The Ash of Ashland

Naming Clay’s Estate

While Ashland’s earliest years are somewhat shrouded in historical mystery, it is known that Henry Clay purchased the first 125 acres from Cuthbert Banks in September 1804.   A few months later, he contracted with local builder John Fisher to construct the Clay family residence there.  It is known that the ash forest was lush on the estate and that—definitely by 1809—Clay was referring to his country estate on the outskirts of Lexington as Ashland.

There was precedence for the use of this name: ‘Ashland’ had likewise been utilized in Great Britain for residences on or near land covered with ash trees; there are examples in Hampshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, and Galloway.

But Henry Clay’s American Ashland was considered particularly superb.  It was fertile, remarkable in its diversity – a diversity to which Clay continuously contributed.  Clay would occupy and cherish his estate for the rest of his life.  As Richard Troutman in his study of southern plantation life observed, “It is doubtful…that any estate, regardless of size, brought as much enjoyment to its owner as Ashlanddid to Henry Clay.”[1]  “The Sage of Ashland,” as Clay became known, always considered himself “H. Clay of Ashland”—never of Lexington.  Not only did Ashland symbolize his “wealth, station, and aspirations,”[2] his love for his estate was one of the strongest affections of his life.[3]  He viewed Ashland as the “supreme embodiment of earthly joys,”[4] exclaiming, “‘I love old Ashland, and all these acres with their trees and flowers and growing grain allure me in a way that ambition never can.’”[5]

And as Henry Clay’s star rose in America, so did Ashland’s.  His estate arguably became as famous as he was.  As counties, cities, and towns were incorporating and naming themselves and their streets, ‘Ashland’ was a favorite choice; at least thirty localities in the United States are named for Clay’s estate.[i]

Ashland’s Ash Trees

Henry Clay was intensely interested in the development of his property and early on began to plant trees.   But the blue ash trees that preceded him remained a plentiful and prized species.  In fact, one can see a pair of these original, late 18th-century blue ash trees on Ashland’s property today: they are located near the corner of Richmond and Woodspoint Roads. Younger examples of white and green ash grow on the property, as well.

From Google Maps

The blue ash can be found on dry, upland, limestone rich soil, like that found in the Bluegrass. They seldom reseed naturally because of mowing and grazing. Twigs from the blue ash, when crushed and placed in fresh water, will turn the water blue—a dyestuff of pioneers.

The ash family of trees, known as Fraxinus, is a genus of flowering plants in the olive and lilac family.  The common English name, ash, comes from the Old English æsc, which along with the generic Latin name, means ‘spear.’   The blue ash, or Fraxinus quadrangulata, is native to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky and the Nashville Basin region of Tennessee.

 Ash Trees Now Threatened

Since the late 1980s, North American ash trees are now threatened by the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), which is a wood-boring beetle that had been accidentally introduced from eastern Asia via solid wood packing material. It has already killed tens of millions of trees and threatens some 7 billion ash trees in North America. Arborists estimate Kentucky has 131 million white ashes, 92 million green ashes and an unknown number of blue ashes, most of them in a triangle including Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati.  Research is being conducted to determine if three native Asian wasps, who are natural predators of the pest, could be used as biological control.

The emerald ash borer was discovered in 2009 in seven Kentucky counties, including Fayette, and the Lexington Tree Board removed ash trees from the list of approved species to plant.[ii]

Ash Wood

Despite its current vulnerability, ash has long been recognized as a strong, but elastic, hardwood.  It is appreciated for its great finishing qualities.

At Ashland, fine woods were always used in the public rooms of the house (ash, oak, walnut), while the inferior poplar (faux-grained) was utilized in the private areas.  One of the most admired aspects of Ashland is the ash woodwork in the main rooms.

Henry Clay had used ash in his original mansion and his son James salvaged the best of it to reuse in his rebuilt Ashland.  James wasn’t simply being frugal, he used this original ash wood as a statement of tribute to his father, and a tangible means to claim connection to the original mansion.

James had the original ash polished and refashioned into innovate pocket window shutters in the Entrance Hall.   But he also used ash wood throughout the Entrance Hall and parlors, outfitting the trim with Sheffield silver hardware.

Entrance Hall - front door and pocket shutters, partially closed

James also commissioned a fine bedroom set for himself, said to be made from ash from Ashland trees.  The heavily carved furniture – still in pristine condition – may still be seen today in the museum, in the aptly named ‘Ash Bedroom.’


Many thanks to Joel Damron for his exceptional insight into Ashland’s trees!

[1] Troutman,  “Plantation Life”, 104.

[2] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate, 12.

[3] “A Visit ToAshland…”, 31.

[4] Wilson, “Ashland,Center ofHenry Clay’s Career.”

[5] Alice Molloy.  “Home of Henry Clay.”  Unidentified newspaper, c. 1900.  Henry Clay Family Papers, Special Collections,University of Kentucky.

[i] In the city of Chicago, Ashland Avenue, first known as Reuben Street, … was considered the height of suburban living on the West Side in the 1860s. In 1864, real estate developer Samuel J. Walker further improved Ashland … widening and paving the street, building costly homes, and planting trees up and down the sidewalks. Walker was originally from Kentucky and moved to Chicago in 1855. Historians believe either he or Henry Hamilton Honore, another Kentucky native and Chicago developer, renamed the street after the Lexington, Kentucky estate of statesman Henry Clay. From:

[ii] The Independent Online, Ashland, KY (

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s