Spring Beauty at Ashland


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YOU ARE HERE -> today

Springtime at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate is especially glorious with the carpet of tiny white blossoms that covers the grounds.  Spring Beauty—often referred to as “Spring Beauties” —has been blooming every spring on the estate for generations.  Claytonia virginica is the botanical name for this perennial, in honor of colonial Virginia botanist, John Clayton (1694-1773).  It is also known as Eastern spring beauty, Virginia spring beauty, or fairy spud (!).  The individual flowers bloom for three days, although the five stamens on each flower are only active for one day. Mowing of the Ashland lawn cannot ensue until the Spring Beauties are done blossoming.

Spring Beauties. Photo c/o Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.


Spring Beauties emerging by Ashland’s Dairy Cellar. March 10, 2012.

Photo by Elizabeth Ledford, featured for March in Ashland’s 2012 calendar.


Wedding of the Decade at Ashland


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YOU ARE HERE -> April 19, 1892

Nannette’s wedding gown, on display at Ashland

Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter, Nannette McDowell, was married at Ashland, her home, in one of the most celebrated weddings of 1890s Kentucky.  The wedding of Nannette and Dr. Thomas S. Bullock was celebrated on a Tuesday and Lexington was “all agog over the pending event…the State-at-large feels an interest in this evening’s nuptials…up to 300 guests at Ashland.” [1]

Nannette and Thomas Bullock

Nannette had moved to Ashland with her family a decade before, at the age of 22.  She – as well as her sisters – married relatively late.  Madeline and Julia would also marry at Ashland, but Nannette’s wedding would, for many reasons, be the most elaborate celebration.  A local paper described the setting:

In the whole of Kentucky no more beautiful mise en scene could have been chosen for a wedding than Ashland…The event tonight is typical of the South’s best enlightenment and gracious hospitality.  Major McDowell is the very prince of entertainment…the good cheer for which he is noted will know no stint.  Yet withal an utter lack of display and ostentation characterizes every detail of the affair.  There is sumptuous, quiet simplicity everywhere…Dignity, elegance and unaffected grace will be the keynote of the festivities tonight…[2]

The wedding ceremony took place in Ashland’s drawing room, “the oaken trappings of the entire interior making an effective surrounding for the pretty scene.”  Petite Nannette wore a stunning gown of shimmering ivory with matching shoes.  (Her gown and shoes are in Ashland’s collection and on display now.)  A few years earlier, a journalist who visited Ashland described the bride-to-be: “She was slight, graceful, with auburn hair, blue eyes, a perfect oval face, a little pale and serious, save when the sweet, refined mouth breaks into a wonderful smile, between two delicious dimples.” [3]

Nannette McDowell Bullock

The many lavish wedding gifts were assembled in a chamber in the north wing of the house.

Afterward, the wedding reception occurred in an “extemporized banqueting hall running the width of the house at the back.”  The banquet table held 100 guests at a time, which suggests that the wedding meal was served in shifts.

Ashland Dining Room commemorating Nannette’s wedding

But the most spectacular sight for the guests was the newly installed electric lighting at Ashland.  The lighting was in portions of the mansion now, but most beautifully in the wedding hall: “Electric lights will blossom from pink rosettes draping the ceiling.”  Lexington streetcars would be running to Ashland all evening, the paper announced, so that locals could come by and see the amazing sight.

Detail of Nannette’s gown at Ashland

Nannette and Tom left Ashland for about a decade: moving to Louisville after their wedding, then to New Mexico.  They had their first and only child, Henry McDowell Bullock, on November 21, 1893, and returned to Lexington in 1903.  Dr. Bullock would die at Ashland in 1929 at Ashland, Nannette surviving him by almost twenty years.

Nannette and son Henry, c1894

[1] “Witnesses the Beautiful Nuptials at Old Ashland…” Lexington, KY: The Kentucky News Leader, April 19, 1892.

[2] “Witnesses the Beautiful Nuptials at Old Ashland…” Lexington, KY: The Kentucky News Leader, April 19, 1892.

[3] Andrews, Maude.  “A Visit To Henry Clay’s Home.” Atlanta Constitution, June, c. 1887.

Ashland in the Path of the Bulldozer


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1920s

Ashland endangered

The people of America…make no mistake in paying homage to the memory of Henry Clay; but our debt of gratitude, my friends, will not be liquidated until the historic home of Henry Clay, his dearly beloved ‘Ashland,’ is rescued from the menace of encroachment by advancing civic development and a growing population and dedicated and preserved for all future time as a sacred patriotic shrine.

So urged Judge Samuel M. Wilson, the chief advocate for Ashland’s preservation in the 1920s.  By the fall of 1926, it had come down to a public vote: “Voters to Decide Fate of Historic Clay Estate,” the choice before Fayette County citizens: “whether Ashland…shall be sacrificed to the expansion of the city or be preserved as a beautiful city park” (Lexington Herald).

In the 1920s, great-granddaughter Nannette McDowell Bullock was the Clay descendant residing at Ashland.  Her father Major McDowell had intended that Ashland be preserved both for his family and for the public.  Upon his death in 1899, his will transferred Ashland to his wife and children, stipulating that the estate was to be held in trust until the last of his children died.  Land from the sizeable estate could only be sold if all of the siblings agreed.  The idea—and now the means—of preserving Ashland was passed on to the McDowell heirs by their father.  Major McDowell had planted these early seeds of preservation back in the 1880s when he spoke to the Chicago Tribune:

It is the Major’s intention that Ashland shall forever be kept as it is today, so that all who desire to visit the home of Henry Clay can do so without money and without price…Fortune has favored Major McDowell and he will no doubt be able to leave a fund sufficiently large for the maintenance of Ashland on the lines he has laid down…so that Ashland is likely to continue to be preserved for lovers of liberty and human freedom as long as there is a member of the McDowell family living.

