Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, is a popular scenic backdrop for many a photo opportunity: from history-themed gatherings, to prom pictures, to family photos, to weddings. Here, a smattering of images taken with Ashland as a fine backdrop:
Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, is a popular scenic backdrop for many a photo opportunity: from history-themed gatherings, to prom pictures, to family photos, to weddings. Here, a smattering of images taken with Ashland as a fine backdrop:
YOU ARE HERE -> CHRISTMAS 1856
While Henry Clay had not been home for many Christmases at Ashland due to Congress being in session, once James and Susan Clay come to Ashland in the 1850s, we begin to get details of how Christmas was celebrated at the estate.
James had rebuilt the Ashland mansion between 1855 and 1856 and letters reveal that the family was indeed moved in by Christmas of 1856. Susan and her siblings corresponded about that Christmas Day.
In their letters, they relayed that the parlor contained the family piano and upon it Christmas presents were arranged. Down the stairs came “six or seven little urchins,” wild with excitement. Those ‘urchins’ were twelve-year-old Lucy, ten-year-old Jimmy, eight-year old John, seven-year-old Harry, five-year-old TeeTee, three-year-old Tommy, and one-year-old Sukie. Susan was pregnant with their eighth child.
The children tried to figure out which presents belonged to them, but they had to have breakfast before digging into the gifts. Father James added to the excitement by handing out gold coins to the children for proficiency in their studies: two gold dollars to Lucy, John, and Harry, and one to Jimmy.
As Susan wrote to her sister describing this first Christmas at Ashland, Santa Claus appeared,
…under a beautiful Christmas tree covered with light, candies, oranges, apples, grapes, misseltoe [sic], and holly. All of us went forward and all bowed with much politeness to old Santa Clause [sic], who returned our salutation and handed me a folded sheet of paper. We then bowed ourselves out of the room and shut the door so as to give the old fellow and opportunity to make his exit up the chimney and then all crowded round me to see what it was that he had given to me. I found that it was a letter which Santa Clause had written to the children and I read it aloud to them…
After I got through with the letter the parlor door was again opened and there was a general rush to the tree and then such a scene, such noise, and such confusion and none would rest until the presents were distributed and then after they had time to admire their own and every body else’s they returned to the dining room and passed the evening dancing and playing and every now and then rushing into the parlor to admire the tree and presents and where the boys took the liberty of kissing the girls under the miseltoe [sic].
I love to see children happy particularly at Christmas and I enter very cordially into their happiness. I wish particularly that my own children when they are grown and perhaps scattered over the face of the earth, may look back with pleasure to the days when they were all united under their Father’s roof and felt that they had much happiness there.
- Susan Clay to her sister Lucy Jacob, 17 January 1857. From The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch, by Dr. Lindsey Apple
James, Susan and their family enjoyed too short a time at Ashland – and a tenure that increased in sorrow. Last baby, Nathaniel, had died in May of 1862. And Christmas 1862 was the last that daughters Lucy and Sukie would celebrate; they both would die of diphtheria in 1863. Christmas 1862 was also the last that Susan and the remaining children would ever spend at Ashland because Susan began her journey late in 1863 to reunite with her husband in Canada. James was dying of tuberculosis and she would be with him at his death bed in January of 1864.
Many thanks to Ashland docent Charlie Muntz for his excellent research. See: The Filson Magazine (Fall 2005). “Browsing In Our Archives, Christmas at Ashland,” by James J. Holmberg.
YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-today
If you have ever visited Ashland, you likely remember the unusual octagonal, skylight-crowned Library and the exotic light fixture hanging down in the middle of the room: a serpent’s head. Those of us who lead tours through the mansion witness the amazement on most guests’ faces when they enter this room. All eyes gravitate toward the ceiling. And before any substantive interpretation of the Great Compromiser can ensue, a wise tour guide must address the exotic sight before them.
