Bowling Green benefiting from fascination with small-town America

By PATTI NICKELL | Tribune News Service | Published: October 4, 2019

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. -- Who would believe that a 30-foot hole encased in glass would attract 230,000 annual visitors from around the world to come and gawk?

All the more amazing as there is nothing to see in the enclosed abyss. That would not have been the case, however, on the morning of Feb. 12, 2014 at 5:39 a.m. when a sinkhole opened up inside the National Corvette Museum, swallowing eight of the classic cars. It has come to be known around here as the $5 million hole.

While the hole itself is empty, seven cars are displayed alongside it. Five remain in the condition they were in upon removal, while the eighth -- the one millionth -- is in the exhibit hall.

The National Corvette Museum is an enormous draw, but Bowling Green, located in southwestern Kentucky -- closer to Nashville, Tenn. (less than an hour's drive away) than to Louisville (a two-hour drive) -- is benefiting from travelers' current fascination with small-town America.

It helps that Bowling Green (population 68,401) punches considerably above its weight, with a wealth of attractions that would do justice to a city three times its size.

If you're looking for a classic American amusement park, they have it. Ditto a railroad museum devoted to the golden era of rail travel. Then there's a lost river inside one of the area's numerous caves; a historic, mostly intact African-American community; an antebellum mansion that survived onslaughts by both the Union and Confederate armies, and a thriving food and craft beer scene.

And if all that isn't enough, Mammoth Cave National Park is but a short 30 minutes away.

But let's get back to Bowling Green's star attraction.

In 1953, Chevrolet introduced a new sports car, naming it after a World War II warship known for its compact size and maneuverability. In 1963, the second generation of Corvettes was introduced, and America fell in love -- with the sporty convertible becoming symbolic of the freedom of the open road.

While originally manufactured at GM headquarters in Flint, Mich., since 1981, Bowling Green has been the sole home of the much-loved 'Vette.

Plant tours have been temporarily suspended, but don't worry, there's enough to do in the nearby museum to keep you occupied for hours. Some 80 corvettes are on display in period settings -- from the model used in the 1950s TV series "Route 66" to the car owned by country music legend Roy Orbison.

There are several ways to experience the thrill of driving a Corvette here. Start by piloting a real 'Vette around a virtual track in a simulator. If that isn't adrenaline-boosting enough, arrange to drive your own (or ride shotgun with a professional driver) around the three-mile course at the Motorsports Park.

Finally, for the right price -- about $60k -- you can drive your own custom-ordered model out of the museum showroom.

It will be difficult to tear yourself away, but there's lots more to see and do in Bowling Green. While this whole area of Kentucky is riddled with caves (nearby Mammoth Cave is the largest mapped cave system in the world), one cave is located right here.

At Lost River Cave, you stroll through a canopy of trees to the cave entrance -- all the while hearing stories of disappearing Civil War soldiers sucked into the blue hole of the cave's underground river, never to be seen again.

Your experience will be much more pleasant, as most of the time visitors can take Kentucky's only underground boat tour. I say most of the time because on my visit high waters resulting from above-average rainfall had made it impossible to enter the cave.

I did have a chance to see a makeshift stage at the mouth of the cave overlooking the river. It was being set up for a gala party that night, and my guide said that in the 1930s and 40s this was the location of a nightclub where stars such as Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Shore performed.

Next up was a self-guided tour of the ShakeRag District, listed on the National Historic Register in acknowledgement of its importance in African-American history. Following the Civil War, the neighborhood, with its collection of bungalows housing both businesses and residences, was home to an increasing black professional class. Later, it provided a haven in this segregated city.

Notable buildings include the State Street Baptist Church, the city's oldest African-American church (1838), and the Underwood-Jones Home. This two-and-a-half story, Italianate-style mansion was the home and office of Dr. Z.K. Jones, the community's first doctor.

If you're traveling with children, a visit to Beech Bend Amusement Park and Splash Lagoon is a must. A two-day play pass ($39.99) is good for admission and all rides and shows.

If you're a lover of vintage rail cars, you won't want to miss the Historic RailPark and Train Museum and L&N Depot. Once the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Station and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it offers self-guided museum tours and guided tours of five restored rail cars.

For those who can't get enough of historic homes, there's Riverview at Hobson Grove, another listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The view of the Barren River -- once visible from the upstairs hallway -- is obscured by trees today, but the drive up to the imposing front entrance makes up for it.

There was supposed to have been a large porch to take advantage of the view, but construction of the house which began in the 1850s, was halted by the Civil War, and when it was finally finished in 1872, it was without a porch. So upset was the lady of the house that she was known to have said, "that pesky war kept me from getting my porch."

Once you've seen the sights, you should save time to just wander Bowling Green's charming downtown, anchored by Fountain Square with its array of specialty shops and restaurants. It still retains a 1950s feel, although the Square has only one of its original three movie theaters left and the corner soda fountain has been replaced by a commercial business.

A few hours spent roaming the hilly campus of Western Kentucky State University is also well worth your time. The beautiful buildings are an architectural feast, ranging from Federal and Greek Revival to Italianate, Queen Anne and Romanesque with some Craftsman cottages and bungalows thrown in for good measure.

The on-campus Kentucky Museum has exhibits such as A Star in Each Flag: Conflict in Kentucky. While Bowling Green served as the Confederate Capital of Kentucky, there were Union sympathizers as well, and the exhibit shows that Kentucky really was a state divided.

My favorite exhibit showcases Kentucky icon Duncan Hines, often celebrated as one of the south's most influential food writers and an early endorser of culinary brands.

I loved the pithy quotes attributed to Hines -- who must have been equal parts courtly charm and cantankerous behavior _ especially this one. After eating at the home of a wealthy acquaintance, Hines remarked, "If the oysters had been as cold as the soup, the soup as warm as the wine, the wine as old as the chicken and the chicken as young as the hostess, it would have been a fine dinner."

There's one thing for sure -- Bowling Green makes for a fine travel experience.


If you go

Where to Stay: Home2 Suites by Hilton. Affordable and conveniently located, this extended-stay property is perfect, especially if you are traveling with family.

Where to Eat: Bowling Green's food scene has really taken off. For breakfast, join locals at Boyce General Store, lauded by Southern Living and KET's Kentucky Life as "a piece of American history" with roots going back to 1869. You can fill both your stomach and your gas tank at this slice of Americana.

For a more upscale brunch, book a table at The Bistro in a renovated house with original hardwood floors and fireplace. Their epic Bloody Marys go great with crab meat beignets and artisan hot browns.

The Montana Grill (not to be confused with Ted's chain) is the place to go for juicy steaks with all the trimmings, and Steamer Southern Seafood Kitchen has seafood so fresh you will think you're on the coast and not in land-locked Kentucky.

FYI: visitbgky.com