For Major McDowell it had not been a question of whether his children would endeavor to preserve Ashland, but a matter of how and when.  After their mother’s death in 1917, the fate of Ashland rested in the hands of the six McDowell heirs.  The siblings wrote many letters between themselves regarding the ownership and maintenance of the estate.  One possibility they considered: would—and could—they preserve Ashland by passing on the estate to their heirs for private occupancy?  By the 1920s, this was not looking like a feasible option for them, the burden too great for any one family.  No one appeared interested in, or capable of, taking on the tremendous amount of care, upkeep, and hospitality to the public that the occupancy of Ashland would require of them.

With the dawn of the twentieth century, residential development was knocking on Ashland’s door and the cost of maintaining the large estate began to grow burdensome for the family.  Land values began skyrocketing: the land surrounding Ashland had become too valuable as residential property to retain for farmland.  Selling off some of Ashland’s abundant acreage for development was a logical action to ensure Ashland’s viability.

The sale of portions of the Ashland estate began in 1908 when the McDowell heirs made plans to sell about 95 acres of the farm for a subdivision. Lexington had expanded its city limits to include the Ashland estate and municipal services such as gas, water, and road maintenance set the stage for subdivision.  The family contracted with the renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm of Massachusetts to design the development called “Ashland Park” and the first lots went up for sale in 1919.  The fact that the land was once Henry Clay’s virtually guaranteed its salability.

All of these changes in Ashland’s borders and surroundings were a cause of alarm for some.  They worried that the development would ‘steamroll’ over Ashland and the historic estate would be lost forever.  In the postwar period, critics decried the social and psychological consequences of the demolition by the highway and housing industries and argued that the destruction of communities and social networks was depriving people of connectedness to their history.  Now Lexington was facing just such a loss…which would be irreversible.

In this uncertain context, the McDowell siblings were seriously dealing with the question of the occupation and maintenance of Ashland—and now considering its inevitable sale.  Only weeks before she died in 1920, youngest sister and national suffrage leader, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, wrote a letter to her brother stating that she and her husband had been seriously considering moving to and managing Ashland, but after much deliberation, decided against it.  The improvements needed on the estate were cost-prohibitive.

By the spring of 1922, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that the McDowell siblings had indeed put Ashland on the market:  “The disposition of Ashland, the famous home of Henry Clay, is a question which has been much in the minds of Central Kentuckians in the last few months… Ashland is not only the most famous of the many old Kentucky homes, but it is practically the only one that remains in the hands of the original owners.”

It was at this time that the idea of Ashland as a “memorial museum” emerged.  The Courier Journal reported that it was “being urged in many quarters that Ashland be purchased by the State or Nation as a memorial museum…[and] that if such an offer should be made to buy this property for this purpose that the heirs should consent to sell it for a nominal sum…”

But even with the intent of selling for a reasonable sum, four years later Ashland still had not sold and the remaining heirs’ eagerness to unload the estate came to a head.  In the face of escalating costs and other burdens, their ideal of a memorial museum had to be abandoned.  It seems that the family felt limited in their options and in a hurry to act.  A local newspaper notice in February announced that, “…steps are now being taken by the owners of ‘Ashland’ looking toward the placing of the property on the market for sale as a residential subdivision and whatever action is taken in the matter should be taken speedily.”

The situation had become dire: Ashland was to be sold off as a potential subdivision.

Residential growth—the devouring of acres of open space, farmland, and signs of rural life—seemed frightening and uncontrollable.  If even Henry Clay’s historic property was in imminent danger, people wondered where it would stop.  So the public grew increasingly involved in the quest to save Ashland from what they dreaded would be certain destruction by greedy developers.

A figure who would play a crucial role in Ashland’s fate, noted historian and Henry Clay admirer Judge Samuel M. Wilson, accepted the leadership role in the campaign to save Ashland.  He announced in February 1926:  “Every Lexingtonian and every Kentuckian is interested in this movement…and the time is ripe to act.”

The idea and motivation to preserve the estate had germinated in the McDowell family for decades, but now Nannette and Judge Wilson would take concrete steps to make it a reality.  They determined that what remained of Ashland should be protected from encroaching development. Further, they returned to the idea of establishing Ashland as a public museum, one of the proven means to preserve a historic site.  Ashland curator Eric Brooks says that by the 1920s, “…setting aside Ashland as a museum…was one of the few options that existed for Nannette that insured that the last piece of the estate, Nannette’s family legacy and responsibility, would be protected from development.”

Some suggested that because Clay was a prominent national figure, the entire nation should be invited to take part in the preservation of Ashland.  National attention resulted through the New York Times which became a sponsor and supporter of Ashland’s preservation, as the Louisville Herald-Post explained the motivation, “…it will only be when the home of Henry Clay is actually made a part of us, by being preserved—and by being thrown open to the public that Henry Clay will again be what he was at an earlier period—very much more than a name…When Ashland is opened to a public which has given something from its pockets to make it part of Kentucky—then we shall have a beginning of appreciation for Henry Clay.”

The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation is established

Changes occurred rapidly in 1926.  In May, the McDowells decided that the large brick stable that stood in the way of the planned Sycamore Road had to be razed.  In July assurance that the Ashland estate was to be saved for the public was announced in the Lexington Herald:  “Instead of subdividing the grounds immediately surrounding the homestead, some 20 acres will be kept intact with the view of converting it into a public park.”

