The Cat Who Lived in the Museum

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You are here –> 1960s-1970s

It was a distinctly different time at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, historic house museum…

One highlight of visiting Ashland in the 1960s and ’70s was Gypsy the cat. She came to Ashland in 1962 and lived for fourteen years in the mansion.  She became quite well-known and “people…are disappointed if Gypsy does not meet them at the door…,” Director Lorraine Seay told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1973.

Mrs. Seay considered Gypsy a person and a relative (“She must be related to Henry Clay, because he was such a charmer”) and dubbed her “Assistant Curator.”  Gypsy had her own special chair by Mrs. Seay’s desk and she would take Gypsy home with her every night.

Gypsy followed tours through the house and would “tug at the draperies” for attention, distracting visitors: “I’d lose them,” Mrs. Seay said of her tour groups, “they would want to know about the cat.”

Gypsy’s picture postcard was the largest selling after tours.  But this living novelty— as Mrs. Seay called her, “‘Henry Clay’s cat ‘in her ninth life’”—was good for attendance.  Mrs. Seay told Southern Living in 1968 that Gypsy served as surprise entertainment for “people who may have thought they were just going to tour the 157-year-old home of the distinguished Kentucky statesman.”

Gypsy died in 1976 and her sad fans raised money for a small tombstone, erected where the popular cat was buried under the larch tree on the front lawn, as if she had been a member of the Clay family.

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The Flame-throwing Serpent at Ashland

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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.

The Ashland Library

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.

McDowell-era Library with gasolier

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.

1941 photo shows light fixture with shade (Louisville Courier Journal)

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.

Photo circa 1970s

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!

The serpent’s head

Paying Tribute to Henry Clay at Ashland, 1857

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YOU ARE HERE -> 1857

After Henry Clay’s death, his national historic-themed display at Ashland evolved into son James’s Henry Clay tribute display.  James and Susan continued the practice of displaying artifacts within the mansion for public viewing, but now the collection centered on those related to Clay’s life.  They honored Henry Clay’s collection by repeating and embellishing it with more of his own possessions.

Henry Clay artifacts

When Clay died, his possessions had been distributed among family and friends, the majority among his sons, and much of his historical collection was dispersed.  While most of his belongings would be kept in the private homes of his descendants, James and Susan followed Clay’s lead and encouraged public viewing of the artifacts they had inherited.  Virtually every Henry Clay artifact that they owned was carefully and proudly exhibited in the public rooms at Ashland.

Like Clay, they provided a view of the past—which was now Henry Clay in the context of America’s history—to the public.  This exhibition, then, separated their collection from other Clay family members’ domestic displays, and caused Ashland to function as something of a public museum once again.

Yet the Ashland house itself—newly rebuilt—was the most precious Henry Clay artifact James and Susan possessed.  Even in its new incarnation, it more than anything else symbolized Henry Clay and it served to envelop all the other artifacts.  Susan defended the rebuilding of the mansion specifically because of its function as a worthy container of Clay artifacts, claiming that the association of Ashland and Henry Clay would be better made for pilgrims to this “shrine” through the creation of a fitting edifice to “enclose the interesting memorials of the Patriot.”  The new Ashland mansion now represented and paid tribute to the old Ashland and was itself a display item.  James and Susan’s house not only enclosed a museum, it was a crucial element of that museum.

Italian marble mantel in new Ashland

As Clay had believed in the power of objects to inspire patriotism, so James and Susan did when they reopened Ashland, filled with artifacts “with which the rooms…abound…”  James’s inherited artifacts included the large painting of The Washington Family, re-installed in its original parlor location.

The Washington Family by Henry Inman at Ashland

But not only did they exhibit many of the items that Clay himself had displayed, now the objects that he had personally used came before the public and became just as highly revered.  James and Susan obviously agreed with Henry Clay’s sentiment that tangible objects—those actually touched by the person—were especially powerful.  Clay’s personal possessions, especially those related to the great accomplishment that was the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, were now well represented; his ceremonial Ghent jacket and other items from his European trip symbolized his work as a peace commissioner and the larger idea of world peace.

On display in James and Susan’s Ashland: Clay’s Treat of Ghent jacket.

