La Grange hitting top stride
LA GRANGE, Ky. Several times a day, life comes to a standstill
in this small Kentucky town.
Drivers and pedestrians really have no choice. La Grange, Ky., must
be one of the few towns in America that has a train literally running
right through it.
provided by Elsie Carter
photo, taken in the 1800s, shows
Main Street as it once was. The
downtown once thrived during the
heyday of the locomotive, since the
tracks run right through town. But the
arrival of the automobile sucked the
life out of it, until I-71 opened in 1970.
But you wont hear any complaints from oldtimers
here. To hear some tell it, the train is the very reason for the towns
Even today, the La Grange Merchants Association a collection
of business owners in and around the historic district uses the
train in its marketing campaign to draw shoppers and tourists to the
Theres even an annual Railroad Days festival in the works this
fall designed to draw hundreds of train enthusiasts from around the
But it wasnt long ago that this old train town seemed more like
Hooterville than the hub of one of Kentuckys fastest-growing counties.
In fact, when the automobile was invented, and especially when Hwy.
42 opened a few miles north, connecting Cincinnati with Louisville,
Ky., the downtown all but dried up.
When I came here in the early 70s, it was like all the old buildings
were frozen in time, recalled Dorothy Lammlein, a business owner
credited by many with mobilizing the effort to revitalize the downtown.
The buildings were here, but there was nothing in them. And we
were having a lot of problems with break-ins and vandalism.
Fortunately, when I-71 opened in 1970, the commercial heart of La Grange
once given up for dead slowly began to beat again.
Lammlein, who then ran a dance school on Main Street, and a handful
of local merchants banded together to clean up the downtown to
create a safe place to do business.
The group held fundraisers and worked with their neighbors to spruce
up the store fronts and city streets. They even recruited the sheriff
to find some attractive trash cans to place around town.
I think he felt sorry for us, Lammlein joked.
They spent lots of money to restore the original streetlights around
the courthouse square, which dated to 1850. And they also wanted some
trees to give the street new life.
So one weekend, Doris LeFan, another business owner, traveled to Tennessee
to buy some little leaf Linden trees, and together the group planted
the trees up and down Main Street.
They were only supposed to grow to about 15 feet, but as you can
see, theyre about 40 feet today, said LeFan, who runs the
Old Oak Frame House.
Then we rented a sidewalk cutter and showed the city workers how
to use it, and we had them cut up the old sidewalks so we could pour
new concrete, LeFan said.
But that wasnt enough. They recruited a local artist to select
colors to paint the business fronts, and most of them went along
with it, recalled Lammlein.
Then-mayor John Black, who now serves as Oldham Countys judge-executive,
created the Mayors Preservation Committee, which was instrumental
in combining city and commercial forces toward designating the area
a historic district. By 1985, after obtaining federal grant money and
cooperation from state heritage officials, La Grange established its
historic district, which included about 150 structures.
From 1985 on, the merchants and the city began working as a team
to try and improve the quality of life in the downtown, Lammlein
Some of the grant money was used to restore the 1889 Corner Store and
the building housing Cindys Treasued Interiors to their original
Things were progressing nicely, but the group still lacked one thing
on the street: a restaurant.
Chamber of Commerce's
move in March to East
Main Street is regarded
by many as a sign
that the downtown commercial district
has arrived as a
tourism and shopping destination.
Finally, in 1990, Elsie Carter, who previously built cam
shafts and engines for a Louisville truck pull company, bought the Victoria
Hotel, Main Streets oldest standing structure. Two years later,
she opened the Garden Party restaurant on the main floor.
It really wasnt until the Garden Party opened that things
really started to happen, LeFan said. Thats when the
folks at the Cherry House (south of I-71 on Hwy. 53) started sending
people over here to eat. It gave women a reason to come to La Grange,
and ever since, weve been doing great.
So good, in fact, that several new businesses have opened, both on Main
and neighboring streets. The latest addition, Kellis Gift Baskets
and Collectibles, just opened in late March.
Others are experiencing their best times, commercially.
Were busy year-round now. Its exciting; there are
so many diverse shops, said Vicki Kinser, an Oldham County native
who has operated her Friends and Fabric shop on Main Street for five
I think its a good place to come and spend an entire day,
Kinser said. Weve got that much to offer.
But things have changed since the downtown Rennaisance first began.
Arthritis forced Lammlein to close her dance school in 1988. Today she
runs Occasions bridal shop on Main Street with her daughter, Valerie
And LeFan says she plans to sell out after 27 years and retire to the
family farm, where she raises and sells flowers.
The Downtown Business Association, which Lammlein helped organize in
1984, is now known as the La Grange Merchants Association. The group
meets regularly and stages various events throughout the year, including
this months Spring Strret Fair, which takes place 10 a.m. to 5
p.m. on April 24.
And Shannon has carried on the family tradition by serving as the associations
The group still has several stated goals to accomplish, namely to improve
signage and parking in the downtown area and help expand the commercial
district into adjoining side streets.
As an association, I think were there, we just need to broaden
our scope and become a little more inclusive maybe come down
the Highway 53 corridor, Shannon said during the groups
March meeting. If were going to be the La Grange Merchants
Association, that means more than just Main Street.
The arrival in March of the Oldham County Chamber of Commerce to 108
Main Street may have come at just the right time to help them do that.
Main Street has that typical small-town charm, said chamber
president Joe Schoenbaechler. Theres the train tracks, which
are unique, there are places to eat and shop. But its basically
two blocks and a little more.
I think theyre starting to realize that to grow, they have
to expand the boundaries a little and try to attract people from outside
the area. The chamber is a resource for that and will continue to help
local businesses, whether they are in La Grange or Crestwood or anywhere
else in the county.
Schoenbaechler said the chambers arrival on Main Street and the
addition of the Oldham County History Center, scheduled to open in August
across from the courthouse, should provide a strong boost to the downtown
Visitors now have a place to go to find information about the area or
to pick up maps and brochures about area businesses.
Meanwhile, some of the original business owners cant help gloating
just a bit.
Its just fabulous to look out there today and see life on
Main Street, LeFan said. I feel like a mother looking at
her child. But it wasnt easy. Im a pusher; I can push to
the nth degree. I used to alway be out there getting on somebody about
something. I get tired, but I never gave up.
And like the little train that could, these La Grange merchants keep
working to create more than a shopping district, but a bonefied tourist
destination that will draw people into their quaint little town.
Weve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,
Shannon said during the recent association meeting.
It all boils down to how serious we are about making money and
creating a place that people will want to come to, and then what we
are going to do for them when they get here.
Sitting in the bridal shop and looking out onto the street she helped
save, Lammlein said, Im proud of where it is today, but
Im still very watchful and guarded about where it goes because
Ive seen historic districts come and go, and I dont
want to see anything happen that would ruin what weve accomplished
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