I checked the time on my phone: 4:50 a.m. My alarm was going to ring in 10 minutes. I could hear the truck tires on I-65 whining in the distance and thought about the miles I had to cover. I had two days to visit 20 Kentucky county courthouses, and I needed to be back for an evening engagement on the second day.
In grade school, I learned Kentucky had small counties so a circuit judge could travel on horseback from one county seat to the next in a day’s journey. The counties also were kept small to allow citizens to travel to the county seat and back home in a day’s time. Historians refute those claims today, but Kentucky ended up with 120 counties, nonetheless. My older brother and I had hatched a harebrained plan to take two days and visit as many county courthouses as we could on an iron horse—the motorcycle.
Even though I grew up in Simpson County, Kentucky hasn’t been home for more than 30 years. I wanted a chance to reconnect to the Bluegrass State I cherished as a boy. I wanted to see it with new eyes. I also wanted to show off my home state to my wife. She was excited about touring the verdant Kentucky countryside, but she wasn’t too keen about doing so on two wheels.I slipped on my riding pants, grabbed my helmet, and walked out into the cool morning air. The sky was crisp blue, without a cloud. The temperature was cool but not cold. The breeze was light. The rising sun brought patches of wispy fog over the ponds and creeks. It was a perfect day for riding.
I parked my BMW K1200LT (affectionately dubbed “Charlie Brown” by my daughter) on the south side of the square in Franklin, the county seat of Simpson County and my hometown. The historic courthouse sits on a large lawn. Benches still line the sidewalk around the courthouse, and I remember old men in overalls sitting on those benches and whittling as they told stories of days gone by.My friend, Tim, eased up beside me on a rented, black Honda Gold Wing. Next, my sister, Tahlee, pulled up on a 1996 BMW R110R, her fiery red hair braided and tucked neatly under her helmet. Then came my nephew, Bryce, on a 1983 BMW R80ST he had just repaired for the ride. My older brother, Chock, pulled up to the square on his 1995 BMW R1100GS (which he calls “Gus”). My father-in-law rounded out the caravan in a rental car with my wife in the passenger seat.
I checked my watch. We already were behind schedule. We snapped a photo in front of the courthouse and headed east on Highway 100 toward Allen County. My brother had a good GPS, so I was content to let him lead the way. It would allow me to focus on riding and the passing scenery.
Riding a motorcycle is an intimate experience. In a car, surrounded by a cage of metal and glass, you are one step removed from the sights around you. On a motorcycle without those protections, you become a part of the scenery, breathing in all the details. I felt the chill of the morning air. I could smell the dew and the sweet blossoms of the pink and white dogwood trees. Even through my helmet, I could hear the call of birds and the sound of tractors in the field. I felt the road as I negotiated my iron steed through the curves and over the hills of Kentucky highways.
The old adage goes: Never talk about politics or religion in polite company. Judging by the election signs that checkered the passing scenery and the abundance of churches around every bend, I got the feeling that Kentuckians didn’t talk about anything but politics and religion. Primary elections were a month away, and candidates were battling for votes at every street corner, intersection and yard, mile after mile. Like the political signs, churches also seemed a ubiquitous feature of the passing landscape. One or two churches could be found either on the town square or within easy walking distance of every courthouse we visited.
The first stop was Allen County, where the old courthouse had been replaced by a modern justice center. Next, we visited Monroe County, where the courthouse sat on a small rise and seemed to tower above the rest of the town. We stopped at the Alpine Motel above Burkesville, the county seat of Cumberland County, to enjoy the views of the Cumberland River valley and then eased down the hill for breakfast with cousins at Annie Ruby’s Café. My wife then donned her helmet and joined me on the ride to Adair County.
After visiting a few courthouses, it became apparent Kentuckians have long been willing to fight for their beliefs. A big banner touting hometown hero and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer welcomed us to the Adair County Courthouse in Columbia. Outside the Casey County Courthouse in Liberty, historical markers regaled the feats of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry in the Civil War. Judging by the historical markers outside almost every courthouse we visited, it was evident that Kentuckians displayed bravery under fire. In Mercer County, at the Kentucky Fudge Company in historic Dedman’s Drugstore, Roy, a World War II veteran, explained, “We all went to war. We didn’t have a choice.”
We wound our way northward from Adair County to Casey County (with a scenic detour to Penn’s Store to be greeted only by a friendly dog), Boyle County (birthplace of the Kentucky Constitution), Mercer County, Anderson County, and eventually to Franklin County. We took a scenic route along the Kentucky River behind the Capitol, where the dogwoods popped against the green leaves of spring trees. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, Kentucky’s seat of state government mimicked that intimate feel so prominent in every county. It felt like home.
By the time the sun was dropping below the horizon, we stopped in Shelby County for the night. We had traveled only 275 miles. I worried I might not make my engagement the next night, but we had smelled the flowers, tasted the food, and interacted with real people. I was content with the day’s journey.
