The seat of Hopkins County in Western Kentucky dates back to 1807, and experienced a boom in the early 20th century, powered by its railroads, tobacco farms and the surrounding Western Coalfields.
Madisonville’s residents take pride in their town, to the extent that the motto is, “The Best Town on Earth”. What is certain is that few cities offer access to so much public green space.
City Park and the Mahr Park Arboretum are sweeping properties, packed with things to do in the summer, from golf to swimming, paddling, birding, fishing or sitting down to a collegiate baseball game.
1. Mahr Park Arboretum
In 2009 the late Dr. Merle and Mrs. Glema Mahr gifted their 265-acre farm to the City of Madisonville. This is a lovely property, on rolling hills with tall mature trees and access to Pee Wee Lake, Madisonville’s reservoir which we’ll talk about later in this list.
Awaiting you at Mahr Park Arboretum is a natural setting, with seasonal wildflowers, 40 acres of woods, native wildlife and a mosaic of ponds, mostly for passive activities.
The nature playground is something special, with equipment carved from Douglas fir, while there are also two large barns for events. Among the recreation facilities there’s an 18-hole championship golf course and a 9-hole disc golf course.
2. Walk Madisonville!
Local bodies and organizations, including the Hopkins County Tourist & Convention Commission and Woman’s Club of Madisonville, have teamed up to produce a great brochure for three self-guided walking tours downtown.
You can pick this up at the Hopkins County Tourist and Convention Commission HQ on Sugg St downtown. There’s a History Walk, a Patriotic Walk and an Art Walk, all with accompanying maps.
The History Walk is of particular interest, detailing many of the fine commercial buildings along Main Street, and then charming residences along Union Street, Sugg Street and Scott Street, with some dating back to the mid-19th century.
3. Historical Society Museum of Hopkins County
One block east of Main Street on Union Street is the museum for the Historical Society of Hopkins County, which was founded in 1974 and today has more than 400 members.
In a grand brick building, which previously served as the Hopkins County Library, you can find out about various aspects of the area’s past, from tobacco farming to coal mining, moonshine and changing local lifestyles.
To this end there’s a preserved 1910 Buick Buggyabout, one of only three such models left in the world.
4. Governor Ruby Laffoon Log Cabin
On the grounds of the Historical Society Museum of Hopkins County is the preserved log cabin in which the 43rd Governor of Kentucky and Madisonville native, Ruby Laffoon (1869-1941) was born.
His time as governor, 1931-1934, is remembered for extensive infrastructure construction, making Harland Sanders a colonel and a bitter fight to pass a sales tax to raise extra revenue for the state treasury during the Great Depression.
The relocated cabin dates to the mid-19th century, and is furnished with pieces from this time to paint a picture of Laffoon’s early years.
5. Madisonville City Park
Brimming with recreation facilities, Madisonville City Park is on more than 250 acres and self-contained day out, especially in the summer.
For a quick summary of what you can find here, there’s a 9-hole golf course, a miniature golf course, 18-hole disc golf course, Madisonville’s outdoor pool, two stocked fishing lakes and a 9-hole footgolf course.
Added to all that you’ve got tennis courts, volleyball courts, a 70-year-old baseball stadium (more later), a 1.25-mile trail, several picnic shelters, a rentable clubhouse and an amphitheater for concerts and festivals in the summer.
6. Hopkins County Farmers’ Market
Mahr Park is the main location for the Hopkin County Farmers’ Market, taking place on Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons throughout the summer.
There’s also an additional market on Thursday mornings at Baptist Health. The farmers’ market is a convenient way to support local businesses and get hold of ultra-fresh produce grown within a matter of miles of Madisonville.
As well as fruit and vegetables, from tomatoes to zucchini, the market normally has farm direct meat, preserves, baked goods, jams, jellies, eggs, flowers, spice mixes, organic soaps and crafts you won’t find anywhere else.
7. Elmer Kelley Stadium
In Madisonville City Park, this baseball stadium was completed in 1941 and was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, composed of bricks that were poured on-site.
The stadium was unused because of WWII until 1946, when for the next ten years it was home field for the Madisonville Miners, then a professional team, along with Madisonville/North Hopkins High School which continues to use the stadium.
