Bluegrass Country

On my vacation to the 66th annual ALPCA International Convention in Covington, Kentucky, I took parts of two days to travel further south in the host state. I selected three attractions and came back with a couple of surprises.

Punkyville

Little unique towns are dotted across the country, often in rural areas. They don’t have Wal-Marts, and you won’t find a Denny’s, an ATM, or be able to fill up your gas tank. Because they are not real towns at all, but a mish-mash of antiques, constructed storefronts, Americana, and imagination. They are usually the work of a man who has the right amount of restlessness, expendable energy, property, and time to build it. One such town is Punkyville, a roadside rest stop worthy of a detour in Falmouth, Kentucky, on State Route 27.

The man’s name was Charles “Punky” Beckett. He passed away recently, but his creation has been preserved by his family, including a nephew who is on the property when I pull into the gravelly driveway. He’s waiting for a friend to come over and help him fix his car; we chat briefly and he invites me to look around. Punky started building his town in 2003. It includes the expected staples of any small town: general store, bank, church, post office, jail, and gas station.

The first building I walk into contains an Elvis mannequin, a mail truck, and an old electronic scoreboard. If you like antique cars, there’s several of those, and they’re mostly in fine shape. Signs inside and out of all the buildings advertise anything from “Polled Herefords,” the “Big Bold Breed” at a local farm, to Coca-Cola to Auto-Lite Automotive Cables to Mennen’s Toilet Powder. An old phone booth (remember those?), bags of poultry mixer, an organ, empty bottles, and a barber chair are just some of the many artifacts on display. At the jail, there’s a cell with a cot and a desk with rifles. In the B&O caboose on the property, you can view all kinds of railroading equipment, like lights and signals.

Punky worked for a paving company, and lived on the property with his wife. He told a reporter from The Spirit of the Bluegrass that he salvaged a lot of it and collected things because he liked them, not for monetary gain. And being the mayor, he always enjoyed giving tours if he was able and let visitors roam freely if not. “Most of the time I walk through with them,” he said. “But if someone comes and I gotta go somewhere, I say ‘you all just look around. I’m gone. I’ve got stuff to do.’”

While I don’t get the pleasure of meeting the mayor, it is nevertheless a privilege to walk through his town, knowing he built something not just for himself but for any visitors wanting a bit of history and distraction on a Kentucky highway.

Cocaine Bear

The Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington sells souvenirs from the ordinary (t-shirts) to the quirky (Colonel Sanders figurines, “Kentucky Kicks Ass” hats, and petrified horse turds) and everything in between. Though I am overall underwhelmed with my visit, the star attraction does not let down. “Cocaine Bear” is a taxidermized black bear who met an unfortunate demise in a Georgia forest in 1985.

Andrew Carter Thornton II, wealthy son of an elite Kentucky horse-breeding family and Lexington narcotics cop-turned lawyer, was also in the drug business. That December, Thornton encountered engine trouble while flying with plenty of cocaine in his cargo. He parachuted out, but not before dumping multiple duffel bags of the white powder into the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Thornton didn’t have a clean jump, and plummeted to his death (he was later found in a yard in Knoxville, Tennessee).

Cocaine Bear happened to amble through the dump site and ripped open and consumed the contents of a bag, at least 70 pounds and some $15 million dollars’ worth of the drug.

“There isn’t a mammal on earth that could survive that,” the medical examiner who performed the necropsy said.

Eventually, this cautionary tale wound up in the Kentucky For Kentucky Fun Mall. And like most great stories, it’s now going to be turned into a movie.

Bible Mini-Golf

Though not a religious person, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the biblical-themed miniature golf courses at the Lexington Ice Center. At first glance, I’m not sure I made a worthy detour. There’s virtually no one there, it looks like it needs freshening up, and it’s hot outside with little shade.

There are three courses, and you can play one for $7.50, two for $9.50, or all three for $11. I choose the middle option. Now I have the choice of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Miracles. Indiscriminately I choose the New Testament and follow it with Miracles.

Each hole has a plaque with the name and biblical reference. Hole 3 of the second course is titled “Jailhouse Rock” and reads “The prison foundations were shaken and prisoners chains unloosened when Paul and Silas praised the Lord, even while in prison! Acts 16:15-26.” The cup is located in – you guessed it – a prison cell.

Hole 10 features a large house; it’s impossible to get a hole-in-one as you have to put it in line with ramps that go into the house. Hole 18, “Love,” is inspired by 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and is bordered by a red, heart-shaped wall.

On course three, “Parting of the Red Sea” (Exodus 14:21-22) features a sloped valley in the middle of the fairway; “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” (Daniel 6:1-22) has you put around several lion statues; there’s one for Moses and the Burning Bush (an artificial burning bush enclosed in a plexiglass case); and so on.

By the time I’m done, I realize just how much fun I had. The holes were just the right amount of challenging (though I’d disagree with their assessment of the pars), and varied in style and type to keep up the interest. The course didn’t need the typical array of cascading waterfalls, rocky canyons, windmills, and flip doors that you might find at other places. While some upkeep is obviously lacking (faded signage, water features missing), there’s no doubt a lot of care went into creating it, and it invites you – religious or not – to have fun with the Bible.

Roads To and From Wilmore

I’ve selected a hotel about 30 minutes south of Lexington in Wilmore. Interestingly as a follow-up to my mini-golf experience, the Asbury Inn and Suites is actually part of a theological school, I discover. Perhaps some other power led me to pick it because of the gorgeous drive that it gifts me (okay, it was the user rating combined with the price, but I’m sure the John Wiley bobblehead in the lobby would disagree).

The roads wind past farms and rural estates (including those belonging to R.J. Corman, a railroad company). The fields are bordered by white and brown fences and are dotted by trees and sometimes livestock or horses. The fields stretch as far as the eye can see, and cast in a late afternoon glow of my arrival into Wilmore and in the morning the next day, I just wish I had the time and also adequate pull-over space to take better pictures.

Old Friends Farm

The Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility offers a forever home for former racehorses. Michael Blowen, a former Boston Globe film critic who couldn’t have cared less for horseracing until a life-changing visit to Suffolk Downs in the 1980s. Taken by the horses’ effort and athleticism, he quickly became a fan and volunteered for a trainer, mucking stalls and soaking up the ins and outs of the industry. His particular interest in the horses’ aftercare and in 2003 founded Old Friends.

Visitors are led on a tour to see well-known horses like Birdstone, a Belmont Stakes winner who upset Smarty Jones’s Triple Crown bid in 2004 and was both the son and father of Kentucky Derby winners; paddock mates Game On Dude and Little Mike, who between them earned about $11 million; Patch, a one-eyed horse (interestingly given the name before he lost his eye to an infection) who in 2017 ran in the Kentucky Derby and finished third in the Belmont; and Alphabet Soup, a white-coated beauty who upset Cigar with a photo-finish victory in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic and in retirement is pals with a donkey named Gorgeous George.

But there’s undoubtedly one star who attracts more attention than all the rest: Silver Charm. The 1997 Kentucky Derby winner and 2007 Racing Hall of Fame inductee came to Old Friends after a residence in Japan. Blowen calls the horse’s arrival one of the happiest days of his life, and we learn on the tour that he spends many evenings just sitting on a chair opposite his paddock.

While the tour focuses largely on the well-known names, there are also horses like Johannesbourbon, who earned $68,000 and whose owners, Bourbon Lane Stables, donated money for a new paddock; Miss Hooligan, who won just $2325 but endeared herself to co-owner Rick Capone when she raced his golf cart to get to the feed buckets one routine morning; and Rathor, born in Ireland, who won twice in England and his first two races in the U.S., before tailing off and retiring after 46 starts.

Other residents are not known for their racing careers. Popcorn Deelites was one of about eight horses who played Seabiscuit in the 2004 biopic starring Tobey McGuire. Little Silver Charm is a miniature horse who you see before Silver Charm, and you can’t help but be won over by the joke. Blowen bought a trailer for $40, and when he received it, Little Silver Charm came off of it along with some goats and ducks.

One section is a nicely-presented cemetery for the horses, and they all get a beautiful headstone regardless of how they did in their racing career. The best part is that you receive a bag of carrots. There is something quite magical about feeling the warm breath from their large nostrils as a fuzzy horse mouth laps a carrot off your palm. And it is rewarding to support a place that keeps horses happy and healthy with a place to run.

Sources:

Cocaine Bear, Lexington, Kentucky (roadsideamerica.com)

Bible Mini-Golf, Lexington, Kentucky (roadsideamerica.com)

Old Friends Farm a Decades-Long Journey for Michael Blowen | America’s Best Racing (americasbestracing.net)

Old Friends Farm program (2021)

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