Old Kentucky Home Tour -- The First 10 Years

by Stewart Prather

As the 20th anniversary of the Old Kentucky Home Tour approaches, a brief history of how the ride started and its early years might be of interest.

Shortly after Deborah and I began riding with the Louisville Wheelmen (as the club was known then) in 1974, we started going on occasional “big events” such as the Hilly Hundred. While enjoying these rides, we always returned with the conviction that the Louisville Wheelmen could and should have a ride just as nice. At the time, the Club was promoting TOTS (Tour of Three States) on Labor Day weekend. Given our normal Labor Day weather, and the increased traffic, we never believed TOTS would grow beyond a handful of riders and decided to develop another ride. Weather records suggested that late September, early October, offered the best chance for good weather for a weekend. Our first thought for a destination was Carrollton, the site of what was called the “Butler Overnight.” After serving as ride captain for that ride for several years, it became apparent that Gen. Butler State Park did not welcome the arrival of hordes of cyclists in the campgrounds, insisting as they did on one tent per campsite. After the 1976 ride, which attracted some 60 riders (then a very large club ride) the limited facilities became painfully obvious and we began to look elsewhere for a location since the local schools did not have the facilities or desire to handle a larger group.

During the winter of 1976 I pored over my Christmas present -- a set of Official Kentucky County Highway Maps -- plotting potential routes. It soon appeared that Bardstown presented the best location for an overnight weekend ride. In addition to good routes, there were many tourist attractions, and the presence of the famous Federal Hill mansion provided a descriptive name. As Joe Ward, the unofficial club historian, has previously written, the Courier-Journal had sponsored a three-day ride to Bardstown in 1976. Because I had just started my law practice, we were unable to attend that ride and knew very little about it other than some 300 people had participated. At least this confirmed our suspicion that Louisville could support a large ride.

As the 1977 riding season progressed, numerous trips to Bardstown were made scouting camping locations and routes. We agreed to a trial run in 1977, club members only, to test the potential. The city of Bardstown agreed to allow use of their recreational center (an old school gym) as a camp site. A potluck chili dinner served as the only meal. By club standards it was a great success, attracting some 70 riders. The stage was set for bigger and better things.

During the winter of 1977-78 the century route was mapped out and we were able to convince the Nelson County Homemakers Society to agree to provide dinner and breakfast as a fund-raising event. The initial (one page) brochure was prepared and printed, courtesy of my law firm’s copy machine. The cost for that first ride, including supper, was $4.

In July 1978, one hot Sunday afternoon, I decided that I should drive the century route that I had laid out from the county road maps, there being two possible routes from Springfield back into Bardstown, and I could not tell from the maps which would be better. Deborah and I, along with Deane and Judy Stewart, set out in our Pinto station wagon to drive the route. The Pinto was underpowered to start with and with the air conditioner running full blast, there was even less power available. On some of the hills in the middle part of the route, we would have to downshift to third to get up the hills. Everything was going fine until we rounded a corner onto a road called Potter Shop. Suddenly, the route went almost straight up! I had to shift into first gear to keep from stalling. We started laughing, saying to each other it would be really cruel to throw in such a hill 95 miles into a century. Then we came to the second and third hills. We knew we had found the route! (Out of a fit of kindness, we offered two choices that first year, a “hilly” and “hillier” option. Almost everyone chose the “hillier” option and the choice was dropped for the second year.) We used to always go to the top of the first climb and take pictures of strong riders walking up the hill.

The 1978 ride was advertised by placing brochures in the local bicycle shops and by mailing brochures to all surrounding bicycle shops we could identify. Deborah and I did all the route markings and she handled most all of the correspondence with the Homemakers. While the 1978 ride was a success, it was obvious that we needed better facilities if the ride was to grow. The principal of Nelson County High School agreed to allow us to use their facilities, for a donation to be determined by us after the event, and we were off and growing.

For the 1979 Ride, the Louisville Times agreed to provide free advertisements. In addition, we had the ride listed in Bicycling and the LAW Journal and we mailed packages of ride brochures to as many bicycle shops in surrounding states as we could find. We also delivered packages of brochures to other rides in the surrounding area, including the Huffman Hundred and the Amish Land and Lakes. All pre-ride expenses were paid out of our pocket. To say we were glad to see some 200 riders at the start of that ride is an understatement.

Some random memories of the first ten years:
  • a nun, complete with habit, riding on a three speed (helmets weren’t required in those days); a farmer on a one-speed with the seat at least six inches too low, always joking and smiling; the time two riders from Michigan were flying their private plane to Louisville and crash landed just short of the airport, thankfully without serious injury; the rider who rode from New Orleans to the start of the ride, only to crash on a downhill on the Century route, breaking his collarbone and totaling his bike.
  • the time the route had to be rerouted on the morning of the ride because of flooding caused by Hurricane Frederick; praying for good weather since a rainy morning would have killed day of ride registrations and we would have been in the hole financially.
  • Norbert and Barbara Olges always helping, Norbert driving the gear truck and Barbara helping with registration; Mike Schneider developing slide film at the high school for the early slide shows; Tom Keenan supervising the high school year after year.
  • the Bardstown Police returning two young and very drunk riders to my custody, agreeing that if I made them ride every mile home on Sunday, they wouldn’t arrest them (I think the officer was more interested in getting them out of his car since they had repeatedly vomited in the back of his car).
  • the pure pleasure of riding and seeing so many enjoy my favorite activity; the relief felt after another successful weekend, all in all, well worth the effort.

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