In August, the first recorded meeting of the Board of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation was held in Judge Wilson’s office.  At that meeting, the Board discussed raising funds to purchase Ashland by means of a city bond issue.  Judge Wilson explained that the Foundation had “proceeded to a point where municipal aid would be necessary to their efforts to preserve the historic house at Ashland.”  The Board voted unanimously to present to the Lexington Mayor and Board of Commissioners an ordinance asking that a $200,000 bond issue be submitted to the voters in the November election.

Public debate regarding Ashland heated up in the months leading up to the election.  While there was general city-wide agreement that Ashland was worth preserving, many felt that the asking price was too expensive for the city.  Judge Wilson argued the opposite:

It is contended by some that the price of $200,000 asked for the ‘Ashland’ property which the city contemplates buying, is too high.  How much too high, who shall say?…Nothing is ever ‘too high,’ if one really desires it and has the means to pay for it…will anyone say that it is beyond our means or that it is a prohibitive price, in view of the priceless asset we seek to save for the city of Lexington and the immeasurable loss that would be sustained, if this historic and hallowed home is not saved? (Lexington Herald)

Wilson’s rallying cry became: “Ashland must be saved eventually; why not now?”

Still, the citizens of Lexington were not proving enthusiastic about the bond issue.

Some found it inconceivable that the community would be so apathetic.  One such person was C. Frank Dunn who wrote to the Lexington Herald to argue for passage of the bond issue based upon Ashland’s modern status as a major tourist destination.  He criticized the city’s hypocrisy in having benefited greatly from Ashland, but not supporting its preservation:

Lexington should either join whole-heartedly in the movement to acquire what remains of the property, with a view to opening it to the public…or unanimously withdraw it from the list of noted attractions and shrines advertised so widely to visitors…Ashland has been heralded in railroad folders and Board of Commerce literature for years as the chief attraction of the city of Lexington, and…has been the greatest year-round drawing card that Lexington possessed…

Another wrote to a local paper:

Henry Clay…has been the greatest friend Lexington has ever had.  Although he passed away more than 70 years ago, he is still helping Lexington.  There is probably not a week but that someone comes to our city to see the home of Henry Clay…Those who come spend their money…and it has been this way, not only while [Clay] was living but for more than seventy years since his death.  I would say that in this long space of time,…fully two million dollars…has been spent by people who came and went, to the benefit of citizens of Lexington…from almost every country of the inhabited globe… (E.T. Foster, October 1926).

The widespread concern about the high cost in comparison to perceived value persisted.  To many, $200,000 seemed an astronomical amount of debt for the city to assume.  Thus the bond issue was soundly defeated on November 2, 1926.  The Lexington Daily Leader provided analysis the following day: “The defeat of the park bond issue in Lexington was foreseen by those who knew somewhat of the temper of the taxpayers… in the minds of many, the price placed upon the Ashland property was too high…”  Yet the paper insisted: “By all means the residence at Ashland should be preserved as a memorial and historical museum.”

Ashland’s fate uncertain

Now that the public—the city of Lexington—had opted out of purchasing Ashland, private citizens and the family were preparing to try.  It fell entirely to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation to raise the funds to purchase and preserve Ashland.  They wisely ventured beyond Lexington to do so.  A November 14, 1926 New York Times article proclaimed that,  “…Ashland, the historic home of Henry Clay at Lexington—an ivy-covered mansion closely associated with the formative years of the United States—will be converted into a museum.  Its spacious grounds forming a memorial park, if the plans of a group of loyal Kentuckians materialize…so that it may be forever preserved from the spoliation of time and the exploitation of the realtor and give Kentucky a shrine to the memory of her illustrious son.”

For many years after the bond issue failure, Ashland’s fate remained uncertain.  The Foundation was still at work but without the city’s help, the fundraising process was a much slower one.  A local editorial argued that:

No restoration is needed at ‘Ashland.’  The home looks today as it did in Henry Clay’s time…yet no effort has been made to capitalize on a rare opportunity to memorialize…the memory of Henry Clay’s half-century of residence in Lexington.  Surely Lexington is not too busy…to pause and reflect upon the value of this estate to the city and to make plans for the acquisition of ‘Ashland’ at as early a date as possible and make it a public shrine that all the nation may visit and enjoy.  (Unidentified newspaper, 15 December 1935).

By 1942, five of the McDowell siblings had died, leaving Ashland resident Nannette as the sole living heir.  Nannette McDowell Bullock died on July 5, 1948 at 88 years of age.  A Lexington Herald-Leader article described the stipulations of her will: “Ashland, tree-lined estate where Henry Clay once lived, will become a perpetual memorial to the great statesman of early Kentucky if provisions of the will of Mrs. Nannette McDowell Bullock are carried out.”  Nannette’s will expressed her fervent wishes for the estate: “I make this gift to said Memorial Foundation in the hope that…said foundation may be enabled to acquire, preserve and maintain Ashland and the grounds immediately surrounding it as a public park and perpetual memorial; and the gift is made in trust for that purpose…”  In December 1949, the Foundation was finally able to purchase Ashland.

So the effort to preserve Ashland had come to fruition.  President of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, Raymond McLain, wrote in 1950: “Without the sustained interest and generosity of both Mrs. [Nannette] Bullock and Judge Wilson, it would not have been possible to present this gracious home to the people of the nation as a reminder of the way of life of one of its most interesting, resourceful and valiant citizens.”

