Two and a half centuries ago, the roads and trails of the Southern wilds were a mysterious, dangerous place. Explorers and travelers knew not what lay beyond each curve or hillock; any number of dangers could appear in the dense trees, beasts or bandits or Native Americans. But one sight that almost every weary migrant was happy to see was the glowing candlelight and welcoming door of a tavern.
For many adventurers traveling along the stagecoach road that led west from Philadelphia and Virginia, that mirage-like visage took the form of the Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky. Opened in 1779, the tavern has never closed since (with the brief exception of a period of renovation following a fire in the late twentieth century). For over 230 years, the tavern has welcomed visitors from far and wide, of humble means and great riches, of famous, noble, and common backgrounds.
Originally named for its first owner, Hynes Hotel was purposefully situated at the western end of the stagecoach road. Road-worn travelers found a welcoming beacon of comfort at the end of their trek—or, for those brave adventurers, a final taste of civilization before their venture into the unknown began.
From its early years the tavern attracted famous visitors for pleasure and business. George Rogers Clark utilized the then-new space as a base for American troops in the final throes of the Revolution. Daniel Boone stayed at the hotel in the early 1790’s; the famous explorer was subpoenaed to testify in a case on the square outside the hotel—the designated meeting place predating a formal courthouse. Even the exiled royal Louis-Philippe of France enjoyed some time at the hotel. While there, a member of his company painted murals along the halls of the hotel, a talking point for over a hundred years.
Notable visitors continued throughout the nineteenth century. Staying at the hotel proved fortuitous for a number of future presidents, including Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and a young Abraham Lincoln, who stayed at the hotel as his parents stood trial regarding title to their land (the outcome of which would decide their move to Indiana). Henry Clay and John Fitch, the inventor of the steamboat, also spent some time at the hotel. But not all visitors were of patrician or virtuous stock; the infamous outlaw Jesse James stayed at the hotel, and, according to legend, the bullet holes visible in the murals are the result of James’s drunken antics, the shots taken at fictitious butterflies.
George Talbott came to own the tavern in 1886, but, unlike the Presidential incumbents before him, the hotel did not bring him luck: in the two years following his purchase, six of his children died within the tavern’s walls. Whether as an ode to his children or simply out of habit, the tavern has maintained some reference to Talbott as its namesake for over a century. Previously called Hynes House or Hotel, Bardstown Hotel, Chapman’s House, Shady Bower Hotel, and the Newman House, The Talbott Tavern or the Old Talbott Tavern has been the site’s official name since Talbott’s purchase.
As in the centuries before, the Old Talbott Tavern continued to draw in famous guests throughout the twentieth century. Queen Marie of Romania rested her head in the Tavern, as well as General George Patton. Today, the tavern’s lengthy history has earned it a spot on countless lists of haunted places; you’re more likely to find a ghost hunter than a famous face at Old Talbott Tavern nowadays. But whether visitors be of royal blood or simple tourists, they’re still greeted with the same cheery facade, now lit by an electric glow rather than a fiery one, that travelers enjoyed two hundred years ago.
Old Talbott Tavern now boasts a five-room bed-and-breakfast, complete with restaurant and—in accordance with the region’s history—a bourbon bar. After a fire destroyed the second story of the hotel in 1998, the space was remodeled with as much adherence to history as possible. Though the murals of Louis-Philippe’s entourage remain fire-burned and in need of restoration, the majority of the tavern has been returned to its original, eighteenth-century beauty. Exhausted westward travelers can look for that same beacon along the highway, the draw of two and a half centuries’ worth of very interesting visitors like themselves.
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