Thunder greeted us the next morning. I peeked through the blinds at the rain-covered roads and worried. After a look at the radar and an hour delay, we mounted up and—through dark clouds and occasional showers—made our way to Spencer County. My wife had returned to the rental car. We made a quick stop at the Spencer County Courthouse in Taylorsville and headed for Nelson County and Bardstown. Somewhere in between, the motorcycles and the car got separated, and the rain got worse. After a couple of phone calls, we met at the most logical place: My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
Family can make any journey better. I come from a family of 10 children, but only two stayed in Kentucky. It was nice to reconnect with my sister out on the road and do something fun with my nephews. (Two more joined us the second day: Russell on a 1992 BMW R100GSPD and Shelvin on a 1985 BMW R65 he called “Possum.”) My brother and I talked via Bluetooth headsets as we braved the stormy weather. Just outside of Elizabethtown in Hardin County, we got stuck behind a garbage truck. My brother commented as he throttled back, “This garbage truck stinks.” After a pause, he said, “Just like the stuff politicians produce.” Politics and religion …
Like its politics, Kentucky weather can bring an occasional destructive storm, but it usually doesn’t last too long. We hit a few more showers as we headed west by northwest to Breckinridge and Hancock counties, but by the time we stopped in Owensboro for lunch at Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, the skies had cleared.
I checked my watch. With the rain delays and the pace we were making, I worried about making my engagement that evening.
After lunch, with blue skies overhead, my wife joined me again. Road trips with someone you love can be stressful, especially if you have a deadline, but when the woman you love has her arms wrapped around you and leans up against you as you scoot down the highway soaking up the passing scenery, you tend to forget about your troubles. You glide along together enjoying a perfect spring day, just happy that you’re together.
In Ohio County, we took note of a historical marker listing all the county courthouses that were burned during the Civil War. In Breckinridge County, the Confederate flag was on display just across the street from the courthouse. Also in Ohio County, a woman in a pickup truck stopped to talk. After a few pleasantries, she told us about getting threatened at gunpoint when she stumbled upon someone’s illegal marijuana crop. She snuck back under the cover of darkness with several gallons of Roundup and took care of the problem.
When we stopped in Greenville, Muhlenberg County, I had to make a decision: I could either stay on the ride with my family and finish the trip, or make a beeline to my other engagement. I looked at the faces of my fellow travelers and family members and canceled the appointment.
We stopped for a photo and restroom break at the historic courthouse in Todd County (Elkton). The L & R Soda Bar on the public square was a pleasant throwback to times gone by, but the life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe that stared at me in the men’s restroom was a bit unnerving. According to my wife, she had to put up with John Wayne.
We cruised through Logan County and picked up Highway 100 for the final leg back to Simpson County. The courthouse stood like a sentinel in the county square—a symbol of the intimate nature of local government in Kentucky. We turned right and ended the day at Frosty Freeze, a mom-and-pop joint that has been around for more than 55 years, and recapped the day over burgers and milkshakes.
We covered 569 miles and visited 20 courthouses during our two-day trip. It took us longer than I expected, and I missed my engagement, but I reconnected with my home state in a way just as intimate as the small county government buildings we visited. A motorcycle symbolizes freedom, rugged individualism and a close-up travel connection, making the iron horse the perfect way to see Kentucky.
If you go ...
- Simpson County Courthouse, 103 West Cedar Street, Franklin - The McDonald Brothers of Louisville redesigned the Simpson County Courthouse after it was destroyed by fire in 1882.
- Allen County Courthouse, 201 West Main Street, Scottsville - The Allen County Courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1902; it is now located inside the City County Building with Scottsville City Hall.
- Monroe County Courthouse, North Main Street, Tompkinsville - Built in 1976 of modern Georgian design, the current Monroe County Courthouse bears a semi-circular arch over its entrance, a reflection of the previous courthouse’s architecture.
- Alpine Motel, 700 Hill Street, Burkesville - Enjoy a splendid vista of Burkesville and the Cumberland Valley from this historic property perched atop Bill Hill Mountain.
- Annie Ruby’s Café, 204 Courthouse Square, Burkesville - Located inside a 200-plus-year-old pharmacy, the restaurant serves up a variety of breakfast and lunch fare, including a not-to-be-missed-if-it’s-in-season tomato pie.
- Cumberland County Courthouse, 600 Courthouse Square, Burkesville - The present building, of the Colonial Georgian style, is the fourth courthouse to be built on the site and was constructed in 1934.
- Adair County Courthouse, 500 Public Square, Columbia - Builder William Henry Hudson's likeness can be found in the column of this courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Casey County Courthouse, 625 Campbellsville Street, Liberty - Brick from a previous courthouse was used to build the elaborate Victorian structure that is the current Casey County Courthouse.
