The Business of History: Merchants Row and Civil War heritage make Perryville unique

February 02, 2004|GARY MOYERS

PERRYVILLE - History is big business in the little city of Perryville.

Union and Confederate forces met for three days in the fall of 1862 for the state's largest Civil War battle, a historically significant event by itself. But the fact that so many of the buildings and combat fields from that battle remain largely untouched 141 years later makes Perryville a high-profile tourist destination.

The 2002 Battle of Perryville reenactment, sponsored nationally by a reenactors association, drew more than 40,000 tourists to the area.

Perryville Battlefield State Park now encompasses more than 600 acres but is by no means the only Perryville entity that trades on the history of Kentucky's most well-known Civil War battle.

"Perryville is one of the few places in the country with an intact, 19th century mercantile district," said Stuart Sanders, director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association. "We have military and commercial sites in the same place and can give an accurate representation of life in that era. That makes this entire area very attractive to tourists."


Perryville Mayor Bruce Richardson, who also owns nationally-known Elmwood Inn, said the historical theme runs throughout the city.

"We play up the historic element at the inn by referring to it in our marketing pieces as 'historic Elmwood Inn,'" said Richardson. "It definitely helps distinguish us from similar places in other parts of the country."

With its Civil War tradition, Perryville has become a major recipient of government preservation funds.

"We have made major progress in our preservation efforts largely because government entities have funded several huge projects," said Richardson, citing both the battlefield and Merchant's Row, a downtown collection of businesses now owned by the preservation association.

"Merchants Row is such a unique place in that the buildings were commercial entities before the battle, and many of them served as hospitals after the battle," said Sanders. Merchants Row is owned by the Perryville Enhancement Project, an arm of the preservation association. "Our plan is to restore the buildings to what they looked like in the 1860s and put in museums and a complete air of authenticity.

"Merchants Row, coupled with the battlefield itself, carry such historicial significance because very few places in the United States can boast such pristine conditions, accurate right back to the battle itself," said Sanders.

Richardson has contributed to the Merchants Row project as a businessman by leasing one of the historic buildings to house his Elmwood Inn Gift Shop.

"Like so many of Perryville's residents, it's a constant source of amazement to me that the Battle of Perryville was played out in my front yard," said Richardson. "The preservation efforts have been going on for almost 50 years, and so much has already been accomplished in the entire town to accent the historical attraction."

Sanders said the goal is to attract more businesses to move to Merchants Row when preservation and renovation efforts are complete.

"It's a long-range plan, but it's a viable plan," he said. "Investments by private enterprise, in partnership with preservation groups and the government, could make Merchants Row a premier tourist draw."

Richardson said Perryville is already reaping commercial benefits from its historic past.

"People call me throughout the year, asking about investment opportunities in Perryville," he said. "We do benefit from our past, and as preservation efforts continue to progress, I expect we will attract more and more commercial entities here to capitalize.

"People are interested in history, and the fact they can come here and see so much of it, I think, bodes well for our future."

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