First, the Library’s current appearance is a mix of different eras at Ashland. Latrobe designed Henry Clay’s original library, which was likely circular in shape, with plaster finish, and a round oculus above. When son James rebuilt Ashland, he kept the size and general shape of the Library, but created a Victorian haven: octagonal, paneled in dark wood, with marble mantelpiece and multi-part skylights. When granddaughter Anne modernized the house in the 1880s, gas lighting was installed and the Library was outfitted with several gas fixtures on its walls…and from the ceiling.
The serpent likely was a symbol of wisdom, fittingly installed in Ashland’s Library. There are no known pictures of this serpent gasolier in its entirety – with serpent and gas fixture together. But McDowell-era photographs do reveal the original fixture that had hung down out of the serpent’s mouth.
Electricity was installed at Ashland in 1907 and eventually the gas fixtures were converted or went unused. A 1940s photograph shows a lamp shade on the Library’s light fixture; perhaps it was electrified by this time.
But sometime probably between the 1940s and the 1950s, the original light fixture was removed. By the 1970s modern electric lights were installed around the serpent’s base. Those lights were removed in the 1990s restoration of the house, so that all that remains today is the serpent’s head.
This feature of the house has, amusingly, been the subject of some misunderstanding and exaggeration. A 1960s-era tour script reads, “…a flame emitted from the pipe in the serpent’s mouth.” By the 1970s, Ashland tour guides were instructed to say, “This particular light is unusual – serpent with gas pipe emerging from mouth – so gas flame could have come from serpent’s mouth!”
Never mind that nothing emitted from the creature’s mouth but an elegant light fixture, the fanciful idea of a flame-throwing serpent at Ashland was a crowd-pleaser!
Despite the professionalism that came to Ashland in the 1980s and the fact that the serpent wasn’t even mentioned in scripts of that time, the story had staying power. Likely through repetition by tour guides over the years, as late as 2003, one Ashland docent was overheard telling guests, “When lit, flame would shoot out of the serpent’s mouth. Henry Clay would probably roll over in his grave. His style was more subdued; his granddaughter’s was – shall we say – more flamboyant?”
Anne Clay McDowell would likely roll over in her grave if she knew people believed she would have had something so garish in her most tasteful home as a flame-throwing serpent!
YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s – today
Among Ashland’s most prized artifacts for decades were two pair of fancy draperies, which were on display for Ashland’s 1950 Opening Day. In 1953 Mrs. Seay told the Herald-Leader, “Probably the items on display in the house that most capture the fancy of visitors are the gold brocaded draperies that hang in the drawing room…You can usually expect some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when visitors first see the draperies…” Mrs. Seay loved these draperies and mentioned them in most every interview she gave.
As a featured artifact in a featured room of the house, these draperies naturally became a focal point. But the fact that they were considered having belonged to Henry Clay lent them a mythic quality. After all, he was said to have had purchased them on his acclaimed diplomatic trip to Europe in 1814. As the story evolved, Clay bought them in Lyons, France, and with them he brought home a “rare gold-dust mirror” and a “French sofa.” 1950s Ashland, then, with all these fine Clay artifacts seemed all the more like his ‘real’ home!
But there was something even more remarkable about these draperies: said to have been well over a century and a quarter old, they looked fresh, bright, almost new. How could that be? A 1950 article provided Ashland’s explanation: “Wrapped in tobacco leaves and quilts, the draperies apparently suffered no damage in their 86 years of storage in the attic of the historic house.”
Ashland’s story was that the draperies were believed to have been hanging in Henry Clay’s Drawing Room from 1814 and then throughout James and Susan’s time, until the family vacated Ashland toward the end of the Civil War. At that point, the draperies were said to have been put in storage in Ashland’s attic and ultimately “discovered” there in April 1950.
No wonder guests were impressed.
But there were a few problems with the story of the golden draperies.
For one, after James and his family left Ashland, the estate left family possession. Kentucky University moved in. It is highly doubtful that Clay family belongings remained stored away in Ashland’s attic.
Secondly, documentation shows that a descendant lent the draperies to Ashland in 1950. They were not actually discovered in the attic. Elizabeth Clay Blanford initially intended for the loan to be short-term, but somehow, the draperies became a permanent fixture at Ashland.
