The wonders of the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway
I had decided to go to Kentucky, again, to find more of those ‘Made in America’ objects d’art that enthralled my family last Christmas. Before I started my journey, I did a little research on the Web. I was interested in taking a trip along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway (now U.S. Highway 25E). One of the surprises I encountered in my research was a remarkable library and museum deep in the Appalachian hills of Tennessee and, best of all, it was on the Wilderness Road.
I started my journey in Harrogate, Tenn., at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. The museum is on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial University.
How did a university and museum, this deep in the south, named in honor of our 16th president, get its start?
“As you know, Lincoln was a native of Kentucky. However, you might not know, he envisioned “a great university for the people of this area,” in the Cumberland Gap,” said Duane Roop, lead interpreter and self-taught Lincoln scholar at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. “One of the first things Lincoln did after the war was to send Union General Oliver Otis Howard to this area of Appalachia. Howard was fulfilling Lincoln’s desire to help the people of east Tennessee who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War.”
In 1895, Howard purchased the property for $13,500 to fulfill Lincoln’s request. The university was built as a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln. In commemoration of Lincoln’s birthday, on Feb. 12, 1897, the institution was chartered by the State of Tennessee as Lincoln Memorial University.
To this day, LMU has the largest student body of first, generation college students than any other college in the United States (www.lmunet.edu).
From its beginning, LMU began to receive and put on display Civil War and Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. In 1929, The Lincoln Room, on university grounds, was dedicated to house the growing collection, and it served as a showcase until the early 1970s.
In 1973, Colonel Harland Sanders, a university trustee, provided $500,000 toward the construction of the library and museum. The current facility was completed in 1977.
“There are about 20 Lincoln museums around the nation, this is the fourth largest,” said Museum Director Thomas Mackie. “We have every known image of Lincoln collected by the famous photographer Frederick Meserve and the museum is known as having a master collection of Lincoln photographs.”
According to Mackie, the research library and museum has one of the largest collections of Lincolniana in the world. The documentary resources include a wide range of historiography and iconography, pertaining to Lincoln and the American Civil War era.
After leaving the museum, I took the Wilderness Road northward to the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
The Wilderness Road was the principal trail used by settlers to reach Kentucky. The trail was abandoned around 1840, but the modern Wilderness Road follows much of its original route.
The road makes a loop from Virginia southward to Tennessee and then northward into Kentucky, a distance of more than 200 miles. The segment of the Wilderness Road from the town of Cumberland Gap, Tenn. to Middlesboro, Ky. was among the first paved roads in the United States.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, geographically, lies where the states, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia converge. Aside from the historical attraction of park, the visitors’ center houses the Cumberland Crafts shop, selling works by the Southern Highland Craft Guild. This was, as I had anticipated, a great place to start shopping for those special gifts.
After visiting the craft shop, I drove up to the Pinnacle Overlook for a breathtaking view of the Gap and surrounding states. It is humbling to look down at the narrow winding path and think about the hardships the pioneers experienced while traversing the area. Cumberland Gap is one of the few natural corridors through the Appalachian Mountains.
Although Daniel Boone did not discover the Cumberland Gap, his name is synonymous with this area. Dr. Thomas Walker, a physician from Virginia, discovered the Gap in 1750, but more than any other man, Daniel Boone was responsible for the exploration and settlement of Kentucky. Between 200,000 and 300,000 men, women, and children crossed into the west through the Gap from 1775 to 1810.
Another interesting point of geography that can be seen from Pinnacle Overlook is the town of Middlesboro. Middlesboro lies in an ancient meteor crater giving the town the distinction of being one of the few towns in the world completely built inside a crater. Middlesboro is also the home of Lee Majors, once known on television as Colonel Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man.
The Wilderness Road Highway is one of the most important historic routes, crucial in the settlement of the West and during the Civil War. This byway leads to Renfro Valley, one of the nation’s oldest; most active country music venues, as well as to Berea, which is by decree of the state legislature, the folk arts and craft capital of Kentucky. Berea is also the home to historic Berea College.
There are two places not to be missed in Renfro Valley. The Renfro Valley Entertainment Center that bills itself as Kentucky’s Country Music Capital and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
For the past 69 years, the Center has provided music and entertainment that can only be found in the hills of old Kentucky. Almost every evening or late afternoon of the year, visitors are entertained with real country music, mountain gospel, bluegrass, front porch pickin’s and barn dancing.
The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum honors Kentucky natives who have helped form the trends of country music history. Visitors can see centuries-old musical artifacts as well as memorabilia of some of the most famous country music artists. The gift shop is also a great place to find a wide variety of music CDs, instruments and souvenirs.
While in this area, take time to take a side trip to visit some of Kentucky’s more famous artisans: Mike Angel’s Red Dog & Company, makers of unique “mule-ear” chairs; Lonnie and Twyla Money’s Folk Art studio and Lucille Carloftis’ at the Rockcastle River Trading Company.
Just off the highway as you enter Berea, is The Kentucky Artisan Center, a great place to get a sense of the art, crafts, music and history that can be found throughout the state. Within the town of Berea, College Square and Old Town Artisans Village are both treasure troves of arts and artists. If you do not have time to travel all over the state, this area is the mecca of shopping for crafts that are also works of art. For information about the artists that work and reside within Old Town, stop in to visit with Belle Jackson at the Berea Welcome Center.
Berea College advocates equality and education for men and women of all races based on the principles of learning, labor and service. Berea College was the first interracial and coeducational college in the south. Although, students attend Berea College tuition-free, the philosophy of the college includes a student-work program that encourages students to engage in self-support while carrying a full academic load.
The Berea College Log House Craft Gallery should not be missed. Woodcraft, furniture, weaving, pottery and many other hand-crafted items are on display and available for sale.
At the heart of Berea, owned by the college and primarily staffed by students, is Boone Tavern. Built in 1909, the hotel is the pinnacle of hospitality. Currently, the hotel is in the final stages of renovation with a projected completion date of May 2009. It will be the first LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified hotel in Kentucky. The Boone Tavern serves up traditional and reinterpreted renditions of southern cuisine. Tops on the menu is ‘Chicken Flakes in a Bird’s Nest’ and the Boone Tavern classic, spoonbread.
For more information on lodging, dining, attractions and all activities and events, go to the Southern &Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association at www.tourseky.com.
There is a map that outlines 17 artisan heritage trails; it can be obtained from tourism development association or by going online to www.kaht.com.
Photos by Bonnie McKenna