The Origins of Kentucky University and The Kentucky A&M …and How They Came to Ashland


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Founder and Regent of Kentucky University, John Bryan Bowman (1824-1891) held a lofty vision for higher education in Kentucky and was devoted to the ideal of egalitarian education, proclaiming, “I want to build up a People’s Institution, a great university eventually accessible to the poorest boy in all the land…”[1]

John Bryan Bowman

Bowman was a man of energetic determination and a finely-honed gift of persuasion, repeatedly raising enormous sums of money and convincing many of the need for a great Kentucky university.  Bowman’s plans for his university were big and bold, even though Kentucky had so far lagged behind other states in education.  Bowman fully expected his new university to attain a first-class national reputation: “…we would not be deemed arrogant in proposing to build, upon a more modern basis, an Institution equal to any in America…with a high grade of scholarship…”[2]

Kentucky University, a private, sectarian institution situated in Harrodsburg, was officially formed in 1858 and opened in the fall of 1859 (emerging from the defunct Bacon College, 1836-1850).  It survived the war years, but didn’t survive in its location in Harrodsburg when its main building was destroyed by fire in 1864 and Bowman couldn’t procure enough land to expand and develop the University there.

The University’s Board decided that the permanent location of the University would be moved to a community that would subscribe at least $100,000 for it.  Louisville and Covington made proposals.  And Transylvania University in Lexington (established 1798) – which had proposed a merger with Kentucky University four years earlier – renewed its offer.[3]

Transylvania’s original main building, downtown Lexington

Three years prior to this, President Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which allotted states public land or equivalent “land scrip” to generate endowment funds for schools, particularly Agricultural and Mechanical colleges, to teach practical skills instead of the customary curricula based on the classics. Kentucky’s participation in the Morrill grant program was tardy due to the war and heavy debt, inducing the State Legislature to consider refusing it altogether.

But Bowman stepped in.  He made his proposal: that Transylvania and Kentucky Universities would merge and take on the A & M College as a part of the new enlarged University, that it would be located in Lexington, and that the University Board would faithfully execute the intent of the Morrill Act.[4]

The bill was passed to create the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical College as a part of Kentucky University. [5]  Although organized under the private, sectarian Kentucky University, Kentucky A & M was Kentucky’s land grant college.[6]

The Ashland mansion depicted during Kentucky University’s tenure

Now that Transylvania’s campus was part of the new vision, Bowman searched to find a farm in or near Lexington with appropriate buildings to launch the A & M College.  He considered many “desirable locations which were offered,” but “in harmony with the wishes” of many of the Fayette County donors, he purchased Ashland.[7]  This was a decision widely applauded by citizens who saw it as a noble use of Henry Clay’s historic homestead and a source for continued pride within the community.

A letter written by an unidentified person, prior to Susan Clay’s 1866 sale of Ashland, was sent to Susan’s brother and trustee of her estate, Thomas Jacob.  The writer provides an argument for Kentucky A & M’s establishment at Ashland.  It is quite possible the letter was written by John B. Bowman in an effort to convince Jacob to sell the estate: “…it would place Ashland where it may be supposed the friends of Henry Clay would prefer to see it, in the hands of the state rather than in the possession of some unknown individual.” [8]

The “hands of the state” refers to the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical College’s funding specifically as the land-grant college of the Commonwealth, because its umbrella institution, Kentucky University, was a privately funded, denominationally-affiliated establishment.

A Lexington paper fully approved, saying that the University “will do credit to our State, and serve as a monument to the memory of Mr. Clay.”[9]  Beyond the historical significance of Ashland, the rich and handsome land of Henry Clay’s farm was praiseworthy: it was doubted at the time that any other newly-founded agricultural college in the country could boast such a desirable location.

Fourteen years after his death, Henry Clay’s homestead in 1866 continued to sustain the many improvements he made over the course of 47 years.  The maturing landscape with its exceptional variety of fine trees, shrubs, lawns, flowers and gardens was a tremendous gift to the new College.  The estate was ideally located a short distance from town on a main thoroughfare and everyone knew where Ashland was located.  It would have been impossible to reproduce such a fine physical setting.

In February of 1866 Bowman purchased both the Ashland estate for $90,000 and the adjoining Woodlands estate for $40,000[10], for the Kentucky University A & M campus, a total of 433 acres for $130,000.[11]

The Ashland and Woodlands estates that Kentucky University purchased in 1866

[1] John D. Wright Jr.  Transylvania: Tutor to the West.  Lexington, KY: Transylvania University, 1975, 198.

[2] Henry Milton Pyles.  “The Life and Work of John Bryan Bowman.”  (Diss., University of Kentucky, 1944), 25.

[3]Transylvania University endeavored to bring the University to Lexington in 1860, but Bowman was opposed to it at the time because he expected to secure the Harrodsburg Springs property. – Pyles 36-37.

[4] Pyles 52.

[5] Pyles 52.

[6] Carl B. Cone. The University of Kentucky: A Pictorial History.  (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1989), 3.

[7] Pyles 65.

[8] Undated and unsigned letter known to have been sent to Thomas Jacob. From Library of Congress, Collections of the Manuscript Division; a reproduction in the Ashland archives.  It is in currently unrecognizable handwriting, but the point of view of the letter implies someone whose interest lies with the College, if not Bowman, perhaps a member of the University Board of Curators.

[9] Lexington Observer & Reporter, January 17, 1866.

[10] The Woodlands had belonged to Henry Clay’s daughter and son-in-law, Anne Brown Clay and James Erwin.

[11] James F. Hopkins,  The University of Kentucky: Origins and Early Years. Lexington,KY:University of Kentucky Press, 1951 67.  Kiesel puts the amount at $147,000, 106.  Linda Raney Kiesel. “Kentucky’s Land-Grant Legacy: An Analysis of the Administrations of John Bryan Bowman and James Kennedy Patterson, 1865-1890.”  Diss., University of Kentucky, 2003.