Guided by Susan through the public rooms of the house, an impressed 1857 visitor described these and other items:

I entered the study—HENRY CLAY’S library, studded with memorials of him—with feelings almost of awe.  I sat on the old, well preserved, old-fashioned chair, sat in oft by him…examined his writing and dressing case, inscribed ‘H. Clay, American Minister, Ghent,’ lifted his ink-stand, so long the fountain into which his pen was dipped when conducting his correspondence and compositions…Here are old tables and sofas as they were used by the Ashland sage…A tortoise case containing his gold spectacles…A circular gold snuff box containing a lock of Henry Clay’s hair and a lock of Mrs. Clay’s…A diamond ring of great brilliance, on his finger when he died… (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 4 Jul 1857)

In the new Ashland, Henry Clay’s biography was put in the context of the larger American story.  His relics placed alongside George Washington’s sent a clear message about Clay’s importance and place in the national drama.  In the anxiety-fraught final years before the war, James and Susan in essence, through Clay’s legacy, continued his efforts to save the Union.  Antebellum Americans considered Henry Clay the Great Compromiser, the one who for so long preserved the Union, thus it was probably with urgent and passionate purpose that James and Susan created a tribute to Henry Clay that served to make his name and cause immortal.

The elegant rebuilt house and luxurious interiors as backdrop for Clay relics underscored Clay’s eminence with particular dignity.  James and Susan’s home would not simply be a family home with personal memorabilia; this was a public museum, patriotic shrine, and site of apotheosis and inspiration.

The Ghent Jacket on display

Ashland: A Home for Horses

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While Ashland had been home to some famous human beings (Henry Clay preeminent), the estate was for about a century the birthplace, home, and burial ground for some very celebrated horses.

Henry Clay began racing thoroughbreds for pleasure in 1809.  He was involved with the Lexington Jockey Club until 1823 and sometimes held private races on one of the tracks he created at Ashland.  As former Ashland curator Jeff Meyer observed, “What began as a hobby for a young lawyer and aspiring politician had turned into more than a century of success for Henry Clay’s family.”[1]  The Louisville Courier-Journal observed in 1883: “All of the Clays … have been great lovers and admirers of the thoroughbred horse and almost from the first settlement of Ashland until the present time the tread of the high-mettled racer or the footsteps of the trotter has almost continually pressed the soil at Ashland.”

This equine empire really began in 1830 when Henry Clay established his breeding operation, the Ashland Thoroughbred Stock Farm.  He would become one of the leading horsemen of the era.  In 1845, Ashland Stud’s success was assured with the gifts to Clay of three extraordinary horses: Margaret Wood, Magnolia, and Yorkshire.  For more on Clay’s horses, see Ashland’s website.

In 1842, Clay handed over the day-to-day operations of Ashland Stud to his youngest son, twenty-one-year-old John Morrison Clay, who proved to be highly adept.   When Henry Clay died in 1852, John continued to successfully manage the breeding operation, now located on the adjoining property his father had left to him, which he named Ashland Stud on the Tates Creek Pike (or Ashland-on-Tates-Creek).  During the Civil War, Ashland’s fine horses would prove a desirable prize for John Hunt Morgan who proceeded to steal $25,000 worth of John’s stock (forcing John to pay ransom for his horses).  John would breed Ashland’s first Kentucky Derby winner: Day Star (1878).

John and Josephine Clay

Josephine’s paddocks (1904, Joseph Rogers)

After John died in 1887, his widow Josephine continued to ably handle Ashland Stud, doing business with men and breaking down barriers for women, while proceeding to foal Ashland’s second Kentucky Derby winner, Riley (1890).

John Clay was not the only son to perpetuate the breeding of star horses at Ashland.  James owned and occupied the main part of the estate and went on to breed harness horses – standardbreds – at Ashland.  He was a pioneer in introducing and popularizing harness racing and the Standardbred in the Bluegrass.  James laid out one of the racetracks at Ashland, a one-mile trotting track behind the mansion near the Richmond Pike.

Map of Ashland estate, c1865

After Kentucky University vacated Ashland in 1879, the estate was for a few years leased to private tenants who continued to utilize it as a horse farm.  First, Wood Stringfield established his racing stable and used James’s track at Ashland, then A. Smith McMann brought his trotters to Ashland.

But the Clay family returned to Ashland in 1882 with Henry Clay, Jr.’s daughter Anne and her husband Major Henry Clay McDowell took on the estate.  McDowell had been a Civil War veteran with business interests in real estate, railroads, mining, and land development.  But he became most known for breeding trotting horses at the second Ashland Stud (John and Josephine’s adjacent farm would be distinguished by “On-Tates-Creek”).

McDowell converted the large, brick Kentucky University Mechanical Building by adding box-stalls and a small track inside for his horses.  He most likely added another mile track on the estate, as well.  His most famous horse, Dictator, foaled in 1863, and soon to become the most famous stallion in the country, died at Ashland in 1893.