Today, the Miners are a summer collegiate team and have played their Ohio Valley League games (OVL) here since 2012. The regular season gets underway in early June and is wrapped up by mid-July.
8. Lake Pee Wee
You don’t even have to leave the city to get to this 360-acre lake, just west of the Mahr Park Arboretum.
Serving as Madisonville’s primary water supply, Lake Pee Wee has nothing but parkland, woods and upscale residences on its shores.
Boats with motors aren’t permitted, but there’s a free launch at the arboretum for canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and rowboats.
As for fishing, bass, carp, crappie and trout are regularly caught at Lake Pee Wee, although you’re required to stay clear of the intake, easily spotted as a large concrete structure.
9. Melody Lanes
This 20-lane bowling alley at 1018 N Main St has been open since 1959, and the big neon sign out front certainly evokes the mid-century.
Melody Lanes is a local go-to for groups of friends, families and dates, as well as corporate outings.
Despite being well over 60 years old, the alley has moved with the times and when we wrote this article had just added another round of renovations.
Check the alley’s facebook page for details of seasonal promotions, while Rae’s Cafe inside has a selection of sandwiches, soups, burgers, hot dogs and bites like popcorn chicken and fries.
10. Glema Mahr Center for the Arts
At the Madisonville Community College’s North Campus there’s a modern performing arts center housing a 1,000-seat theater that serves as the main stage for miles around.
The schedule is packed year round with concerts by famous recording acts, as well as touring musicals, classical, jazz and folk ensembles, dance, community theatre, children’s shows, college ceremonies and much more.
When we wrote this list a couple of well-known performers taking the stage were Martina McBride and Rodney Crowell.
Also in the complex is the Anne P. Baker Gallery, with something new to see every few weeks, including the annual Glema Center Juried Photography Exhibit and Juried Art Exhibit in fall.
11. Trover Wellness Park
North of downtown Madisonville, by Baptist Health there’s a park designed to encourage healthy lifestyles. The main component at Trover Wellness Park is a half-mile trail, equipped with ten different fitness stations.
A little more relaxing, there’s also a delightful butterfly garden, planted with more than 20 varieties of flowering plants.
The children’s playground is another highlight, with multi-sensory equipment for all abilities. This park is a trailhead for the planned Healthway Trail, a long-term project that will connect Trover Wellness Park with Madisonville City Park.
12. Madisonville 4th Fest
City Park is the backdrop for the premier summer event in Hopkins County. Usually a three-day event, Madisonville 4th Fest happens on the closest weekend before July 4, and promises three days of free entertainment.
Live music is central to this event, on two stages always featuring a bill of well-known acts. To accompany all this there’s a lineup of food trucks, vendors of all descriptions, a beer garden, children’s activities and then fireworks to bring the whole event to a close.
13. Western Kentucky Speedway
During the season, April through September, this ⅜-mile semi-banked dirt oval has racing action pretty every weekend.
Gates tend to open in the afternoon and the racing normally starts by 7:00 pm. A few of the classes usually featured are Street Stock, Super Street, Bomber, Rusty Bolt, Mini Stock, Modifieds and Late Models.
Among the big annual events are Spring Fling early in the season and the annual King of the Bluegrass & “Little John” Gray Memorial in September.
14. Grapevine Lake
On the south side of City Park is another inviting public park, open April through October and centered on a sizable fishing lake.
On the shores of Grapevine Lake are dozens of acres of mature hardwood forest that you can navigate on more than eight miles of newly enhanced mountain bike trails.
The main loop has fantastic, near-constant views of the lake, and lots of interesting features from drop-in valleys to downed trees, tight turns, little bridges, roots and jumps. One of the main rules here is not to use the mountain bike trails when muddy.
15. Madisonville Christmas Parade
Organized by Madisonville Noon Kiwanis the Christmas Parade is a wholesome annual tradition downtown on the first Saturday in December.
Starting at twilight at 5:00 pm, a line of lovingly decorated vehicles, floats and marching bands will make their way along the North and South Main Street, also illuminated in festive style.
Younger children will be thrilled by the fire trucks, tractors, antique cars, horses and clowns, and that’s before Santa Claus shows up at the back of the parade, accompanied by the ever-popular jolly old elf.