Ashland Makes a Fine Backdrop


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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:

Ladies taking tea in Ashland’s Drawing Room

Punch in the Dining Room (Lorraine Seay, middle; Thomas D. Clark, second from right)

1960s Henry Clay High student in Prom attire, Ashland’s 2nd Floor Landing

1960s Henry Clay High student in Prom attire, Ashland’s Billiard Room

1960s Henry Clay High student in Prom attire, Ashland’s Dining Room

1960s Henry Clay High student in Prom attire, Ashland’s Drawing Room

1960s Henry Clay High student in Prom attire, Ashland’s Entrance Hall

1960s Henry Clay High student in Prom attire, Ashland’s Library

Gathering of Kentucky historians, 1971, Ashland Library

Civil War reenactment at Ashland

Ashland as scene of a Murder Mystery…

Ashland’s front drive always popular with vintage car clubs

Many engagement photos – and engagement proposals – take place at Ashland

Ashland is a popular place for family photography

Ashland is one of the top sites in Lexington for wedding pictures

Living in the Museum


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s

Many 1950s visitors to Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, the newly opened historic house museum in Lexington, Kentucky, would never have realized that the mansion continued to be a private home.  This reality was downplayed—if not hidden—from public view for nine years.

Museum Director Lorraine Seay’s public hospitality was complicated by the presence of great-great-grandson Henry McDowell Bullock (1893-1976), who resided on the second floor.

Henry Bullock, 1917

Before his mother Nannette died in 1948, she had granted him a life estate and provided for his residence at Ashland for as long as he chose to live there.  She knew that his health was weak.  His presence may not have been a cause for problems, but Henry suffered psychological maladies of some kind and his erratic behavior substantially challenged the museum’s operation.

Clay family historian Lindsey Apple relays that there are many stories about Henry Bullock’s antics: everything from shouting from the front balcony and shooting his gun to frighten children playing on the lawn to greeting a group of ladies at the front door with nothing on but an open robe.  During an ‘erratic spell’ he damaged oil paintings in the house with a sword.

Mrs. Seay and the Foundation had initially allowed Henry to conduct tours of the mansion, but he declined to abide by their stipulations, preferring to do things his own way.  She expressed her frustration to the Board: “I tried to let him help show the house for quite some time when I first came, but found that he would not conform to what we thought was best…” (December 7, 1952.)

Henry, now in his late 50s-early 60s, was perhaps enjoying his role as proud descendant and imitator of Henry Clay when he conducted ‘unauthorized’ tours of the house after hours, including off-limits areas such as the attic and basement.  In fact, he was so enthusiastic about welcoming the public that he petitioned the Foundation to open the house every day and night of the week.

Henry Bullock (left), 1950

He was also generous with artifacts in the home, offering to sell or give them away to visitors.  Seay found herself having to respond to an out-of-state visitor who had taken Henry’s unofficial tour and had been told that he could purchase a chair and picture frame from Ashland:

In the first place Mr. Bullock is not well and we do not want him to show people through the house particularly after hours.  Also, guests are not permitted to go all over the house – that is, upstairs and in the storage rooms.  Nothing in the house is for sale as in the future we plan to open the entire house and will need many things…I felt that you would appreciate a frank explanation of the situation. (March 13, 1953.)

Throughout the 1950s, the public and private realms clashed within the very walls of Ashland.  Public interests (represented by the Foundation and Mrs. Seay) came up against the private interests of the family (represented by Henry Bullock).  Henry’s mother’s dual desire to provide the public access – while providing her son a home – in a way prompted the struggle.  But Henry’s enthusiasm, zealous generosity, and unrestrained accommodation inevitably went too far for Mrs. Seay and the Foundation.

Henry’s unwillingness to comply with the museum’s rules may have arisen from his mental state, but may also have been due to the fact that, for most of his life, Ashland had been his home and he naturally wanted some level of control over his private residence.  Perhaps the entire mansion—not just his second-floor apartment—still seemed to him his own domain.  Now a middle-aged man, he understandably thought it his right to do as he pleased there.

Henry Bullock, 1938

Mrs. Seay grew exasperated at some of Henry’s efforts at control.  Refusing to use the modern gas furnace, he would not turn the upstairs portion on, causing the downstairs portion to become “overworked” heating the entire mansion.  During the first three years that Ashland was open to the public, Mrs. Seay and the caretaker had no keys to the mansion and relied on Henry to open the doors for them each day.  But he refused to abide by daylight saving time, thus for much of the year his schedule varied by one hour, which resulted in “a great deal of confusion”  for Mrs. Seay.  The Foundation Board voted to give Mrs. Seay and the caretaker their own keys.

Henry’s problematic actions inevitably thwarted his freedom.  After giving tours during off-hours and in off-limits areas, the Foundation prohibited him from doing so.  After offering or giving away artifacts and destroying some of them, he was supervised and restricted by the Board.  After troubling and offensive encounters with the public, he was allowed less frequent contact with visitors.

His unpredictable behaviors prompted the president of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation board to write to Henry, pleading for his cooperation by appealing to the memory of Henry Clay, his mother, and the interest of the public:

It has been brought to my attention that you have given away certain pieces of furniture at Ashland…The board of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation feels that it was the intent and purpose of your mother to leave Ashland as a worthy memorial to your distinguished ancestor, Henry Clay.  I feel sure that you will want to cooperate with all the good citizens interested in Ashland in keeping this lovely home intact…in order that visitors may find the same articles of furniture that have taken on such a rich historical interest. (November 18, 1952.)

