On the Right Track: Guthrie, Kentucky to Showcase its Transportation History

The Crossroads of the South

Fifty miles south of Greenville, Kentucky (previously featured here), the Pennyrile Area Development District (PADD) has been a partner in another transformative small town redevelopment project in Guthrie.  This past August, the town broke ground on a planned Transportation Museum and Welcome Center, a $1.4 million project almost a decade in the making.

Guthrie, home to 1,400 residents, is located along the Kentucky-Tennessee border and is steeped in transportation and American history.  Known as the “Crossroads of the South,” the town is named after James Guthrie, former US senator from Kentucky and one-time president of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad – the company that built the first major switch track in the city.  Throughout the years, other rail lines would be routed through Guthrie both north-south and east-west, solidifying the town as a major destination during the golden era of the railroad.  The town also has its place in one of the darker episodes of American history as Native Americans on the Trail of Tears entered Kentucky by way of Guthrie on the journey westward.

Abandoned for decades, the two-building structure in downtown Guthrie known as the “Jenkins Building” will be home to a new transportation museum and Trail of Tears route welcome center when it opens in summer 2013. (Photo courtesy of De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop)

Though the railroad industry and Guthrie itself has changed much since its boom years, this town has not forgotten its roots and continues to embrace the culture of the industry that led to its development almost two centuries ago.  The transportation museum and welcome center for those touring the National Trail of Tears route will be located in a 120-year old two-building structure located downtown, known locally as the “Jenkins Building.”  Vacant since the early 1980s and currently in major disrepair, this 8,000 square foot space was the former site of a pharmacy and later the Jenkins Department Store which served the residents of Guthrie and surrounding areas for decades.  The red brick building was donated to the city after Mayor Scott Marshall reached out to the owner and discussed the plans for a museum.

Small Town, Big Expectations  

The museum and welcome center will be located in downtown Guthrie near the very train tracks (visible to the right and top of the photo) that helped shape the history and culture of this small Kentucky town. Click to enlarge map. (Image created using Google Earth)

Guthrie has set high expectations for this locally-driven project.  “Our goal is to have the museum be the same quality as one you would find in much larger cities, such as Louisville or Lexington,” says Tracy Robinson, Executive Manager of the city’s Guthrie Partners for Main Street.  Much of that high-end quality will come from enlisting the services of the De Leon & Primmer Architectural Workshop, a Louisville-based firm which specializes in designing modern projects that embrace local themes and history.  “A key part of the design concept was heavily influenced by common and familiar elements specific to the railroad and transportation industry that was so important to the city’s early growth,” explains principal Roberto de Leon.  Once completed, visitors will experience a renovated building which highlights the town’s past through the use of steel plate framing, concrete walls, and even color gel fluorescents which will elicit transportation-themed colors of red, yellow, green, blue, and brown.  The inside will mostly be gutted to make room for the modern exhibits, but the exterior façades and beautiful brick walls will be preserved, including a hand-painted vintage Coca-Cola mural advertising the soft drink for five cents a bottle.

Community involvement and buy-in was crucial while planning the museum.  “Throughout the design process, we worked closely and collaboratively with the Guthrie community and city leaders, organizing a series of workshops to maximize the value of the community’s investments in the project.  Most importantly, we were interested in the community’s aspirations,” says de Leon.

A rendering of the proposed exterior design for Guthrie’s transportation museum and welcome center. (Photo courtesy of De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop)

What was once an eyesore in downtown Guthrie will now attract visitors to learn about the city’s past, the transportation industry, and the larger surrounding region.  It is anticipated that visitors to the museum will benefit local businesses as people will shop and eat while downtown, an area that currently has 17 commercial buildings.  More importantly, the transportation museum is expected to serve as a larger catalyst for economic development in addition to the immediate local jobs created during the renovation stage.  “By renovating the Jenkins Building, this project can inspire other projects across the street, then down the street, and overall instill a sense of pride in the community,” says Robinson of Guthrie Partners for Main Street.  Finally, in addition to the economic development the museum is expected to bring to Guthrie is the priceless role that the museum will serve in celebrating the town’s past and reminding the residents, particularly children, of their own vibrant heritage.

‘You Must Be Persistent’

While the interior of the building will mostly be gutted, the building’s historic façade and brick exterior will be preserved, including this vintage Coca-Cola advertisement. (Photo courtesy of De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop)

Funding for the project was pooled from a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and $900,000 from two Kentucky Transportation Enhancement (TE) grants.  “During the grant process, you must be persistent,” explains Robinson.  “We had to compete with much larger communities vying for limited amounts of money which means you have to be creative.  A project like this means a lot to a community like ours and we were stubborn enough not to give up.”  That persistence was clearly demonstrated by Mayor Marshall who made numerous trips to the state capital in Frankfort to seek funding and support for the project.

PADD supported the city in preparing the application and are also administering the CDBG funds.  “The interstate highways today take you around the towns that used to be the jewels of the region,” says Jason Vincent, PADD’s Assistant Director.  “With this new museum, Guthrie will have an opportunity to showcase its rich transportation history by attracting visitors to town.”

Through this new museum and welcome center, Guthrie has been able to turn a community liability into a true asset.  When it opens in the summer of 2013, it will have been after years of hard work, struggle, and dedication – much in the same spirit of Guthrie’s original residents who built this railroad town many years ago.

This case study was researched and written by Brett Schwartz, NADO Research Fellow.


This is part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Vibrant Rural Communities series of case studies, which describes how rural regions and small towns across the country are growing local and regional economies and creating stronger communities. This series shows how communities can leverage a wide range of tools and resources to build on their assets, protect their resources, and make strategic investments that offer long-term benefits.

This project is based in part upon work supported by the Federal Highway Administration under Agreement No. DTFH61-10-C-00047. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.

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