Kentucky Life visits the Owensboro Museum of Science and History; visitors to Red River Gorge can see snakes from all over the world at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo; earn credits brewing beer at Western Kentucky University’s College Heights Brewing; and more scenes from Georgetown’s Ward Hall.
Owensboro Museum of Science and History
Visitors from all around Kentucky and Southern Illinois and Indiana come to Owensboro to visit the city’s Museum of Science and History, located in a historic building downtown.
“Within the building, we have two floors of exhibits,” says CEO Kathy Heflin Olson. “They encompass a historic coal mine in the basement and a natural history area on the first floor.”
The family-oriented facility includes a Play-zeum, where young visitors can climb and play on an indoor playground. There’s even a tunnel that goes out the window and overlooks the street below.
One of the museum’s most popular exhibits is the Speedzeum. It was originally created to document the legacy of some of the famous NASCAR drivers who have ties to the Owensboro area.
“Our gallery certainly tells their story,” says Olson. “But behind those people was an enormous amount of people from Owensboro that were in pit crews and helped in different ways in that industry. There are three or four hundred people from Owensboro that are involved in professional racing.”
The exhibit now goes beyond NASCAR and includes the stories of some successful hydroplane racers. Owensboro has a place in the history of that sport as the city used to host an annual hydroplane race on the Ohio River.
The museum has an extensive replica coal mine where visitors learn what it was like to be a coal miner in western Kentucky in the 1930s.
“We selected the 1930s because we had a lot of stories from the time period from that miners that were still with us,” says Olson. “We had their oral histories. They helped us develop the gallery.”
In the natural history area of the museum, visitors learn more about local biology and geology and how it affects their lives.
“Our natural history gallery starts with the geology of our area,” says Olson. “But the main focus is a wonderful cave. Our commonwealth has the world’s largest cave system. We have built a cave that teaches cave biology, cave geology, and human interest on caves. It ends with how we can be everyday cave conservationists. Practicing good water conservation is the easiest thing that we can do, that’s the end message for the cave.“
“There are so many opportunities here at this museum for everybody,” says Debbie Stites, director of patron development and publicity. “We supply education for the adults that come in. It’s not just for children. We supply something for everyone here. I think Owensboro is very proud of this museum.”
The Reptile Zoo at Red River Gorge
Usually when you’re on a vacation to a popular hiking spot, you’d rather not have an up-close visit with a venomous snake. But if you’re visiting the Red River Gorge, the Reptile Zoo is one way to learn about these animals from a safe distance.
“Kentucky Reptile Zoo has three missions,” says Kristen Wiley, director and curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo. “The first one is providing venom for medical research and antivenin production. The second one is outreach education. And then lastly, we try to support research and conservation of reptiles whenever we can.”
The zoo includes three buildings that house different types of snakes, from exotics, to native local species, to giant snakes. There are also other types of reptiles on the property, including turtles and alligators.
Through outreach education, the zoo spreads the word about the benefits of snakes. For example, they keep rodent populations in check. There is some evidence that snakes reduce the spread of Lyme disease by controlling the rodents that infected ticks often feed on.
Snakes are also invaluable in medicine. The Kentucky Reptile Zoo collects venom from its various species, and the venom can be used for different purposes.
“The venom is extracted here mainly is used in research,” says Jim Harrison, director and curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo. “Some of the research going on is for clotting factors. All the ACE inhibitors were developed from snake venom. Some of our venom is used in antivenin, some of our venom is being used in testing for cancer research, because it destroys cancer cells. We also provide venom for a test for lupus. The venom saves more lives than it will ever take.”
For visitors who are still skeptical about snakes, Wiley suggests that a mindset change could make all the difference.
“If you see a snake and your normal reaction is to panic, one thing I would say is to just try to stop, be calm, and just look at the animal for a few moments and see what it’s doing,” she says. “Keep your distance, but look at it for a moment. I think a lot of times your heart rate would come down and you wouldn’t be so scared. What the snake is going to be doing is either hiding, which is what they do most of the time, or going about its business. Or it might be being defensive. But if the snake is being defensive and has a posture where it has elevated its body or it’s hissing at you, if you stand still or take a step back, a lot of times they’re going to calm themselves down too.
“I think if people could just get over that little hump of the initial panic, it would make things a lot less scary for them. They’re not demons or something that’s wishing for your demise. They’re just a little creature trying to go about their life just like you and I are.”
College Heights Brewing
The explosion in craft brewing is undeniable, and it has come to Kentucky in a big way. At Western Kentucky University, students are getting a hands-on education in brewing at College Heights Brewery. College Heights, housed in a building that was a mall in the 1970s, is the largest production brewery on an American college campus.
“[Our students] don’t all want to be brewers and they don’t all want to be distillers, and that’s great because in this industry there aren’t many brewers and distillers,” says Andrew McMichael, associate dean of the Potter College of Arts and Letters at WKU.
McMichael explains that there are career opportunities in the industry for economists, advertising professionals, social media marketers, and artists who design things like tap handles and labels. Any of those career paths in the craft beer industry can benefit from real brewery experience.
“They have to be knowledgeable about the companies they work for, but they should have actual hands-on experience with the brewing and distilling equipment,” he says. “That’s where we tried to shape the program.”
College Heights has two flagship brews: an IPA and an American pale ale. They’ve partnered with Alltech, maker of Kentucky Ale, which allows the program to run financially independent of the university.
The roots of the program go back to McMichael’s hobby of brewing his own beer at home.
“When I got to WKU, I met other faculty who were interested in home brewing, and we brewed together quite a bit,” he says. “A good friend of mine in biology decided we would teach a class together, with him teaching the science side of beer making and me teaching the history of beer. From the moment we started teaching that class, it was full. It was at a time [the early 2000s] when the craft beer revolution was really taking off. Three or four years ago, the associate dean in the science college, Dr. Kate Webb and I, decided we would start a program.”
“College Heights main goal is to teach,” says brewery supervisor Josh Newell. “What we want to do is create a space where students can learn, and they can learn the right way. You can learn how to do this from a book and from online resources, but it’s not the same as having someone who knows what they’re doing saying, ‘this is how you do it, now you try.’ That’s what we really set out to do. Yeah, making great beer is awesome, but making great brewers is a lot more rewarding.”