This uncomfortable and challenging mix of public and private interests—a private person living within a public museum—lasted until 1959.  With the Board’s help, Henry Bullock moved into his own home and the Foundation began to renovate the second floor for opening in 1962.

An 1856 Christmas at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate


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While statesman 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 which 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.

James, Susan, and family on Ashland’s front porch

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…

James and Susan’s parlor doors, closed (almost always open at Ashland today)

“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 deathbed in January of 1864.

Christmas at Ashland drawing by 7-year-old Sukie, 1862

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.

Henry Clay at Ashland: Public and Private


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YOU ARE HERE -> c1810s-1852

The extroverted and politically ambitious Henry Clay did not jealously guard his space or his privacy as other public figures did, but willingly shared them as one who fully understood his status.  Even at Ashland where he sought peace and refuge, he remained accessible to those who came to his door.  And there were many Americans who trekked to Ashland to meet their idol.

Idealized view of Henry Clay’s Ashland, 1852. Lithographed by Thomas Sinclair.

Clay’s estate in the western frontier city of Lexington began attracting the public early in the nineteenth century as his celebrity emerged.  The Ashland estate was probably as well-known as Clay and was soon fixed in the American imagination.  During Henry Clay’s lifetime and after, Ashland was a destination of devotion to the Great Compromiser who singularly stood for the antebellum struggle for ‘Union.’  It was said that “Ashland was from the earliest years of the nineteenth century a place of almost pious pilgrimage to visitors from other countries as well as to citizens of the United States.”[1]

Not only did Henry Clay receive some of the most influential figures of the time under his roof, he opened his house to multitudes of the less influential.  Merrill D. Peterson describes a typical Ashland scene: “On some days as many as four or five parties of visitors, often total strangers, often without prior notice, drove out from Lexington and wound their way up the resplendent tree-lined carriage road to Clay’s door.”[2]

Over the years the number of uninvited visitors to Ashland grew in direct proportion to Clay’s mounting political disappointments.  His many devotees could not understand why Americans “refused” to elect him President and they flocked to Ashland in support.[3]  Visitors came for many reasons, but most came with respect, admiration, and excited anticipation.

Political cartoon by H.R. Robinson, New York, 1848, depicting some of the profound disappointment and anger among Henry Clay’s many supporters at the nomination of Zachary Taylor at the June 1848 Whig convention in Philadelphia. The convention’s act was seen as a betrayal of the elder Whig statesman.

It became the habit of many patriotic Americans in the nineteenth century to travel to the homes of the living and departed statesmen they admired.  Pilgrimages to presidential homes were popular—Mount Vernon most of all—as were journeys to the homes of favorite statesmen such as Henry Clay.  These patriotic pilgrims hoped to meet and talk with the famous man or at least expected to gain a glimpse of his estate, his family, his house.  Kenneth Walsh explains that “Americans considered their former presidents and Founding Fathers to be public property and they thought nothing of dropping by and expecting to chat, and perhaps stay for a meal.”[4]  Writing in the 1850s, Mrs. C. M. Kirkland advocated pilgrimages as a patriotic duty for all Americans, but admitted that “to see great men at home is often more pleasant to the visitor than advantageous to the hero.”[5]

George Washington (1732-1799) was the hero par excellence and he appealed to every American; sites related to his life drew pilgrims of all political views.[6]  Alan Morinis says that secular places such as Mount Vernon, as well as Monticello, the Hermitage, and Ashland would rightfully be called ‘shrines’ in that leaders of nations were the “contemporary symbols for national ideals.”[7]  The drawing power of these homes came from the promised physical connection to the hero’s life or the proximity to his mortal remains.

The pilgrims to Ashland sought inspiration or transformative experience through contact with Henry Clay and his home.  Many believed that Clay’s greatness had sprung from the “ever-glowing altar-fire at Ashland” and they wanted to feel a bit of that.[8]

Henry Clay, 1843

Lucky Ashland callers would find themselves in the presence of Henry Clay.  The naturally sociable Clay was known as an unusually generous and welcoming host, taking particular pleasure in meeting and talking with all of his visitors.  He often invited them for more than the expected polite conversation: perhaps dinner with his family, maybe an evening concert, almost always a tour of his farm.  It was said that “it was easy for the humblest citizen to approach him.”[9]

Henry Clay, the consummate politician, was also undoubtedly motivated by his political aspirations, the ongoing need to win over the hearts of as many Americans as possible, shaking hands and signing autographs anytime and anywhere.  Yet he saw more than political maneuvering in his role as host.  American society was undergoing dramatic change in the early decades of the nineteenth century and a democratizing force swept through the country encouraging ordinary citizens to make their voice heard while rewarding such political figures as Andrew Jackson for being a “Great Commoner.”

Clay fit easily into this egalitarian picture.  In his domestic environment, Clay was able to successfully put forth his image as one of America’s “Great Commoners” – just another farmer opening his door to neighbors.   Invited guests in 1843 were impressed by the lack of pretension at Clay’s home: “His manners are as plain and republican as they are gentlemanly and unaffected…”[10]  Clay in his parlor was described as sitting in his easy chair, taking some snuff, and offering tea and conversation.[11]

A generation before, hospitality to the public had been similarly practiced by George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.  Washington was visited by “a galaxy of people from all walks of life.”[12]   In all the “noise and bustle” and endless influx of visitors, Washington marveled at an unusual occurrence in June of 1785: on that day he “dined with only Mrs. Washington” which he believed was the first time that had occurred since his retirement from public life years before.[13]  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), too, offered hospitality to scores of visitors at Monticello.

