95 Years Young

Bernheim's History


Bernheim Forest and Arboretum is a living legacy of philanthropist and visionary, Isaac W. Bernheim. Born in Schmieheim, Germany on November 4, 1848, Bernheim immigrated to the United States in March, 1867 at the age of eighteen with only $4 in his pocket. After struggling for several years to make a living as a peddler in New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, he moved to Kentucky and went into the distilling business. Over the years he achieved great success with his Bernheim Brothers Distilling Company and his popular brand of bourbon, I. W. Harper. 

Mr. Bernheim was grateful to the people of Kentucky for allowing him the opportunity to be successful, and he made many contributions throughout the community. In 1929, Mr. Bernheim bought and endowed the land that would become Bernheim Forest, now over 16,000 acres. He dedicated this land to the people of his new homeland to provide a place for the renewal and restoration of the bond between people and nature.

His vision included the combination of an arboretum and natural forested areas infused with the arts, to create a unique site to experience nature. Due to the land’s previous use by the sale and iron ore industries which mined an acre a day, the landscape at the time of his purchase was heavily abused and nearly devoid of trees. 

Much work was done between 1929 and 1950 to prepare Bernheim Forest to be open to the public. 

  • In 1931, the Frederick Law Olmsted firm of Brookline, Massachusetts began work on a major site plan for the landscape arboretum. Their original landscape design that was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1935.
  • Originally dirt, the entrance was blacktopped in 1948 in preparation for the public’s arrival.
  • The Olmsted Ponds as well as Mac’s Lake were created in 1939.
  • Lake Nevin, a 32-acre fishing lake near what is now the main entrance, was impounded in 1949 and named in honor of Mr. Hugh L. Nevin, President of the Board of Trustees for many years.
  • Bernheim opened to the public in July 1950.

As a testament to Isaac W. Bernheim’s vision and perseverance, Bernheim today is home to an accredited Level IV, 600-acre arboretum, (ArbNet), a Botanical Gardens Conservation International Accredited Garden (BGCI), and is designated as Kentucky’s Official Arboretum. 

Over 350,000 visitors from the U.S. and abroad visit Bernheim each year. 

Sign up for the Bernheim Buzz

Get the "buzz" of Bernheim activity weekly in your inbox by signing up below.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.