Historical marker #1039 in Barren County marks the former site of Bell’s Tavern. The Tavern was a popular stagecoach stop between Louisville and Nashville, situated just outside Mammoth Cave.
Bell’s Tavern was built in the late 1820s by men enslaved by William Bell. Bell was a prominent, aristocratic Virginian, who moved to Kentucky and purchased 3,500 acres in what is now Barren County. Bell’s brother-in-law, Felming Gatewood, owned Mammoth Cave at the time. Bell and his son, Robert Slaughter Bell operated the tavern together, growing it from a small country stop to a large tourist attraction, alongside Mammoth Cave.
Following the deaths of William Bell (1833) and Robert Bell (1853), Robert’s widow Maria married George M. Proctor and they continued to operate Bell’s Tavern. Major Kentucky politicians, including Henry Clay, the Marshall family, and the Humphreys family visited the Tavern.
The Proctors planned to expand the Tavern to better serve costumers traveling by rail on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad line, which was under construction in the late 1850s. But, in 1858, Bell’s Tavern burned down and was considered a complete loss. The Proctors had not begun improvements and the rail line was not operable at that point.
In 1860, enslaved laborers began reconstructing the Tavern, using stone walls. When the Civil War began in 1861, construction ceased, though the walls served as strategic landmarks for soldiers passing through Barren County, but it was not a site of a skirmish or any significant moment during the war.
Bell’s Tavern was never rebuilt following the fire. Maria Proctor died in 1865 and George Proctor was not able to complete the project. Barren County thrived around the former site, with the help of successful railroad lines and the tourism draw of Mammoth Cave.
The ruins of Bell’s Tavern remain in Park City and are a site of local tourist interest and ongoing myth-making.
The historical marker was dedicated August 27, 1968. The marker text reads:
Erected by Wm. Bell, 1830. Stage stop for his lines that brought first guests to Mammoth Cave when opened to public. Famed over U.S. & Europe for elite patrons, cuisine and a magic peach and honey brandy for “Joy before the journey’s end,” until it burned in 1860. Civil War doomed completion of new tavern begun by grandson, Wm. F. Bell and his stepfather, George M. Proctor.