Though incorporated in 1974, the town of Oak Grove actually has been in existence since the 1800s. Set smack on the border of West Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, the city has sported such monikers as Hensleytown, Garrettsburg and Kennedy Station. The latter was a stop on the mail train that once ran between Nashville and Hopkinsville.
In the late 1980s, Oak Grove’s population hovered at around 2,800 before developers saw the area’s potential and began building. Today, the town of 8,000 is one of the commonwealth’s fastest growing and the appeal of this quiet, rural region translates into tourism lingo as one surprisingly terrific hub-and-spoke destination right off Interstate 24.
“Western Kentucky is simply beautiful,” said Traci Cunningham, director of the City of Oak Grove Tourism. “It’s the lakes region. It’s fishing and hiking and hunting. Really close by, we’ve got Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. There’s so much to do, and Oak Grove is right in the middle of it.”
And then there’s the town’s reputation as “The Hometown of Fort Campbell,” as a bedroom community just outside the gates of this legendary military establishment.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Fort Campbell was built nearly overnight the next year. Thousands of soldiers trained here to fight in World War II, and the 105,000-acre military base has been a key installation ever since.
Today, the base supports the third-largest military population in the Army.
Located within its gates, the Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum tells the fort’s fascinating story. The Fort Campbell Historical Foundation supports the 14,000-s.-f. facility, which is named for the first general officer killed in Normandy – the assistant division commander of the 101st who died in a glider.
Many items on display are one-of-a-kind, such as Hitler’s walking cane and his calling card bowl, wedding dresses made by Dutch brides from U.S. soldiers’ parachutes in lieu of impossible-to-find silk, and clickers used to identify a buddy when the 101st jumped into Normandy. Exhibits feature histories of well-known individuals who once served at Fort Campbell and reams of donated letters and research materials are available for perusal.
The foundation’s $35 million collection is so extensive that much is in storage, and a new 80,000-s.-f. Wings of Liberty Military Museum, including a 200-seat IMAX theater, is in the planning stages for a 2012 opening.
Oak Grove also offers a mile-long War Memorial Walking Trail, with markers honoring participants in all U.S. wars and conflicts. Of particular interest are a Viet Nam War Veterans monument and a Poem for Soldiers. Slated for opening this summer, the Viceroy Performing Arts Center will add a venue for concerts and family events to the trail, as well as a playground and a covered picnic pavilion to accommodate up to 150. A convention center will open in 2009.
In addition to military attractions, the area offers recreational opportunities galore on West Kentucky’s lakes and lands. Thanks to a mild climate, golf is a year-round option at two courses: Fort Campbell’s Cole Park Golf Course and the Links at Novadell in nearby Hopkinsville. At Fort Campbell Riding Stables, ages 10 and up can saddle up a cayuse for a guided trail ride, while pony rides await kids under 10.
Only a short drive from Oak Grove is the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, a 170,000-acre outdoor playground that can keep families busy for days with every water sport imaginable, hiking and getting up close to raptors, including the non-screaming types of eagles.
When you’re all played out, head back to Oak Grove to sate your appetite under the big bull atop Charlie’s Steak House, where Fort Campbell soldiers and their families have been chowing down on think, juicy beef since 1952.
Check out happenings in and around Oak Grove at (866) 779-1250 or www.oakgroveky-tourism.com. Find more info on Fort Campbell from the Fort Campbell Historical Foundation at (931) 4431-2617 or www.fortcampbell.com.