- Kentucky Fudge Company, 225 South Main Street, Harrodsburg - Located in a circa 1860 building that originated as a drugstore, Kentucky Fudge Company offers a delicious array of sweets, soups, sandwiches and entrée specials.
- Penn’s Store, 257 Penn’s Store Road, Gravel Switch - Since 1850, this property has been owned by the Penn clan, making it the nation’s oldest country store run by the same family.
- Boyle County Courthouse, 321 West Main Street, Danville - Built after the previous courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1860, the present Boyle County Courthouse was designed by architect James R. Carrigan in Italianate style with a two-story clock tower.
- Constitution Square State Historic Site, 134 South Second Street, Danville - Birthplace of the Kentucky Constitution, the site boasts a statue depicting our state seal and memorial plaques for each Kentucky governor.
- Mercer County Courthouse, 134 South Main Street, Harrodsburg - A 1928 fire in the Mercer County Courthouse led to replacement of the original cupola, but otherwise the building retains the 1913 design by Falls City Construction Company.
- Anderson County Courthouse, 137 South Main Street, Lawrenceburg - A 1915 fire left only the outside walls of the Anderson County Courthouse standing; the new courthouse has a Beaux-Arts design.
- Kentucky State Capitol, 700 Capital Avenue, Frankfort - Tour the opulent interiors and magnificent landscaping at the capitol, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010.
- Shelby County Courthouse, 501 Main Street, Shelbyville - The two-story stone courthouse, of classical Beaux-Arts design and fronted by a Corinthian order portico, was designed by Joseph & Joseph of Louisville.
- Spencer County Courthouse, 12 West Main Street, Taylorsville - The present Spencer County Courthouse was built in 1915 of Beaux-Arts design, fronted by a Roman Ionic order portico, after a 1914 fire destroyed the previous courthouse.
- My Old Kentucky Home State Park, 501 East Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown - 1795 plantation home, Federal Hill, is said to have inspired Stephen Foster to compose what is now our official state song.
- Nelson County Courthouse, 113 East Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown - The Nelson County Courthouse was finished in 1891 and reflects a Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style.
- Hardin County Courthouse, 100 Public Square, Elizabethtown - The fourth and current Hardin County Courthouse, a three-story brick structure, was built to replace the courthouse that burned in 1932.
- Breckinridge County Courthouse, 208 South Main Street, Hardinsburg - After the previous courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1957, architect Walter Scott Roberts of Owensboro designed the new courthouse with two two-story fireproof vaults, and the building itself is said to be completely fireproof.
- Hancock County Courthouse, 225 Main Cross Street, Hawesville - The Hancock County Courthouse, completed in 1868 and designed by the Boston architectural firm of Boyd, Mursina, and Boyd, combines traditional Greek and Italianate styles.
- Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, 2840 West Parrish Avenue, Owensboro - Operated by the same family since 1963, this iconic eatery boasts a buffet overflowing with barbecue, burgoo, country-style veggies and homemade desserts.
- Daviess County Courthouse, 212 Saint Ann Street, Owensboro - The fifth and current Daviess County Courthouse is constructed of Indiana limestone, and was designed by Max W. Bisson & Associates.
- Ohio County Courthouse, 301 South Main Street, Hartford - Funding for the current Ohio County Courthouse, constructed in 1943 with poured concrete, came from the Public Works Administration.
- Muhlenberg County Courthouse, 100 South Main Street, Greenville - The Muhlenberg County Courthouse, built in 1907 in Beaux-Arts design, features an octagonal clock and bell tower.
- Todd County Courthouse, 200 East Washington Street, Elkton - According to legend, a different brick mason laid each of the four walls of the 1976 Todd County Courthouse as part of a competition; according to records, a Mr. Shemwell won a coat as a prize for constructing the south wall.
- L & R Soda Bar, Public Square, Elkton - Step back to the era of poodle skirts and duck-tail hairdos and enjoy a taste of nostalgia at this restaurant and soda fountain.
- Logan County Courthouse, 200 West Fourth Street, Russellville - The current Logan County Courthouse was built in 1904 after a bomb exploded in the old courthouse.
- Frosty Freeze, 433 South Main Street, Franklin - Lauded for its “baby burgers,” this roadside ice cream stand and fast food joint has been delighting customers since 1956.
More points of interest near Brock’s motorcycle route:
- Octagon Hall, Franklin
- Hardscratch Country Store, Columbia
- Historic Merchants Row and Battle of Perryville State Historic Site, Perryville
- Old Fort Harrod State Park, Harrodsburg
- Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Harrodsburg
- Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Frankfort
- Swopes Cars of Yesteryear Museum, Elizabethtown
- Judge Joseph Holt House, Cloverport
- Smothers Park, Owensboro
- Bill Monroe Homeplace, Rosine
- Lost River Cave and Underground Boat Tour, Bowling Green