Clay’s peers, in particular, embodied the new spirit of egalitarianism in their homes.  Clay’s rival and great foe, Andrew Jackson, practiced genteel hospitality with a common touch toward his many visitors.[14]  The Hermitage received dozens of guests daily, “…all made welcome, and all well attended to…”[15]  Daniel Webster was considered “‘the very perfection of a host.’”  Despite his reputation as “the Great Man,” he shed any pretensions at Marshfield, and was jovial and down-to-earth with his company.[16]

Ashland’s hospitality during Henry Clay’s lifetime was directed toward many privately invited guests, but more and more became a public audience of uninvited admirers, supporters, and enthusiastic pilgrims.   Ashland as a celebrity’s home evolved from a place of mostly intimate gatherings with family and friends to an open house for a copious flow of complete strangers.  Even at home, Henry Clay increasingly lived his life in the public eye.

While Henry Clay’s family and domestic life were not emphasized or even mentioned in the many contemporary biographies written of him, Clay in public often and affectionately referred to Ashland and his family.  Public image, for Clay at least, was wrapped up inextricably with home life.  His domestic identity as farmer and “Sage of Ashland” worked well for his public image as a ‘Great Commoner.’ His down-to-earth concerns struck a chord with many Americans.  Clay publicly identified himself as a man with great love for home.  The public man shared his private life and the private man welcomed the public.

Henry and Lucretia Clay on their 50th wedding anniversary, 1849.

Yet Ashland was above every other place Henry Clay’s private retreat and sanctuary. Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett explains that the “desire for private time, the longing for private space” were conspicuous goals of nineteenth-century Americans, but there were many “impediments that might foil circumvention, making privacy something that was often unattainable.”[17]  This was perhaps doubly true at Clay’s Ashland.  Clay and his wife, children, extended family, employees, and slaves went about their lives at Ashland—while innumerable strangers came to the door.

Late in his life, Clay privately admitted of growing weary of the many visitors to Ashland, as Peterson describes:

He had sought adulation, and perhaps he should have been gratified by this display of it, but it was sometimes, as he told a friend, ‘excessively oppressive.’  If the hour was right, tea was served to guests in the drawing room.  ‘I am obliged to supply, when these strangers come, all the capital of conversation…’ he said. ‘They come to look and to listen…that I could find some obscure and inaccessible hole, in which I could put myself, and enjoy quiet and solitude during the remnant of my days.’[18]

That the extroverted Clay in his later years sought an “inaccessible hole” to put himself proves how desperately he sought peace at Ashland.  For all of his ambition and conviviality, he was also a man who longed to retire permanently from the political limelight.  Clay was well aware of other statesmen’s successful retirements to private life; Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson had all successfully retired as private citizens to their estates at the end of their lives.   Henry Clay had planned to retire permanently in 1842, determined to become a private citizen once more, but as a biographer put it, “his devoted people, inconsiderate in their enthusiasm, would not resign him to the tranquility of private life…”[19]

Clay had long accepted the public’s possessiveness, yet the cost to him and his family was not small, as a writer later said of him:  “It is one of the penalties of greatness and worldly fame that the possessor of them passes in a great measure out of his own control and comes to belong to the public to such an extent that private life and domestic joys are almost entirely denied him.”[20]   The private needs of Clay and his family were often subordinated to those of the public.

Clay had long endeavored to reconcile both at Ashland.  After all, American statesmen of that time understood that their duty to fellow citizens extended to their homes.  But when it grew overwhelming for Washington and Jefferson, they drew the boundary between the public and the private at their homes.  But Clay, even when aged, defeated, fatigued, and in need of respite, continued hospitality as the magnanimous celebrity.  There is no evidence that he checked the flow of visitors.  Clay had privately balked, but he continued to respond generously to the public to the end of his life.

[1] S. P. Breckinridge,  “Southern Pioneers in Social Interpretation: I. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.”  Journal of Social Forces, November 1923, 105-106.

[2] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 372.

[3] John T. Faris,  “Henry Clay Took the Keenest Pleasure in His Estate Near Lexington.” c. 1918, Kentucky Explorer, (November 1993), 14.

[4] Walsh, Kenneth T.  From Mount Vernon to Crawford.  A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.  New York: Hyperion (2005), 47-48.

[5] Mrs. C. M. Kirkland.  “Washington.”  Homes of American Statesmen: With Anecdotal, Personal, and Descriptive Sketches by Various Writers.  Hartford, CT: O.D. Case and Co., 1855.  Also: (New York: Alfred W. Upham, 1862), 3.

[6] Smith, 48.

[7] Alan Morinis.  Introduction to Sacred Journeys.  The Anthropology of Pilgrimage.  Alan Morinis, ed.  Westport, CT: Greenwood (1992), 3-5.

[8] “Letters of Henry Clay Reveal His Intense Interest in Ashland.”  Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 14 April c. 1920s, 20.

[9] “Links With History: Grounds of a Kentucky Gold Club Once Henry Clay’s.  Ashland’s Great Farm…Interesting Personality of the Great Commoner’s Nephew.  Major McDowell’s Generosity.” The Chicago Tribune, 28 January 28, 188?.

[10] “Mr. Clay at Home.” Green Mountain Gem; a Monthly Journal of Literature, Science and the Art, 15 July 1843, 1.  The article relays the account of a visit to Ashland by the editor of a Cincinnati Methodist Episcopal paper, Western Christian Advocate.

[11] “Visit to Mr. Clay at Ashland.” C.D.S. Niles National Register, 21 June 1845 (In New York Tribune, 25 May 1845).  Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 373.

