Appalachian Travel: Explore the History, Culture and Cuisine of Morehead, Kentucky

This charming town in the Appalachian foothills—the site of one of the most famous feuds in U.S. history—has gone from feisty to friendly.

Steve Stephens
Columbus Monthly
The Kentucky Folk Art Center in the Union Grocery Building is operated by Morehead State University.

Visitors to Morehead in the Appalachian foothills might be hard-pressed to imagine a time when one of the most famous feuds in America made the town a daunting and dangerous place. Today, Morehead is known for its pretty and walkable downtown abutting Morehead State University, as well as the many outdoor activities in and around Cave Run Lake and surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest.

But after an election in 1884, family and political hatreds led to a conflict known as the Rowan County War. Over the next three years, more than 20 people were killed and many more wounded. The “war” came to an end in 1887 after an hours-long shootout involving dozens of men and, of course, the marriage of two young people, one from each family.

Plenty of fascinating information about the feud can be found at sites such as the Morehead History and Railroad Museum. But feudin’, fussin’ and fightin’ are, thankfully, far, far in Morehead’s past.

The presence of the university means that the streets are usually lively (but not shoot-out lively). And there’s often some kind of interesting event occurring either on campus or at downtown venues such as the Rowan County Arts Center, located in the old county courthouse built in 1899. For history (or feud) buffs, the arts center also exhibits a nice historical display about the Rowan County War.

Downtown Morehead offers plenty of good food and drink at places such as the quaint and unusual All Seasons Restaurant and Café, which also houses a florist and home décor boutique, and Sawstone Brewing Co., with a nice collection of house-made and other craft brews on tap.

Cave Run Lake in Morehead, Kentucky, offers 8,270 acres of fishing, boating and hiking opportunities.

One must-see destination in Morehead is the Kentucky Folk Art Center in the historic Union Grocery Building. The center, operated by Morehead State University, is filled with colorful, heartfelt works—old and more recent—by self-taught Appalachian artists. The works are sometimes whimsical, sometimes deeply moving. Many recall the region’s troubled past or hopes for a brighter future.

Anglers, boaters and hikers will enjoy exploring the 8,270-acre Cave Run Lake and the surrounding recreational area. The biggest muskellunge ever caught in Kentucky was pulled from Cave Run Lake. You can see some local muskies and other whoppers mounted and displayed at the Morehead Visitor Center, a good place to pick up maps and brochures.

Morehead is also near the northern terminus of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, which runs down Main Street and continues 319 miles into northern Tennessee. And just outside Morehead, the Poppy Mountain Music Festival, which bills itself as the largest bluegrass music festival in the world, is held yearly during the third week of September. More than 100 bands entertain at the 1,400-acre festival site. Thousands of music lovers attend the festival each year. And every face you see there will likely be friendly. 

This story is from the Appalachian Spring feature package in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.