Some might say that the growth of Aurora, Ky., into a bustling tourist community for many past decades could be traced to the foresight of the general manager of the Tennessee Valley Authority nearly 70 years ago.
In March, 1948, TVA leased nearly 1800 acres to Kentucky for what would later become Kenlake State Resort Park. Even before then, TVA’s general manager Gordon R. Clapp had realized the potential of Kentucky Lake as a future recreational resource.
As early as 1944, he wrote, “Although exact predictions cannot be made as to future demands for public use of the recreational resources to be provided on Kentucky Lake, the opportunities for post-war recreational development and use would seem to be unparalleled in the general region.”
Kentucky Lake is the largest of the TVA chain of lakes. In overall storage capacity the lake stretches 184 miles from Kentucky Dam at Gilbertsville to Pickwick Landing Dam downstream from the Tennessee-Mississippi-Alabama state line, with 2,300 miles of shoreline between Kentucky Dam and Pickwick Dam.
In November, 1965, TVA leased an additional 302 acres to the park near what was called Aurora Landing and the park became Kenlake State Resort Park.
The park—and with it Aurora—did indeed beckon in the 1950s and 60s and well into the 70s to vacationers, sportsmen and travelers heading north to south or back home again. People who would stay not just at the park’s 58-room hotel, opened in 1952, but at the many private motels and lodges in and around the town. They would dine at area restaurants, most notably Sue and Charlie’s, and buy souvenirs at places like the Hitching Post.
Then again Aurora had its own supply of active townspeople before the state park was completed. Diana Belew Underhill, daughter of the founders of Belew’s Dairy Bar, said that although her parents, Marbeth and Alonzo Belew, believed they would get some of the tourist trade, they also hoped to attract locals and people from nearby cities to their roadside eatery when they opened it in 1951.
The Belews must’ve had some of the foresight that Clapp had, for over 60 years and two expansions later, Belew’s is still a going concern in Aurora. The current restaurant, down the road from the original site remains a popular destination for locals and tourists.
The first Belew’s was strictly a drive-in restaurant, with female carhops dressed demurely in cream-colored, below-the-knee dresses designed by Underhill’s mother. One of those dresses hangs in a basement kitchen that Underhill and her husband Ron have developed into a Belew’s memorial of sorts.
Dominating one wall is the original wooden menu sign, with prices hard to believe. Hamburgers were 30 cents, drinks 5 cents, and ice cream 10 cents.
Satisfying the hunger of vacationers was also a big part of the lives of Hazel Hill and Ella May Crump. Both worked in the dining room of the Kenlake Hotel for years, with Hill eventually becoming the dining room supervisor. The women, both still living in Aurora, are long-time friends.
Hill worked for the hotel for 20 years, then spent another 12 years at the park’s golf course, closed last year. She helped organize both a large group of women golfers who played regularly together and, on a less secular note, together with the Aurora Ministerial Alliance, the first sunrise Easter service at the park’s amphitheater.
Ella May and Earl Crump, married for 65 years, didn’t start out their life together in Aurora. They lived on the other side of the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge, and Earl Crump worked at the Eddyville State Penitentiary before he got into the service station business.
In the beginning, Earl Crump remembers they didn’t have anything, “maybe $13 and a leather jacket.” Eventually he owned and operated the Ashland Oil service station next to Sue and Charlie’s, closing it in 1976 to go into the bulldozer business.
The Crumps ended up in Aurora when families were relocated from Golden Pond, Fenton, and other areas for the creation of Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area. “The government moved us three times,” recalled Ella May Crump.
She worked at the hotel dining room from 1955 until 1990, recalling making 41 cents an hour, excluding tips. In 1960, roast sirloin of beef with choice of two vegetables cost $2, according to one of the many old menus she has as keepsakes from that time. The chef’s special, a grilled beef tenderloin steak, was $2.75.
A relative whose business harkens back to her Trigg County heritage, that of making a living in hard times, works down the road from her now on federally-designated property near his home. Only back in the day, not everyone would’ve approved of her uncle’s line of work. “He was noted for making moonshine stills,” she recalled, not apologetically, more with a sense of quiet pride in his workmanship and ability to keep his family fed.
Her nephew, Spencer Balentine, makes moonshine—legally now—at the Silver Trail Distillery just down the road towards Aurora. He uses both a copper “wagon bed” still designed by his great uncle in 1947 and a more modern still, and he notes how the older design is much more efficient than the newer model.
According to his business brochure, the LBL “1950s Style Moonshine” and LBL “Apple Sin Moonshine” won the International SIP Award Gold Medals in the moonshine division in 2012 and 2013. He also explains that people who hate moonshine because of its taste have probably “only tried the low grade stuff, made from chicken-scratch corn,” whereas his company uses “feed-grade corn grown in western Kentucky and hand ground on site.”
One notable change in Aurora recently is Balentine’s purchase of the old Bank of Benton building, remaking it into an LBL Moonshine Museum, slated to open soon.
One thing in Aurora that has not changed all that much outwardly is the Hitching Post, a town landmark since the mid-1940s. Owned and operated by Chuck and Sally Blanchard until 2008, the rustic souvenir store and gift shop have long been fronted by an old timey horse and buggy, now under a wooden shelter. Seeing the large icon has been a sign that, for many people heading toward Kentucky Lake, the beach was not far away.
Current proprietor Su Festen is a transplant from northern Illinois.
Her whimsical take on much of life is evident in her additions to the business, such as the special premium soda tastings she instituted in the old store last year.
Festen is aware of the impact that the completion of I-24 through western Kentucky has had on Aurora. The town got bypassed, she noted, but she believes that Aurora is on the upswing, with new businesses in place, such as the Dollar Store and the moonshine museum, and the renovation of Cherokee Park, the once-segregated part of Kenlake, open to all visitors now.
“I like the energy level here,” she said. “I have very positive thoughts for Aurora’s future.” She added, “I want to keep my customers happy, to help them have a good time. We use a lot of humor. We want them to have more than just a shopping experience here.”
Regarding Aurora’s future, while it is true that the 1980 opening of the 23-mile stretch from the Western Kentucky Parkway to US 68 East in Cadiz did have a huge impact on the town, it is another highway improvement that may turn things around again.
When the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge was rammed nearly two years, causing a section of it to collapse, many on the western shore of Kentucky Lake were worried about how that would impact their trade in the coming months.
But “honestly, it wasn’t as big a blow as we expected,” said Randy Newcomb, director of the Marshall County Tourism Commission. “It might have speeded up the process of getting a new bridge,” he added, “and helped us to move forward.”