Henderson holds a place in my heart. When I was in the eighth grade, a friend’s dad took us to Dade Park (now Ellis Park) to watch the ponies run – on a school day, no less. For the first time, I witnessed the thrill of watching those gorgeous beasts fly around the track, manes and tails streaming. I bet $2 on a horse named Like Mike, because it was my friend’s brother’s name. When jockey Earlie Fires drove that runner across the finish line first, I was hooked, and later spent a number of fascinating years in various capacities in the Thoroughbred industry.
A vibrant river town on the banks of the Ohio, Henderson in the late 1800s was the richest community in the nation per capita due to the export of dark tobacco, and still boasts a number of beautiful homes and buildings from that era in its historic downtown district. Famous bird artist John James Audubon and the Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy, brought notoriety to the town as native sons. One is remembered with a state park and the other, a rockin’ blues festival.
These days, Henderson can keep both visitors and meeting attendees happily busy.
A great place to get to know this west Kentucky city is at the downtown Depot, a replica of the original 1901 train station. Here, you’ll find the Henderson County Tourist Commission and the Community Room, where you can learn about the city’s history and its scads of special events. Among those are themed guided walking tours the first Saturday of each month, April through November, including A Taste of Henderson (July), Henderson’s Military History (November) and an Audubon Sculpture Tour (September), when you’ll stroll past some of 16 bird sculptures honoring Audubon scattered around town by Kentucky craftsman Raymond Graf.
Tune up for musical special events, such as Bluegrass in the Park (August), which includes the Folklife Festival (two-in-one!); Sandy Lee Watkins’ Songwriting Festival (July); and one of the nation’s largest free music festivals, the W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival (mid-June).
Strolling along the Ohio on the Henderson Riverwalk, you might glimpse a splendid riverboat, Queen of the Mississippi or the American Queen. Should you feel the need to watch speed, catch sleek boats making big waves at the Hydrofest “Roar on the River” in July, and those rapid runners hoofing it at Ellis Park Thoroughbred Racetrack, fondly known as “the Pea Patch” for its yearly infield soybean crop.
Get back to the land at an agritourism attraction, such as a honeybee farm, you-pick berry farm and a winery (see below).
Meeting planners have a myriad of options for meetings, events and retreats in Henderson.
From July through Labor Day, Ellis Park hosts live racing in its 8,500-seat grandstand and inter-track wagering in the off season. Its Sky Theater seats up to 450, with a panoramic view of the track. Meet in one of two smaller rooms or chow down at a buffet in an outdoor pavilion.
Attend some of the track’s special summer events – Sunday Dollar Days, Wiener Dog Races, and Ostrich and Camel Races. Really.
A remarkable nonprofit, Brain Injury Adventure Camp (BIAC) aims to increase confidence and promote team building in folks of all abilities through zip-lining, a ropes course, horseback riding, yoga, cooking classes and nature exploration. Its handsome, 7,800-s.f. lodge boasts a wraparound porch, indoor fireplace and kitchen, and can sleep a total of 30.
Winner of Kentucky Living magazine’s 2016 Reader’s Choice awards for best museum (first place) and outdoor recreation spot (second), John James Audubon State Park has five woodland cottages. Here, you can cozy up and stroll the forest where the famous avian artist studied and painted birds from 1810 – 1819. His Birds of America is the most recognized natural history book in the world. Nature lovers can learn about local wildlife in year-round interpretive environmental and art programs at a nature center and on six miles of hiking trails on the edge of 600 acres of wetlands. Event spaces abound.
Among them are a lovely garden, where 50 to 500 can gather; the 47-seat Audubon Theater; and a conference room for up to 200.
“When groups meet here, they get to see the world’s largest collection of Audubon art and artifacts,” says Maddie Fritz, marketing director for the Henderson County Tourist Commission. “It’s awesome.”
And the park has nine holes of golf for birdie-seekers of the links variety!
Another fun spot is Farmer and Frenchman Vineyard & Winery (F&F). Here, guests can relax on a sun-drenched patio, sample Kentucky wines comingled with French imports, and can lunch and dine on locally produced food that includes scrumptious handmade pizza. A five-acre lawn holds scads of guests for a reception. A 1,800-s.f. tobacco barn has been converted into a charming venue, complete with crystal chandeliers and a patio with luscious views that exemplify the fifth-generation land’s agrarian roots, while a promenade offers a covered, breezy space for up to 50.
In case you over-sip, you can stay the night at the F&F B&B.
A casual downtown meeting spot, Rookies Sports Bar features prime rib, burgers, live music and walls covered with University of Kentucky sports memorabilia.
“Everyone loves Rookies,” Fritz laughs. “It’s really comfortable, like Cheers.”
Fried chicken fanatics can tuck their napkins in at nationally famous Bangie’s Café or Mr. D’s Drive-In, a mom’n’pop stop where you can add an old-fashioned banana split. Or grab a down-home fried bologna sandwich at North South Truck Stop.
Put your feet up overnight in one of four comfy suites at the 100-year-old L&N Bed and Breakfast, a block from the river and adjacent to a working railroad. If you play your cards right, the owner might treat you to a few magic tricks at breakfast!
Plan your Henderson visit at hendersonky.org or (270) 826-3128.
Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]