I can't say I'm a horse person, although I think they're beautiful creatures. And I'm certainly not a bourbon drinker; my palate is picky about whiskey. And bluegrass music? Not so much. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that Kentucky's Bluegrass region is halfway between here and my mother's home in northern Georgia, I might never have set foot there.
And I would have missed out.
That's because I am a sucker for history, and the Bluegrass is loaded with it.
Take, for instance, our most recent family rendezvous, which took us to Kentucky's first settlement, Harrodsburg, founded in 1774, where we stayed at the historic Beaumont Inn, formerly a women's liberal arts college that dates to 1845.
The first thing that interested me about the inn is that it has been operated by the same family for five generations. Proprietor Chuck Dedman is a ninth generation Mercer Countian who spent his boyhood romping, "terrorizing the guests" and working - since about the age of 8 - on the property.
Giving a tour of the inn, Chuck stops at a display case in the hallway filled with old photos and artifacts. He relates that the Dedman ancestors include successful horseman and tobacco farmer W.W. Goddard, a Confederate sympathizer who was imprisoned in Ohio for aiding rebel troops. Goddard's son, who was born during his imprisonment and whom he aptly named Rebel, also was a well-known horseman who was commissioned to lead a 1,000-horse force to guard the Fort Knox during its construction in 1918.
It was Dedman's great-grandmother, Annie Bell Goddard, and her husband, Glave, who purchased the former Beaumont College for $7,800 in 1917. Their portraits also hang in the hallway. The purchase was a sentimental one, Chuck says: Annie was a Beaumont alumna. After graduating in 1880, she taught math and later became the college's dean.
School memorabilia can be found throughout the inn. The students themselves also left their mark - literally. Chuck Dedman points out a brick wall in the hallway outside the main dining room. "When I was a kid, this was a porch and this wall was covered with siding. We used to play ping pong here," he says. During extensive renovations after he and his wife, Helen, took over the inn in 1975, they removed the siding to find the brick wall. Upon further inspection, they noticed tiny inscriptions in the mortar. Some of the writings are dated in the 1870s. Guests also can see, if catching the sunlight right, etchings in some of the inn's original window panes - again, the work of the young women.
Six ionic white pillars stand sentry on the front porch of the inn, a three-story Greek Revival building. Nearly everything about the Beaumont is grand, from its wide twin staircases in the main hall to its 11-1/2-foot-high ceilings to its antique pieces acquired over 100 years from relatives and family friends. Portraits of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and George and Martha Washington hang in the first floor hallways and parlor.
Antiques of note include a gold-plated and onyx Cleopatra clock and table sent from France for the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago, that Chuck says was given to his grandmother, Pauline Goddard, by an inn guest. There are the original cherry built-in bookcases in the library, now the inn office; a handmade walnut desk that Annie Goddard used as a teacher; and a Steinway grand piano given to a Dedman great-aunt as a gift from her father in 1893 when she was 14. Memorabilia from Beaumont College line the walls and fill the display cases in the card room, a former porch that has been enclosed.
Each of the 19 guest rooms is furnished with antiques, such as poster beds, marble-topped dressers and gas chandeliers that have been wired for electricity. Most have queen-size beds to cater to couples who use the inn as a romantic country getaway. The large windows have wide sills, where the young women of Beaumont College used to lounge, study and probably daydream.
"Years ago, we had mostly rooms with two double beds. This was primarily a family destination," Chuck says. He recalls childhood summer days rushing to play in the pool with young guests.
Although, it wasn't all play - he an his brothers and sisters were put to work "washing dishes, picking up trash, waiting tables." And his and Helen's children, Becky and Dixon, did the same thing. Now Dixon, 30, is the fifth generation to run the inn, along with his wife, Elizabeth, who gave birth to the first member of the sixth generation on Oct. 1.
Despite the strong traditional family atmosphere, the Dedmans began to realize in the 1990s that the couples' getaway market was the future.
"In order to attract couples, we changed the flavor, the ambiance, a little bit. We made a movement from a country inn to what in England would be considered a country house hotel," Dedman says.
In 2003, the once-dry Mercer County passed a liquor ordinance, which the Dedmans acted upon quickly, renovating the old carriage house into the Old Owl Tavern, a casual family-friendly restaurant with at 10-seater mahogany bar where 36 bourbons are available for tasting. The building maintains the original limestone walls and wood ceiling beams. The Owl's Nest pub on the second floor is a more recent addition, catering to guests and townsfolk 21 and over. Both are named for the Old Owl bourbon that Chuck's family distilled before Prohibition shut it down.
The Bourbon Trail's popularity in the past 10 years also has boosted business, Chuck says. Harrodsburg is just a short drive from Maker's Mark Distillery and five others on the Bourbon Trail. Another attraction is Keeneland, the famous horse racing track, located about a 30-minute drive toward Lexington.
Back at the inn, a more formal dining experience is available in the main building, where my mother, daughter and I enjoyed great service and modern cuisine (5 1/2-year-old Emma gives a thumbs-up to the grilled cheese). The menu features the Beaumont's famous yellow legged fried chicken and corn pudding, along with its two-year-old cured country ham. The hams are aged in a brand new cure house in back of the inn.
For breakfast, which is included in every overnight stay, the cornmeal batter cakes with brown sugar pancakes are a melt-in-your-mouth homemade treat.
Because of the Beaumont's salty ham and chicken specialties, each evening - as has been the tradition for decades - the night porter sets a tray of ice water in the main hallway on the first floor, Chuck says. Guests can take their water upstairs or sip it in the parlor on one of the antique settees, or perhaps while seated on the wooden chair constructed for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his visit to Harrodsburg for the dedication of a monument at Old Fort Harrod State Park.
Over the years, the Beaumont Inn has acquired additional surrounding buildings, and its property now extends to 33 acres, which include a pond, a chipped walking trail, a vegetable garden, and nearly three dozen species of trees including a swamp cypress and an enormous catalpa that is so large it split. A portion of the tree now lies parallel a few feet off the ground in the inn's front yard, making a lovely spot for resting and posing for pictures.
Across the street from the main inn is Goddard Hall, built in 1935, which has 10 renovated guest rooms. More recently, the Dedmans renovated the nearby Greystone House, a Colonial Revival built of hard limestone. Chuck and Helen reside on the first floor, while the second floor houses four large guest rooms with two-person whirlpool tubs and king-sized beds.
With the holiday season fast approaching, the Dedmans are offering several package deals for Thanksgiving, as well as weekends in November and December. The weekend of Dec. 2-4 is Harrodsburg's "Come Home for Christmas" event, including a holiday homes tour, Christmas teas and more. The Beaumont offers guests staying that weekend a special innkeepers' tea as well as musical entertainment on Saturday night.
For information, visit www.beaumontinn.com.