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My Old Kentucky Home



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People think of My Old Kentucky Home as a house, but it's actually an entire state park. The park includes the house ("Federal Hill"), various outbuildings (this was, after all, a prosperous plantation), gardens, a golf course, outdoor theater, campground, visitor center and walking trails. The park all included is easily worth a weekend's visit. There's no lodge or restaurant in the park, but it's in the middle of Bardstown so lodging and restaurants are available right across the street or within a mile.

The tour of the house is definitely worth the time and the $10 price. This is no recreation. This was the house as Stephen Foster saw it during his three month Summer visit here (Judge Rowan was his uncle, and Rowan's children his cousins), and the furniture is the same as when he was here. As you tour the dining room, parlor, bedrooms, kitchen, carriage house, hallways and stairs try to imagine what it would have been like to live here in the 1840s and 1850s (Foster's visit was in 1852). Foster was already a composer when he arrived here. He viewed his surroundings with the heightened sensitivity of an artist who turned his impressions into music. For Foster, born and raised in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, the pastoral lifestyle of the Rowan family must have seemed almost unreal. And it carved itself deep into his creative mind. This visit plus a steamboat trip he took with his Mother and Sster from Pittsburgh to New Orleans were Foster's only experiences in the South, yet he spent his entire career writing songs about the South.

This reconstructed slave cabin down the hill from the mansion was the most important influence on Foster. (There was a long row of such cabins in 1852 but they only rebuilt this one.) Foster would wander down to these cabins in the evenings and talk to the slaves. From them he learned the horrors of being bought and sold, of never knowing whether you might be sold "down the river," or having your wife, son or daughter sold, never to see them again. Influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel, Foster began working on a song whose first line was "The Sun Shines Bright On Uncle Tom's Cabin" then the second line began "BUT....," and the song portrayed the misery of slavery. However, he couldn't get the rhythm to work. He changed the words to "The Sun Shines Bright On My Old Kentucky Abode," and finally to "Old Kentucky Home" and suddenly the song clicked. What Kentuckians consider a hym to the glory of living in Kentucky is actually a powerful abolitionist statement. Foster is often accused of being a racist but the lyrics to his songs make it obvious that he sided with the slaves. He describes their never ending toil and hardship.

The Stephen Foster Story is a two hour Broadway style outdoor drama staged during the Summer in a 1300 seat amphitheater at the southern edge of the park. It began in1959 and uses veteran professionals and college students for its acting and technical support roles. The show features 50 Stephen Foster songs. It's considered the best of the dozen outdoor dramas in the seven Ohio Valley states. College theater majors will enjoy the costuming, choreography and sets. Ironically, the drama is mostly set in Pittsburgh and portrays the early years as Foster develops his composing skills and pursues Jane McDowell, whose parents disapprove of him because he has poor financial prospects. He was a legitimate musical genius, the father of American music and the first person to try to actually make a living from music. He failed. His music was wildly popular and the publishers and performers made big money from it but Foster did not. He died in poverty. The script was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green.

The 18-hole golf course at My Old Kentucky Home State Park features 6,351 yards for a par of 71. It opened in 1933 and is currently rated four stars by Golf Digest . The front nine holes were completely designed and rebuilt in 2005 and the back nine were upgraded in 2011.In 2022 it was ranked #2 among all Kentuckly public courses. During Summers, especially on weekends, the course is heavily used. This is a beautiful course in Spring and Fall, although it becomes very hot and humid in the Summer.

The Old Kentucky Home Campground is designed mostly for trailers but there are some very nice tent sites. It's high on the plateau next to the back holes of the golf course, so it gets a steady breeze and in case of bad weather a stiff wind. Many of the trees are over 100 years old. All you have to do is register at the gatehouse and pick your site. Tent sites are a bit more private, but trailer pads are close together resulting in little privacy.

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