Third, it was another pair of drapes – in all likelihood belonging to the McDowells (last family residents of Ashland) – that were discovered in Ashland’s attic wrapped in those tobacco leaves. Not the golden draperies.
Finally, there is substantial evidence that says the draperies were not Henry Clay’s at all, but his son James B. Clay’s, purchased in 1856 when Ashland was newly rebuilt and lavishly redecorated. Textile experts have indicated that they were more likely mid-nineteenth century (James) and not of the sort in use in 1814. And donor Elizabeth Clay Blanford was, in fact, a James B. Clay descendant.
The once prized and touted golden draperies lost their mythic status and, after suffering damage from so many years on continuous display, were put away in Ashland storage, with no plans in the immediate future for their restoration.
artifacts, Ashland, Ghent jacket, Henry Clay, Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, historic house museum, James Brown Clay, Kentucky, Kentucky University, Lexington Kentucky, Lorraine Seay, Transylvania University, Treaty of Ghent
YOU ARE HERE -> 1814-today
A fragile and precious artifact periodically makes its appearance at Ashland today: Henry Clay’s ceremonial jacket that he wore at the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Clay had been part of the American delegation sent to Belgium to negotiate a peace treaty with the British in 1814, which effectively ended the War of 1812. This success brought Clay much acclaim back home – with the jacket emblematic of that triumph.
After Clay died, we know that the Ghent jacket was displayed at Ashland (almost museum-style) by son James. An 1857 journalist who visited relayed that he saw Clay’s “diplomatic suit” and other memorabilia from Clay’s European mission.
After the Civil War and the family’s departure from Ashland, the Ghent jacket – intrigingly – returned to Ashland when it was donated to Kentucky University. The jacket had ended up in the possession of James and Susan’s son, Jimmy, and sometime during the 1872-73 school year he donated it to the University’s Museum of Natural History. (Kentucky University Catalogue, 1872-73. Transylvania University Special Collections.) There amidst the stuffed birds, shells, and bones in the Museum at Ashland, was Henry Clay’s splendid Ghent jacket.
It is unknown if the Ghent jacket was ever on public display in the University Museum at Ashland. But this Clay artifact would have fit well into John B. Bowman’s vision for his museum and its call to the public to donate historical items, “especially anything which will illustrate the lives of our early pioneers and distinguished men…” (Lexington Daily Press, 11 June 1872.)
When Kentucky University left Ashland in the late 1870s, so did the Ghent jacket. The Museum of Natural History’s collection ended up at Transylvania University (on display and in storage today).
The Ghent jacket did not reemerge at Ashland until 1950, when on the museum’s Opening Day, descendant William Clay Goodloe McDowell wore it, posing as Henry Clay for the event.
The jacket by this point was decidedly fragile – McDowell tore one of the sleeves – and it was likely not worn again. Concerns grew over how best to care for it. Lorraine Seay wrote letters to experts in the 1950s and 60s, seeking advice as to how best to store and restore the garment. Displaying it in a glass case was one approach used for many years. Multiple efforts culminated in the past decade when the Ghent jacket was finally properly conserved.
The Ghent jacket remains one of the most important artifacts that the Ashland museum owns and interprets.
YOU ARE HERE -> TODAY
Since Henry Clay’s time, his life and legacy—especially his career as a statesman—have been extensively studied and publicized. Much has also been written about many of his family members and particular aspects of the estate, especially Clay’s life at Ashland. No biographer can give Ashland short shrift. But, until Ashland curator Eric Brooks’ 2007 pictorial biography of Ashland—the first book exclusively dedicated to Ashland’s full two-century history—no complete institutional history had been attempted.
It has perhaps been difficult to take the long view of Ashland’s history before today because Henry Clay’s history has been the priority, with his family’s history and general nineteenth-century history secondary.
Yet prior accounts of Ashland’s pre-institutional history have been written. During the 1920s historian Judge Samuel Wilson used his extensive knowledge of Ashland’s history to make persuasive pleas in local papers for its preservation. Amelia Clay Van Meter Rogers’s 1934 master’s thesis provided a look at Ashland’s history up to the early twentieth century. Great great-grandson and last family resident, Henry McDowell Bullock, wrote a brief personal view of Ashland’s history in 1951.
