A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

See KY: History, hospitality and good eats await in Harrodsburg and Mercer County


Old Fort Harrod State Park (Photo from Kentuckytourism.com)


By Marty Rosen
Special to KyForward

On a sunny autumn day – when the Kentucky air is as crisp as a ripe apple and children are scampering around the grounds of Old Fort Harrod State Park – it’s hard to fathom that Harrodsburg (then called Harrodstown) was once the only, fragile English-speaking outpost to be found in the wilderness west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Once upon a time, this was dangerous ground. When Captain James Harrod and his crew of pioneers arrived in 1774, a farmer setting out to work his crop of corn or turnips needed to have two tools close at hand: a hoe and a rifle.

Life is much different here today, but for those first settlers and for the Native Americans who challenged their arrival, Harrodsburg and Mercer County was a place worth fighting for. Eventually, the settlers would win their peace, and those early battles would give way to prosperous, thriving communities and lush farms. And the beauty and spirit of the land would eventually lure one of America’s great Utopian communities.


Old Fort Harrod State Park (Photo from Kentuckytourism.com)

Where Kentucky was born

To see how far Harrodsburg has come, visitors will do well to begin at the beginning – and Old Fort Harrod is literally the beginning of Kentucky. Here, the Commonwealth’s first town was founded and its first crop of wheat was harvested. And the beams and blockhouses of the fort – a replica of the original stockade – are not just a vivid reminder of the pioneer experience, but also a lesson in military architecture.

These were the first fortifications built in this part of the country, and they became the template for later defensive fortifications all across the frontier. Within these walls today, history is brought to life through reenactments of pioneer crafts and by exhibits that highlight Native American life and Civil War history – and notably by the cabin where Abraham Lincoln’s parents were married in 1806.

Despite its rough beginnings, modern-day Harrodsburg is about as calm and cozy a town as you’ll find anywhere. When you stop in to pick up some maps and brochures at the Diamond Point Welcome Center, home of the Harrodsburg/Mercer County Tourist Commission, friendly staff treat you like a family member who’s been out of town for a while and needs a few reminders about the places you need to visit.

And there are plenty of places to visit, both in the town and out in the countryside.

A variety of area attractions

If Old Fort Harrod is a reminder of Kentucky’s military past, the graceful architecture that lines Harrodsburg’s streets is a tribute to the prosperity and craftsmanship that shaped Kentucky’s Bluegrass region during the 19th and 20th centuries. Harrodsburg boasts a dense concentration of residential, commercial, civic and church architecture, much of which is accessible via short walks near the town square, along South Main Street and Beaumont Avenue.


Beaumont Inn (Photo from Kentuckytourism.com)

In fact, walking – preferably with a copy of the carefully researched, meticulously specific “Harrodsburg & Mercer County Walking & Driving Tour” brochure – is the best way to take in the beautifully preserved details of homes that date back as far as the 1780s and include a rich variety of styles: Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Federal, Italianate, Victorian and Georgian.

To best experience Harrodsburg’s architecture and hospitality, pay a visit to the Beaumont Inn, a stately hotel/B&B. If you have the yen to stay in a guest room that’s more than 150 years old, the Beaumont can accommodate you. Once serving as a women’s college, the main building dates back to 1845 but is now the oldest family-owned Inn in Kentucky.

Even if you can’t spend the night, this charming place is worth a visit. As the former home of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John M. Harlan, the grounds are home to beautiful gardens and public areas have the feel of a lived-in museum, with outstanding furnishings, art and decorations. There’s a well-stocked gift shop, and the dining and bar service are splendid.

The restaurant’s specialty is “yellow-legged” fried chicken – locally-raised, corn-fed chicken fried in lard. But the corn pudding, country ham, desserts, bourbon list and pre-Prohibition cocktails also deserve attention.

