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Stearns, Kentucky

This McCreary County town is known as a gateway to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and the Daniel Boone National Forest. The scenic railroad, headquartered in the depot downtown, is a popular way to experience the natural beauty of the area.

Blue Heron Mining Camp, once part of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company, is accessed via the scenic railroad. Here visitors can imagine what life was like here during the coal boom.

“It sprang to life at the turn of the last century, toward the end of the Gilded Age,” said Shane Gilreath, director of the McCreary County Museum. “A northern industrial baron named Justus Stearns came south, bought land in Kentucky and Tennessee to initially create a lumber business. While he was here he discovered coal, and built a railway. He built the first all-electric power plant in the entire country. And the town of Stearns grew to become known as the Empire of the South, if you can imagine.”

Gilreath said that today Stearns is principally a tourist town. “And there are many things people can do here in Stearns, including visit the museum here.”

The museum opened in 1988, a year after the coal industry left the county, he said. The museum is in the coal company’s old headquarters. “All of the buildings in historic Stearns are original, built between the turn of the century and the 1920s.”

The museum has colonial and Native American exhibits, coal exhibits, a still (“You can’t come to Kentucky without a moonshine still,” said Gilreath), and exhibits on the history of the Kentucky Tennessee Railroad.

In downtown Stearns, a cafe and small shops occupy the storefronts.

Barbara Edwards, owner of Sweet Kreations Gift Shoppe, sells gifts, candies and homemade fudge. She has fond memories of Stearns from childhood. “As a child I can remember that was one of the highlights of my summer was coming here to visit,” she said.

Pottery by Mehg occupies the old post office. “It’s a lot of fun to tell people that this was originally the post office in Stearns, and above our head was the originally the company doctor,” said potter Mehg Marshall. “People really like the history and they come to understand the history. And to tour the museum and understand everything that went on as a coal mining town.”

The front of the building is a gift stop, and behind that is a studio with two kilns and two potter’s wheels, said Marshall. “People are welcome to come watch me,” she said.

In another shop, Alvin Powell of Kentucky Coal Crafters creates souvenirs from coal dust, molding it into his own designs. Inside the depot building, the Whistle Stop Café offers lunch, dinner, and slices of pie.

“I’m excited about watching Stearns grow,” said Marshall. “I’m excited about seeing what we can bring to this small town and keeping the Southern feel of a small town, but still welcoming people into our beautiful county.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2218, which originally aired on May 20, 2017. Watch the full episode.