A number of studies of specific aspects of Ashland have been done, for example, those relating to Ashland’s architectural history (Scott Clowney’s 2003 paper, Michael Fazio and Patrick Snadon in The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 2006, and Ashland’s 2007 architecture tour), Ashland’s equine legacy (Lucretia Clay Erwin Simpson’s c. 1920s “Ashland Thoroughbred Stud Farm,” and the 2005 International Museum of the Horse Exhibition: Kentucky Bloodlines: The Legacy of Henry Clay), farming and slavery at Ashland (Richard Troutman’s work in the 1950s), the growth and subdivision of the Ashland estate (Richard Bean’s 1980 study, “A History of the Henry Clay Family Properties”), and the 1850s rebuilding of the Ashland mansion (Robert Spiotta’s 1990 thesis, “Remembering Father: James Brown Clay, Merchants, Materials, and A New Ashland”). Research into Ashland’s archeological and Civil War-era history is ongoing.
With my 2008 MA thesis, Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, As House Museum: Private Home and Public Destination, I began exploring the full history of this historic site. There is more research to be done, of course. I am working on a full manuscript to submit to the University Press of Kentucky in 2012. The story of Ashland is fascinating and needs to be told.
Thanks for reading this blog!
 Eric Brooks. Images of America: Ashland the Henry Clay Estate. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2007.
 Samuel M. Wilson. Ashland Monograph: Henry Clay. Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, undated, published c. 1950; “Ashland Leads Man o’ War as Greatest Tourist Attraction, Wilson Declares.” Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 14 October 1926; “‘Ashland,’ Historic Home of Henry Clay, Is Portion of McDowell Trust Estate. City Lost Opportunity in 1882.” Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 10 October 1926; “Ashland Center of Henry Clay’s Career.” Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 15 April 1926; “Prices Asked for Ashland Park Tract Not Exorbitant, Judge Wilson Avers.” Unidentified Lexington (Ky.) newspaper, 4 October 1926.
 Rogers, Amelia Clay Van Meter. “Ashland, The Home of Henry Clay.” MA thesis, University of Kentucky, 1934.
 Henry McDowell Bullock. “The Story of Ashland.” c. 1951. Addendum, 21 September 1951. Ashland archives.
 Scott Michael Clowney. “Ashland Architecture Tour Script.” 2003. Ashland archives. Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon. The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Wendy Bright-Levy, Ashland Architecture Tour (Third Tuesday Tour). 2007. Ashland archives.
 Simpson, Lucretia Clay Erwin Simpson. “Ashland Thoroughbred Stud Farm.” Ashland archives, undated, c. 1920s; Kentucky Bloodlines: The Legacy of Henry Clay. Catalog of exhibition at International Museum of the Horse, Lexington, Kentucky, 1 April – 31 October 2005.
 Richard L. Troutman. “Henry Clay and His ‘Ashland’ Estate.” The Filson Club History Quarterly 30:2 (April 1956): 159-174; and “Plantation Life.” MA thesis, University of Kentucky, 1955; and “The Emancipation of Slaves by Henry Clay.” The Journal of Negro History 40.2 (April 1955): 179-181.
 Richard M. Bean, “A History of the Henry Clay Family Properties.” 20 August 1980. Ashland archives.
 Robert S. Spiotta. “Remembering Father: James Brown Clay, Merchants, Materials, and A New Ashland.” MA thesis, Cooper-Hewitt Museum and The Parsons School of Design, 1990.
YOU ARE HERE -> up to 1852
Henry Clay took his farm seriously. Farming got in his blood during his youth in the Slashes of Virginia, where he grew up on a large farm. At Ashland, Clay was as interested in financial gain as he was in improving farming and breeding techniques. He was scientific in his methods and became one of the most respected farmers in the United States.