[12] “Introduction to the Diaries of George Washington.”  George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.  Library of Congress web site:  http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/3gwintro.html.

[13] George Washington,  17 June 1785, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.  Library of Congress web site.  http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/3gwintro.html

[14] Andrew Jackson was a populist hero, the first “commoner” to hold presidential office, elected in part because he personified the young country’s brash, bold spirit, and sense of destiny.

[15] Mary French Caldwell.  Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.  Nashville, TN: Ladies’ Hermitage Association (1933), 67.

[16] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate, 387-388.

[17] Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett. At Home: The American Family 1750 – 1870.  New York: Harry N. Abrams (1990), 238-239.

[18] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 373.

[19] Chas W. Coleman, Jr., “Ashland, The Home of Henry Clay,” Century Magazine (December 1886), 167.  Yet the brief period of retirement that Clay did achieve in 1842 was not in fact a retreat from “the busy scenes of public life,” as Washington had described it.  Instead, as biographer Joseph Rogers explained, “The interim was not one of repose…He was constantly called upon to make tours, or to write letters, or deliver speeches…he was, perhaps, as active as at any other period of his life.”  Joseph M. Rogers. The True Henry Clay. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott (1904), 330-331.

[20] “A Visit To Ashland…”, Henry Clay’s Famous Home, 100 Years Ago.” c. 1898.  The Kentucky Explorer, (October 1998), 31.

Ashland: A Must-See Tourist Destination


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YOU ARE HERE -> c1900s-1940s

During the first half of the 20th century, Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate was on the tourist map.  Even as it was still the private home of Henry Clay’s descendants, Ashland was firmly on the “list of noted attractions and shrines advertised so widely to visitors,” as C. Frank Dunn, founder of Blue Grass Tours and manager of the Lexington Automobile Club, put it in 1926.

It wasn’t until 1950 that Ashland was actually open to the public as a museum, but prior to that time, patriotic and history-minded tourists flocked to the famous Henry Clay estate.  And the Lexington community was very proud to showcase it.

One of the reasons Ashland was so popular with early 20th-century motoring tourists was that it was located on the “transcontinental highway” – U.S. 25 – that, prior to the national interstate system, was a popular north-south route that ran from Michigan to Georgia.  Ashland in Lexington was a “must see” for those making this automobile trip.

Despite its being a private family residence, Ashland was always included in tourist guides as a highlighted destination in Kentucky, and that didn’t stop stores throughout the region from making a profit on the colorful postcards of the famous statesman’s home.  Here, some early 20th-century examples:


Lexington History Museum

1952 tourist book featuring Ashland

Ashland as Fin de Siècle Showcase of Sophistication


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YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

In the early 1880s, Henry Clay granddaughter Anne and her husband Major McDowell transformed the Ashland mansion into a fin de siècle showcase of sophistication as they utilized a mix of decorative styles at Ashland.  Before moving in in 1883, the McDowells remodeled and restored the mansion.  After moving in, they remodeled the main rooms at least once.  Not completely forsaking Victorian sensibilities, they embraced some cutting-edge ideas in interior design, particular the Aesthetic Movement and the Eastlake style.

James and Susan a generation before had also created the most up-to-date interiors in their newly rebuilt Ashland.  Once the McDowells purchased Ashland from Kentucky University, they decided to keep some elements of the 1850s interiors while replacing others.

The fine mantelpieces were kept in every room but one: the original family dining room was converted to a Butler’s Pantry and the McDowells moved that colorful stone mantel to an upstairs bedroom.  The Butler’s Pantry gained floor to ceiling storage instead.

The McDowells kept all of the ceiling plasterwork – James and Susan’s Victorian cornices and medallions – most likely repainting them in colors of their choosing, but they replaced the 1850s light fixtures with gas—soon to be electrified—fixtures, which remain at Ashland today (including the infamous serpent head fixture in the Library).

The McDowells kept the 1850s flooring in much of the house intact but replaced the floors in two rooms: the Entrance Hall with thinly-slatted oak parquet and the Drawing Room with cherry.

The most dramatic changes the McDowells made came at the center of the house: James and Susan’s elliptical staircase and the walls surrounding it were replaced by a more open space with straight flights of oak in the Eastlake style.  A second “service” staircase was added toward the back wing, and a hallway beneath was converted into a “Bath Room” for the family and “Lavatory” for guests, complete with walnut wainscoting and the latest plumbing fixtures.

The McDowells endeavored to open the house “en suite” by keeping doors between the public rooms open while entertaining, by the addition of a door-sized mirror in the Entrance Hall, and by the addition of a new “room” on the back of the house: the conservatory.  All of the central rooms of the mansion, then, formed one large space for entertainment, as a number of contemporary accounts attested.

Interior design at Ashland had evolved from the lightness, straightness, and relative simplicity of Henry Clay’s era to the heavier, ornate, more colorful aesthetic of James and Susan’s Ashland.  But the McDowells leaned toward lightness again as they moved away from Victorian ideas.  Simplicity and less ornament became tasteful and prized, while artistry and hand-crafted quality became more important.

The McDowells were the first known occupants at Ashland to photograph the interiors of the house.  From these images, we can determine many things about the spaces they lived in.

Entrance Hall: Major McDowell

Entrance Hall: anaglypta in Japanesque design

Entrance Hall

Entrance Hall: Eastlake Stair

Entrance Hall: oak parquet flooring

Drawing Room

Dining Room

Dining Room: sideboard

Dining Room: lincrusta

The Study: Major McDowell

The Study: anaglypta



Billiard Room