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Wednesday marks 20 years since devastating Talbott Tavern blaze

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By Kacie Goode

In the early morning of March 7, 1998, Betty (Kelley) Hart stood on the sidewalk across the street watching The Old Talbott Tavern burn and smolder in the rain. She would later tell reporters how she was moved to tears to see the community rally around the loss of one of Bardstown’s most historic sites. Two decades later, the fire remains a prominent memory.

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“It was devastating,” Hart said. “It was one of those situations where you stand there and watch it happen and know at that point there is nothing you can do about it. You trust the firefighters will save as much as they can.”

The Monday morning following the blaze, photographs of firefighters and charred remains filled the front page of the newspaper. Assistant Editor Rodman P. Botkins compared the melted glass of the pub’s chandelier to icicles and referenced the smoke-seared masonry and jagged roof — an appearance far less grand than what the historic structure previously offered.

Firefighters were called to the scene just before 6 a.m. that cold Saturday morning, and the fire would burn for nearly six hours. The hydrants in the vicinity were not enough to fight the flames, and firefighters had to tap into a water main down the block. The assistant state fire marshal would later confirm an electrical malfunction under the rear lobby stairwell was to blame, and the issue could have been present for years before the wood began to smolder. The stairway had acted as a chimney, feeding the fire upward.

The second floor, which housed bedrooms, a business office, a dining hall and bathrooms, was destroyed in the fire. The pub area sustained mostly smoke and water damage. Six volunteer fire departments responded to help extinguish the blaze and monitor the property. Community members also stepped up to lend a hand.

“After the fire was under control, a call went out for help to salvage some of the furniture,” Pat Settles said, recalling the event, adding that he and his son, Josh, went up to help.

“It was surreal seeing the Tavern in darkness with water still running through the building,” he said. “The firefighters brought the tables and chairs from the bars and we carried them to the street.”

Stephen Foster Avenue became a temporary holding ground for the items before they could be hauled off to storage. While some items were saved, others were lost, such as a painting of Abraham Lincoln and a marble-top dresser that had been in the Kelley family for generations. When they were finally cleared to enter the building, Settles remembers the blackness that filled the room. A place that had once been a popular gathering place for their Jaycee functions was left only a charred shell.

“The community support was definitely what got us through all of that,” Hart said, referencing the numerous volunteers, organizations, friends and family that came out.

While the damage to the Tavern was severe, no one was seriously injured in the fire. An employee was taken to the hospital for hyperventilation, and a firefighter suffered an ankle injury on the scene but was treated and released. All five of the Tavern’s guests that night, who were staying in the upstairs rooms, were able to escape.

In a firsthand account, guest and entertainer Jim Snyder told The Standard how he was roused from sleep by a smoke detector in his room, and alarms in the other parts of the building were going off as well.

“I got in the hallway and ran to the room next door to me,” Snyder said, telling reporters he wanted to make sure his fellow guests were awake. One of the couples had already managed to escape through the front, but as smoke filled the hallways, Snyder and the other couple used the fire escape as the main staircase was in flames. All five guests made it out safely, and they were able to alert firefighters and police of what was happening. While the other guests went to alternative accommodations, Snyder stayed at the scene.

“It’s the first fire I’ve experienced and watched from beginning to end,” he told The Standard.

In the days and weeks that would follow the fire, hundreds of spectators would stop by to see the damage and share memories of their times at Bardstown’s “watering hole.” Soon, the work would begin to rebuild and restore the important Bardstown landmark that had housed notable visitors for two centuries and held some of the town’s most interesting stories.

Today, The Old Talbott Tavern is once again a booming tourist attraction and local hot spot. The fire is a part of the building’s history and a draw for guests. To celebrate the building’s history and its growing future, the Tavern is hosting an anniversary party this evening to mark the fire’s 20th year.

The event, which starts at 5 p.m., will include old newspapers, photographs and a short film about the fire, and there will be blackened specials in the dining room as a reference to the dinner served on the eve of the fire — blackened catfish. The celebration also coordinates with the release of Yuengling as it hits the market in Kentucky, and the Tavern will offer the beer on tap tonight.