Main Street Renaissance

Downtown 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.

1800 La Grange Main Street

Photo provided by Elsie Carter

This 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 won’t hear any complaints from oldtimers here. To hear some tell it, the train is the very reason for the town’s existence.
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 area.
There’s even an annual Railroad Days festival in the works this fall designed to draw hundreds of train enthusiasts from around the country.
But it wasn’t long ago that this old train town seemed more like Hooterville than the hub of one of Kentucky’s 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, they’re 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 wasn’t 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 County’s judge-executive, created the Mayor’s 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 said.
Some of the grant money was used to restore the 1889 Corner Store and the building housing Cindy’s Treasued Interiors to their original state.
Things were progressing nicely, but the group still lacked one thing on the street: a restaurant.

La Grange Chamber Window

Photo Don Ward

The Oldham County
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 Street’s oldest standing structure. Two years later, she opened the Garden Party restaurant on the main floor.
“It really wasn’t until the Garden Party opened that things really started to happen,” LeFan said. “That’s 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, we’ve been doing great.”
So good, in fact, that several new businesses have opened, both on Main and neighboring streets. The latest addition, Kelli’s Gift Baskets and Collectibles, just opened in late March.
Others are experiencing their best times, commercially.
“We’re busy year-round now. It’s 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 years.
“I think it’s a good place to come and spend an entire day,” Kinser said. “We’ve 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 Shannon.
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 month’s 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 association’s current leader.
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 we’re 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 group’s March meeting. “If we’re 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. “There’s the train tracks, which are unique, there are places to eat and shop. But it’s basically two blocks and a little more.
“I think they’re 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 chamber’s 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 tourism effort.
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 can’t help gloating just a bit.
“It’s 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 wasn’t easy. I’m 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.
“We’ve 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, “I’m proud of where it is today, but I’m still very watchful and guarded about where it goes because it’s fragile.
“I’ve seen historic districts come and go, and I don’t want to see anything happen that would ruin what we’ve accomplished here.”

Back to April 1999 Articles.



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