Dictator in front of Ashland mansion

Major McDowell handed the operations of Ashland Stud over to his son Thomas Clay McDowell, who soon went back to breeding thoroughbreds.  Thomas bred, owned, and trained Alan-A-Dale, the last Kentucky Derby winner produced at Ashland.  Jimmy Winkfield, the final African-American jockey to win the Derby, rode Alan-A-Dale to victory in 1902.

Both Alan-A-Dale and Dictator were buried at Ashland “just to the right of the broodmare barn entrance” (exact locations unknown).

Thomas eventually moved his breeding operation to Woodford County when property values around Ashland skyrocketed, while Josephine Clay had shuttered her stud farm years before.  By the 1920s, Ashland Stud was no more.

Aerial view 1937, Richmond Road running at top, Ashland estate in darker wooded area, Ashland oval racetrack lower right (next to Tates Creek Road)

For much more information about horses in the Bluegrass: International Museum of the Horse and The Kentucky Horse Park.


[1] Meyer, Jeff.  “Henry Clay’s Legacy to Horse Racing.”  In exhibition catalog for the Kentucky Horse Park’s 2005 exhibition, “Kentucky Bloodlines: The Legacy of Henry Clay.”

Famous Visitors to Henry Clay’s Ashland

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YOU ARE HERE -> up to 1852

Even though Henry Clay spent much of the year away from Ashland—in Washington, DC and other travel—when he was at home, he received many of the most important figures of his time, including his fellow American statesmen, lawyers, judges, educators, clergymen, merchants, doctors, members of the English nobility, authors, artists, musicians, and philosophers.

  Mary Todd, later to become Mrs. Lincoln, grew up in Lexington, and as a young girl attended a private school near Ashland.  She was a frequent visitor to Ashland and idolized Henry Clay.

  Abraham Lincoln’s presence at Ashland, though, is more of a puzzle.  Lincoln admired Henry Clay and studied his speeches, using Clay’s thoughts and words in forming his own political philosophy.  We know that Lincoln visited Lexington (his wife’s town) on more than one occasion, and in 1847 did hear Clay give a speech downtown.  We know that Clay and Lincoln knew of one another.  Clay sent a gift to Lincoln: a book inscribed “To Abraham Lincoln: With constant regard to friendship—H. Clay Ashland—11 May 1847.”  But the mystery remains in that there is no recorded evidence of Lincoln’s having visited Henry Clay at Ashland.

  But the future president of the U.S. Confederacy during the Civil War, Kentucky-born Jefferson Davis, indeed visited Ashland.  Davis was a close friend of Henry Clay, Jr. and, as Ashland curator Eric Brooks explains, Davis “would later rise to be Clay’s colleague in the U.S. Senate. Davis admired Clay and remembered his friendly tones from youth, but never idolized him the way Lincoln had. In fact, Davis would later stand in firm opposition to Henry Clay.”  Yet, Davis’s bond with Henry Jr. forged an “unspoken, unbreakable bond between Davis and Henry Clay.”

  In 1819, then current president of the United States (1817–1825) James Monroe (1758-1831) intended to visit Clay at Ashland while on a western tour of the country, but because of travel delays, Clay missed him.

  Apparently Clay’s future nemesis, Andrew Jackson, was along on the trip with Monroe and ultimately never did visit Ashland.  There is another story—perhaps apocryphal—that Jackson traveled through Lexington at another time, and while passing Ashland on the main road, paused to gaze at his enemy’s home, but instead of paying a call, proceeded on his way.

  The great French hero who had been a general in the American Revolutionary War, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), came to Washington on a “triumphal tour of the country” in December of 1824 where Speaker Clay greeted him with a tribute.  Lafayette went on to visit Lexington on his farewell tour of America in May of 1825.  Clay was in Washington, but Lucretia received the French General at Ashland on her husband’s behalf.

  Well-known English social reformer and author Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) made an extended visit to the United States and enjoyed a languorous summer visit to Ashland in 1835 where the hospitality and environment delighted her: “The house was in the midst of grounds gay with verdure and flowers…and our favorite seats were the steps of the hall, and chairs under the trees.  From there we could watch the play of the children…”  She described Ashland’s bounteous fare: “Tender meats, fresh vegetables, good claret and champagne, with daily piles of strawberries and towers of ice cream…”

  Fellow statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852) visited Ashland with his family for a week in May 1837.

  In November of 1840, ninth President-elect William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) visited Clay to discuss cabinet appointments for his new administration. A few months later, Harrison would be the first U.S. president to die in office.

  In the spring of 1842, former president of the United States (1837–1841), Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) visited Henry Clay for a week.

According to Clay biographers David and Jeanne Heidler,  “Clay’s generous hospitality included lavish dinners, continuously filled glasses, exciting outings to horse races, and sparkling repartee.” (Henry Clay: The Essential American, 2010).

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