Kentucky filmmaker Steven Middleton documents Kentucky’s weird, wacky and wonderful roadside attractions.
In the pre-interstate days, unique roadside attractions dotted Kentucky’s highways and byways. They served as a fun diversion for folks traveling through the area, and also helped bring business to local restaurants, filling stations and motels. While you don’t see as many roadside attractions these days, many are still out there and operating.
Kentucky filmmaker Steven Middleton set out to find them. Inspired by youthful memories of visiting Kentucky’s roadside attractions with his family, he decided to make a documentary about these businesses, museums and otherwise unusual attractions around the state. As it turned out, Middleton found so many surviving attractions that so far he’s finished two volumes of his film, titled “Commonwealth Curiosities,” both of which aired on KET and which you can view on State Run Media’s Vimeo channel and below. Middleton’s most recent documentary, “Between The Rock and the Commonwealth,” details the ongoing dispute between Kentucky and Ohio about how owns Indian Head Rock.
Here are 11 of the attractions featured in the films for your Kentucky road-trip planning pleasure.
Kentucky Reptile Zoo
200 L & E Railroad Place, Slade
The Kentucky Reptile Zoo boasts “one of the largest collection of venomous snakes in the world,” including diamondback rattlers, copperheads, and cottonmouths. It’s been featured on National Geographic, PBS, and Animal Planet. The reptile museum also breeds snakes, and extracts venom to help with research and the creation of antivenom for national and international antivenom projects. Most of all, the reptile zoo strives to educate any and all on the wonders of snakes.
Akemon’s Barbershop and Music
601 Main Street, Paris
This old-fashioned barbershop is different than the standard “have a seat and a haircut” establishment. In Joe Akemon’s shop, you get live music and a bit of history with your cut. Joe’s Uncle was Stringbean, from the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw, so you might say Joe was born with music in his soul. At Akemon’s, you will find instruments hanging on the walls, music lessons, memorabilia, live music and quality haircuts. Even if you don’t need a trim, come in for the music or to pick a tune. Everyone is welcome.
East Kentucky Museum of Mysteries
2618 KY Highway 302, Van Lear
This is truly a sideshow stop in Van Lear, Kentucky. The curator, David Harrington, is a whimsical tour guide and an afficiando of all things strange, unique and unusual that he can locate. He dresses in antique attire, and has an air of traditional Southern charm. David tries to bring the mystery and curiosity back to the roadside attraction world with items he’s found all around, including a Fiji Mermaid, antique medical tools, statues, Egyptian embalming tools, and war memorabilia. He’s also a paranormal investigator and is happy to share stories and information about local haunts.
Apple Valley Hillbilly Garden and Toy Land
9351 US Highway 68 W, Calvert City
Keith Holt was raised enjoying roadside attractions, and it inspired him to create one of his own. He collects every toy imaginable and molds his own creations and art installations. You will find everything from toy trains and Barbie dolls to toilets, old cars and Elvis busts. Holt is trying to keep the flair of roadside attractions alive with unusual folk art tributes and forgotten toys. We think he does a fine job of adding flair where others might find despair.
711 Mammoth Cave Road, Cave City
You may have noticed the dinosaurs peaking above the tree line while travelling along I-65 near Mammoth Cave. The life-sized dinosaur models are the primary attraction at Dinosaur World, one of three renowned park locations of this type in the world. Some are as small as a bird, while others are as tall as a three-story building. The museum offers real fossils, a large gift shop, picnic grounds and more.
Wild Things of Kentucky
888 Natural Bridge Road, Slade
This roadside attraction features a collection of native wild life, a gift shop, a live honeybee exhibit, local fish and plenty of information. Owner Lloyd Little also happens to be a renowned wood carver, too, and spends his spare time creating Indians, bears, eagles, and other figures out of blocks of wood with a chainsaw. Little also has a small exhibit of local snakes, and offers gem mining and gold panning. You never know what you’ll find. Added bonus: Wild Things is in the heart of Slade’s Natural Bridge area, and offers a great jumping off point for exploring the area.
World’s Tallest Three-Story Building
731 Main Street, Paris
Paris, Kentucky, is home to the world’s tallest three-story building, according to Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The Edward Shinners Building was commissioned around 1891 by a saloon owner, but used as a furniture store. Not long thereafter it became a grocery and produce store. Today it houses Paradise Café’ and still maintains its tallest title.
Northeastern Kentucky Museum
1385 Carter Caves Road, Olive Hill
James Plummer, whose father started the museum in 1972, runs this unique attraction. The small museum features fossils, Native American artifacts, military memorabilia and other ephemera collected by the elder Plummer, as well as items of local significance donated by contributors and friends. The Native exhibit, perhaps the most impressive of his collections, features pictures, pottery, jewelry, dolls, pipes, and sacred items seldom seen.
700 – 798 N 6th Street, Mayfield
Henry Woodridge was a horse trader and a bachelor who apparently didn’t want to spend a lonely afterlife. He had monuments made of himself, his sister, his mother, several children, a horse, deer, two dogs and a fox. They were carved from sandstone except for one, which was done in marble. The stone-faced entourage stands loyally beside his tomb, and were lovingly repaired after a tree damaged many of the monuments during a 2009 ice storm.
US Highway 27, Falmouth.
Punkyville is the realized dream of Charles Becket, a.k.a. Punky, a lover of antique buildings, cars and traditional storefronts. Becket created his own little community filled with things he enjoys, dubbed Punkyville. Some items and structures are gifted, such as a water tower from Lawrenceburg and a caboose. He buys other items at auction, including a Model A mail truck and 1931 Model A Ford. He built the buildings himself, and considers his little community to always be open to visitors.
Dixie Belle Riverboat at Shaker Village
3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg.
This water-based attraction is well worth a visit. The Dixie Belle raced the Little Toot in the ’70s, but has been a passenger boat since 1982. Though not a luxury vessel by any means, she is the only sternwheeler on the Kentucky River, which means she’s powered by a rotating wheel in the rear. This authentic sternwheeler can take you on a serene journey down the Kentucky River like they did in the days of old.
Head on over to the shop for great deals on fresh Kentucky gear, or come on down and visit us at the Fun Mall, y’all! 720 Bryan Ave. in Lexington.