Delicious diversions

Speaking of food, Harrodsburg has plenty to offer. If you prefer casual dining or crave some homemade fudge, Dedman’s Drugstore in the heart of Harrodsburg’s picturesque downtown has the feel and menu of an old-fashioned soda fountain, complete with sandwiches and malts. It’s also home of the Kentucky Fudge Company, so there’s plenty of fresh fudge on hand.


Kentucky Fudge (Photo from Kentuckytourism.com)

Harrodsburg also caters to those who adore the calm atmosphere of an elegant tea room in an historic setting at the Aspen Hall Manor Tea Room. And for those wanting to cut into a juicy steak, Eddie Montgomery’s Steakhouse on the outskirts of town offers great food and entertainment. And given that the founder is half of the popular country duo Montgomery Gentry, there’s always the possibility that you can supplement your meal with an autograph from the star himself.

If you’re looking for a bit of evening entertainment, the Ragged Edge Community Theatre puts on an ambitious schedule of plays and musicals throughout the year. (This season’s offerings include Babe, the Sheep Pig, Bus Stop, Thoroughly Modern Millie and more.) On Friday nights, The Barn in nearby Burgin offers live country music. And those looking for a little outdoor activity can ride horseback at Big Red Stables, tee up at Bright Leaf Golf Resort (which offers 36 holes, including a 9-hole par three course and a full 18-hole championship route) or take advantage of the many marinas and fishing opportunities in the area.

Mercer County countryside

Leave the city of Harrodsburg for a drive through the Mercer County countryside and you’re deep in the heart of Kentucky’s historic Bluegrass region, where horses canter over rolling hills and the quiet roads are lined with stone fences. Head northeast on U.S. 68 and you’ll make your way to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

For just over a century, from 1805-1910, Pleasant Hill was home to a Shaker religious community that became famous for the quality of its goods (livestock, brooms, fabrics, produce), for its record of technological innovation (complex plumbing systems that were the first of their kind in the state) and for its communal lifestyle.

These days Shaker Village offers lodging for individuals and groups. Livestock roam the grounds (which are bordered by 25 miles of stone fences that surround 3,000 acres and 34 19th century buildings), and the simple elegance of the architecture and furnishings can be experienced by anyone with time to spend a night, walk the grounds, or take in a meal – complete with a slice of tart Shaker lemon pie – at the Trustees’ Office Dining Room or in front of a warm wood fire in the Winter Kitchen.

And when fall colors are rising to a jubilant pitch in Central Kentucky, the high point of a visit to Mercer County might just be a view of High Bridge. Shaker Village’s 115-passenger riverboat, the Dixie Bell, makes two cruises a day beneath the towering limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River Palisades. That takes it directly beneath High Bridge, the historic railroad bridge that looms more than 300 feet above the river. It was once the highest bridge in North America, the highest railroad bridge in the world, and still connects some of Kentucky’s most dramatic landscape.


Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (Photo from Kentuckytourism.com)


With so much to see and do, now is a perfect time to start planning your getaway to Harrodsburg and Mercer County, Kentucky. For more information, call 800-355-9192 or click here.

If you go:

Harrodsburg/Mercer County Tourist Commission at Diamond Point Welcome Center
859-734-2364, 800-355-9192

Old Fort Harrod State Park

Harrodsburg Downtown Historic District,
Harrodsburg, Mercer County Driving and Walking Tour

859-734-2364, 800-355-9192

Beaumont Inn
859-734-3381, 800-352-3992

Dedman Drugstore/Kentucky Fudge Company

Aspen Hall Manor Tea Room
859-734-5050, 888-485-8870

Ragged Edge Community Theatre

The Barn

Big Red Stables

Bright Leaf Golf Resort
859-734-5481, 800-469-6038

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
859-734-5411, 800-734-5611

Dixie Belle Riverboat at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
859-734-5411, 800-734-5611

Marty Rosen writes for the Kentucky Department of Travel website, KentuckyTourism.com, where this story first appeared.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment