Hundreds of thousands of Americans know Elizabethtown, Ky., the place made famous by the movie of the same name. Folks around here could tell you, though, that most of the movie was made down the road in a town called Versailles. Pronounced ver-sales, whether or not you speak French.
Still hundreds of thousands more know Elizabethtown as a wide spot on I-65, the road that goes from Nashville to Louisville. It’s a watering hole of sorts where bright signs beckon drivers to endless gas stations surrounded by a fast-food mecca. And for the weary, of course, there’s plenty of room to bed down.
Two big Kentucky highways meet up with I-65 here, the Wendell H. Ford Western Kentucky Parkway, which goes all the way to the Land Between the Lakes region, and the Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway, which heads east for an hour or so to Woodford County and the rolling horse farms of the Lexington area.
All this entwining of concrete makes E’Town Kentucky’s Crossroads. Still, when a traveler gets past the big signs and bright lights, here is a different kind of Kentucky. Geographically at the center of Hardin County, this town prides itself on its history and traditions as a county seat and cultural center. Here lifelong resident David Willmoth is now finishing his third – and perhaps last – term as mayor, and anyone who wants the latest news will stop by Hair Tech, where Francis and Johnnie Simpson have been snipping and quipping for 50 years.
Here, Sister Michael Marie Friedman, principal of St. James, Hardin County’s only Catholic School, considers her life of long days and sacrifice to be a blessing. And over at the rapidly expanding Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, Learning Coordinator Pam Harper adjusts one of her 400 hats and prepares to do business face-to-face. She shuns e-mails and phone calls, insisting, “Honey, when I go, people don’t say no.”
Out in Hardin County, family is a word that comes up a lot. Often it means honoring our forefathers, like Steve and Rita Wooden who reject encroaching E’Town development to farm the land just like Steve’s grandfather did back in ‘38. Or Sarah Mraz, who couldn’t stand the thought of strangers taking over her grandmother’s White Mills farmhouse, so she bought it. Now she is renovating it, and other family members have chipped in to help purchase the 110 acres of farmland. For sculptor Rich Griendling, family means picking up on his father’s love of art, which never fully blossomed, cut short by the Great Depression and World War II. A life-size statue of his father is the centerpiece of Rich’s dramatic work at the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery Central near Fort Knox.
The fort, or rather “the Post” as it’s known in these parts, has had a profound effect on the growth and economy of Hardin County, shifting much of the population north to Radcliff, which may soon be larger than the county seat. Housing developments abound here, and ethnic diversity, much of it fed by international romance, is revealed in German restaurants, Korean churches and a Hispanic grocery. There is also a sense of time passing by as families await transfer. Chris Jensen, for one, has done three tours of duty in Iraq. Now he treasures every moment with his kids and videotapes bedtime stories so they won’t forget him when he heads to Afghanistan.
Fort Knox is going through a new phase now that will downsize the Post and end its long history as a training ground for armored warfare. The tanks and heavy fighting vehicles have left already. Now one combat-ready infantry brigade will man the Post as it prepares for new and more sophisticated roles in the military – leadership and human resources. The change will no doubt affect nearby Vine Grove, but residents don’t seem to get too worked up over it. Here there’s a sense of forever. As Thelma Willow says, “If I just stayed at home, I’d wilt away.” She’s the president of Vine Grove High School Class of 1956, and keeping up with her classmates is just one of the things that keep her busy. And over at Albert’s Barber Shop, Kenny Albert chats with longtime friends who sit in the same big chair that Kenny once sat in for his first boyhood haircut.
If there’s a Main Street of Hardin County, it would have to be U.S. 31W, which runs along the Ohio River near Jefferson County, passes the famous Bullion Depository at Fort Knox and turns south through Radcliff and E’Town all the way to Upton on the southern border. In most towns it’s called Dixie Highway. Things kind of flatten out and slow down in the south and west of the county, where farming can get big in scale, like Steve Rogers’ 1,800-acre family farm near Glendale. That well-preserved little town is home to many antique stores and fine eateries, including the famous Whistle Stop. Down in Upton, past a tobacco farm, a horse breeder, and the animal auction house, Hawke’s Service Station sits on a busy little intersection. Here the conversation never ends as Ronald Hawke moves from the customers outside to the friends who have gathered in his shop to pass the day. Ronald keeps his place full-service to make it easier for families and the elderly.
In nearby Sonora, where Claudia’s Tea Room lures visitors to its elegant B&B and massive shrimp boils, the Brooks General Store and Café has been serving hearty breakfasts and lunches to a dedicated group of customers since the 1960s. Delores Copelin, who took over the business from her parents about 10 years ago, serves up banter with the bread.
“It’s like one big happy family,” says Sonny Hatfield while downing his favorite breakfast of sausage and grape jelly.
Just maybe it’s people like Delores who give special meaning to Hardin County, “The Heartland.”
By David Adams-Smith with contributing authors Warren Wheat, Tom Eblen, Tim Thornton and Melissa Poore