Henry Clay’s livestock were his pride and joy. He said that he never went out of his house, “without meeting with some of them to engage agreeably my attention.” He kept meticulous records on all of his stock, some of which may still be found in his stock book on display at Ashland.
Henry Clay introduced Hereford cattle to the United States from England in 1817. He ultimately gave up Herefords in favor of Durham cattle, which he determined were more suited to Kentucky. His favorite was a Durham bull named Orizimbo, whose death he announced in the Senate in January 1838.
Henry Clay successfully entered many of his animals in stock shows and often acted as a judge. In 1834, he won the prize for best Saxon ram at a Kentucky breeds show.
Clay’s most lucrative livestock were mules and he became one of the most successful providers of mules to the South. He imported donkeys –jacks and jennies –from all over the world and bred them with his horses to create mules, which were ideally suited for the hard, hot work on southern plantations.
Of all of Henry Clay’s stock, none left the legacy that his horses did. He began his horse business in earnest by joining with four other men to purchase the English stallion, Buzzard, in 1806, the first such Thoroughbred syndication in America.
He established Ashland Stud in 1830. Though most of Clay’s horses produced important bloodlines, the three that Clay received as gifts in 1845 were outstanding: mares Magnolia and Margaret Wood, and the stallion, Yorkshire. Margaret Wood and Magnolia appear in the bloodlines of eleven Kentucky Derby winners and the blood of all three horses appears in numerous major stakes winners and important bloodlines.
YOU ARE HERE -> up to 1852
Part One: An Introduction by James F. Hopkins
Excerpted from The Journal of Southern History, February 1949
Henry Clay, Farmer and Stockman
During the years in which Henry Clay was active in politics, he was at the same time a farmer who never lost his love for the soil. Near to his heart was Ashland, the estate lying on the Richmond Road about one and one-half miles east of Lexington, which he accumulated by his own efforts and which was to him a source of great pride. To Clay, Ashland was home, a place of refuge where after strenuous effort in the arena of politics he might return to recuperate and to wrestle with plans for future campaigns. There he could relax, stroll meditatively along the shaded paths, look across his fields of clover, hemp, and grain, and hear amid the trilling of the birds the surly bellow of the Durham bull, the whinny of the throughbred colt, and the more raucous though no less pleasing song of the imported Maltese jackass.
Ashland was more than a place where the statesman might become absorbed in the details of agriculture and thereby escape thoughts of the strife and disappointments of public life; it was a farm operated in a practical manner and according to the most progressive methods of the time. Clay followed the principles of diversification and rotation of crops, the use of fertilizer, and the planting of legumes. The results seemed to justify the efforts, and his own opinion of his ability as a farmer was expressed on one occasion in a letter to a friend: “My farm is in fine order, and my preparations for the crop of the present year, are in advance of all my neighbors. I shall make a better farmer than statesman.” [HC to Frances Brooke, 19 April 1830] In the case of at least one crop, hemp, his successes led him to publish for the benefit of others accounts of the methods which he practiced at Ashland.
Clay was deeply interested in livestock and in the improvement of breeds of various farm animals. He imported breeding stock from abroad, he brought fine sheep and cattle from the seaboard states, and he availed himself of the presence in Kentucky of stallions of good blood which were imported by other stockmen. In regard to this interest in stock raising he once wrote:
‘There is a great difference, I think, between a farm employed in raising dead produce for market, and one which is applied, as mine is, to the rearing of all kinds of livestock. I have the Maltese ass, the Arabian horse, the merino and Saxe merino sheep, the English Hereford and Durham cattle, the goat, the mule, and the hog. The progress of these animals from their infancy to maturity, presents a constantly-varying subject of interest, and I never go out of my house, without meeting with some of them to engage agreeably my attention.’
American architecture, antebellum, artifacts, Ashland, Henry Clay, Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, historic house museum, Kentucky, Lexington Kentucky, Lorraine Seay, mansion, memorial, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Nannette McDowell Bullock
YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s
Historic house museums often face difficult decisions regarding which period of the house’s history to interpret. This interpretive decision has proven to be a most complicated issue at Ashland. Not only is Henry Clay’s original house gone, but five generations of his family occupied the estate and much of the remaining evidence of those generations remains at Ashland.
