main and Sixth Streets, you will find one of the best examples.  The Soaper-Esser House was built for businessman, William Soaper in the 1880s and was subsequently owned by Augustus Owsley Stanley, a former governor and US senator.  However, the nearly nine thousand square feet Queen Ann is most famous for its role in the 90s classic, A League of Their Own starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell. The cast and crew spent 3 months in the Evansville and Henderson area filming the WWII baseball movie.  Several pivotal scenes were shot at the Soaper-Esser House, which was made up to look like a 1940s boarding house.  (If you’d like to own this bit of history, it is currently for sale)!

Still from a scene featuring Geena Davis filmed in the Soaper-Esser House. Image via HookedOnHouses

(Side note -Other memorable scenes were filmed at Bosse Field, an historic high school baseball diamond maintained by Bosse High School and used by the Evansville Otters minor baseball team.  It is worth the 20 minute detour to check out a game. A lot of the signage left behind by the film remains, and “cheerleaders” wear the uniforms of the Racine Belles.)

Postcard of Henderson County Public Library. HCPL is a Carnegie Library. Image via Library Postcards

If you walk south along Main, instead, you’ll come across one of downtown’s gems, the Henderson County Public Library. Built in 1904, funds for its construction were secured from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie over a game of golf with a Hendersonian.   The Classical limestone building with rotunda has served the community for over one hundred years.  A 198os addition now houses most of the libraries current collection, while the historic building holds genealogical records, offices, and gallery space. An interior restoration in 2004 brought back the grandeur of its mosaic tile foyer, brass chandelier, stained glass sky light and murals in the rotunda.

Henderson’s courthouse will be eligible for the National Register in 2 years.

Catty-corner to the library is Central Park, the first public park west of the Alleghenies.  Its canopy of old growth trees and meandering paths make it a perfect place to picnic.   The park is adjacent to the courthouse.  Built in 1964, it features soaring dark marble columns supporting a semi-circular portico that references the ca. 1843 courthouse it replaced.  The decision to demolish the 1843 courthouse was hotly disputed by preservationists, but the “new” courthouse will hit its 50 year historic milestone in just 2 years making it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Beyond the library and Central Park lies another residential district with great 19th century housing stock.  My favorite is a sunny yellow two story wood framed house with a deep front porch and second story gallery. As a kid, I imagined whiling away summer afternoons with a book and a glass of lemonade on its front porch swing.

Rest and Eat

Wolf’s Tavern has been serving Hendersonians since 1878.

After all that downtown walking, you’re sure to have worked up an appetite. Stay downtown to check out Wolf’s Tavern, on the corner of Green and First Streets, one of Henderson’s longest operating restaurants. It is famous for its bean soup and its connection to illegal gambling. In the 1930s and 40s,  Henderson was crawling with illegal gambling operations and Wolf’s is rumored to have housed a few slot machines and sundry during that time. It is also rumored that Henderson’s gambling circuit was linked to the Chicago mob – it was even referred to as “Little Chicago” by some.  Bugs Moran, a Chicago mobster infamous for his involvement in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, was arrested while hiding out only a few blocks from Wolf’s in 1946!

Planters Coffee House in habits the former Planters Bank

If you’re looking for lighter fare and/or a caffeinated pick-me-up, check out Planter’s Coffeehouse located in the former Planter’s Bank building on Main Street.  When the bank was adapted for use as a coffee shop, the atrium was restored. The result is a quaint and cozy coffee shop perfect for lingering over a cuppa.

If you are looking for something a little more decadent, you can’t miss Bon Ton Mini Mart on Madison Street (about 5 minutes from downtown). Listed in  1,000 Places You Must See Before You Die US and Canada Edition and reviewed by Roadfood.com and the Travel Channel, it has the best fried chicken you’ll ever taste. Don’t believe me? Just read this review and tell me your mouth isn’t watering.

Nature

The Audubon Museum’s tower has niches designed for nesting birds. Image via Encyclopedia Britannica.

After  you’ve renewed your spirits with some food and drink, head out Highway41 North to Audubon State Park and Museum.  Listed in the Nation Register of Historic Places, the Museum houses original oil and watercolor paintings  by Audubon, as well as personal memorabilia.  The museaum was constructed during the Depression by the CCC and WPA in the Norman Revival style. Named one of the nation’s Top 100 Family Campgrounds, Top 25 Birdwatching Spots, and Top 50 Hiking Trails by Reserve America in 2008, you won’t want to miss all that the state park and museum have to offer, including trails, golf and paddles boats.  The park also recently acquired the northernmost Bald Cyprus and Tupelo grove in the US, a swampy oddity worth checking out.

Bald Cypress and Tupelo grove in Henderson, KY. The “twin bridges” over the Ohio River can be seen in the background. This swamp is sometimes home to bald eagles.

Sports

Ellis Park is located on the Indiana side of the Ohio. When it was built in 1922, it was called Dade Park.

Head across the twin bridges to Ellis Park. Don’t let crossing the river fool you, you’re still in Kentucky where the horse is king.   The racetrack opened in 1922 and has a one and one eight mile dirt track, partially composed of sand from the Ohio River. Despite being flooded to the mezzanine level during the 1937 flood, Ellis Park has raced Thoroughbreds every summer since it opened it’s doors. Live racing can be viewed July through Labor Day and Instant Racing Machines are available 365 days a year.

(Side note #2 – During the 30s and 40s when gambling was rampant in the county, this parcel of land on the Indiana side of the Ohio where Ellis Park is located, was referred to as “no man’s land” and wasn’t policed by either state! The Club Trocedero opened across the street from the racetrack in 1939 with a dance floor that could accommodate 220 couples, a grand stage that hosted Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and the like, $3 Sirloin Strip and a nefarious basement game room where brawls and shootings went unpoliced! Unfortunately the Troc was destroyed by fire in 1990. )

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5 comments

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