Historic house museums “are not always frozen as their last occupants left them,” as William Seale says. “Their long histories have shown that to be impossible.” (Of Houses & Time: Personal Histories of America’s National Trust Properties, 1992). Ashland reflects no particular era fully, not even the McDowell era that it visually most closely matches. Rosanna Pavoni observes that historic house museums are “family homes reflecting the passage of time and the sedimentation of the history of generations…”
While Henry Clay has been the focus at Ashland, restoring the house completely to his time has never been feasible because of the generational ‘layers’ of James’s rebuilding and the McDowells’ remodeling. Despite the descendants’ many changes, Ashland was nevertheless interpreted strictly as Henry Clay’s house from 1950’s Opening Day.
Because of the messy generational reality, the temptation for the institutional museum has long been to over-simplify Ashland’s story and to interpret it very narrowly.
In the 1950s when the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation wanted to emphasize that Ashland was the ‘real’ Henry Clay house, the solution was to gloss over (the many) non-Henry Clay realities. Mrs. Seay and her colleagues must have recognized the impossibility of manifesting Clay’s early nineteenth-century environment, but the ideal of the “Great Man” memorial clung fiercely. “Great Man” house museums, as Charlotte Smith labeled them, were the once ubiquitous patriotic shrines memorializing prominent white males, such as Mount Vernon and Monticello.
Probably with these ideals in mind, the Foundation hired Richard S. Hagen, a historical consultant recommended by the National Trust, to conduct a survey of Ashland. Hagen was to provide recommendations for a period-proper restoration in preparation for great-great grandson Henry Bullock’s departure in 1959.
Hagen’s 1958 recommendations were adamantly in favor of returning the house to its pre-1850s, Henry Clay-era, state. He could not countenance including any of Clay’s descendants in Ashland’s interpretation. Hagen unmitigatedly rejected what he understood of James’s structural changes to the mansion. For instance, Hagen found the façade cast iron balconies, which he erroneously described as late nineteenth-century additions, “poorly integrated with the façade.” Hagen obviously did not realize that Thomas Lewinski had designed the balconies as an integral part of the second Ashland with its Italianate and other mid-nineteenth-century details.
And faced with a house full of post-1850s furnishings, Hagen made some radical suggestions, such as the removal of most of the McDowell-era furniture, fixtures and wall-coverings and replacement with purchased, non-family antiques.
Addressing the second floor of the mansion in particular, he said “The present atmosphere of Ashland is that of a ‘reconciliation’ restoration…the home is presented as one in which the Clay family continued to live after the statesman’s death…An attempt should be made to return the second floor to its possible Henry Clay period appearance and the impression of later occupants minimized…certainly he and not his descendants are being memorialized there.”
Hagen felt very strongly that all things post-Clay were a major flaw in interpretation that must be corrected. While Clay’s descendants would have agreed with Hagen that Henry Clay was the one to memorialize, they had long been happy to do so in a multi-generational environment.
Most of Hagen’s recommendations were not adopted by the Foundation; lack of funding was the probable reason since restoring as he prescribed would have been wildly expensive. Another possible reason for the Foundation’s hesitation: Hagen had carelessly decried the efforts and priorities of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation. For example, the Foundation had set up one room in the house as the “Nannette McDowell Bullock Room” in honor of the woman who succeeded in preserving Ashland. The room was atrocious to Hagen because of its overly-fancy Victorian furniture. “This room is very much an intrusion upon the restoration of the house. The furniture is too late to be very suitable…As a memorial room it has no function.” He suggested retaining its name, installing a token portrait of her, and restoring it as an “authentic” bedroom.
While funding likely drove ideology in this case, perhaps the Foundation in some way wanted to maintain the multi-era interpretation. By 1961 and the execution of the second-floor restoration, Hagen had resigned himself to the “compromised” interpretation, as he wrote to Mrs. Seay: “…presentation of the house as representing many generations of the Clay family will continue…”