The Exotic and Curious at Ashland

YOU ARE HERE -> 1860s-1870s

After the Civil War, Ashland was in the hands of the predecessor of the University of Kentucky.  The estate was no longer a family home and farm, but a nascent college campus.  SEE ALSO: Clay Family Loses Ashland, University of Kentucky Predecessor Moves In and Historic Homestead as College Campus.

As Regent John B. Bowman stated when Kentucky University was founded, “The Natural Sciences, in their application to the useful arts and to agriculture, should receive more attention.”   He had envisioned an intense focus on “science in its widest ranges.”  In Bowman’s February 1872 report to Kentucky Governor Leslie, he provided a history of the University’s Agricultural and Mechanical College in his plea for greater funding, stating: “In order to constitute an efficient and fully manned institution, such as contemplated by Congress and desired by the State, a large expenditure in buildings, experimental farm, Philosophical and Chemical apparatus, Geological and Mineralogical cabinet, with Museums of Natural History, would be required.”

John Bryan Bowman

Bowman’s goals were lofty.  He even encouraged the legislature to fund and complete the geological survey of the state, with the assistance of the Kentucky A & M: “We can…furnish a competent Botanist…with a Zoologist and Paleontologist…”  He knew the survey would benefit Kentucky University: “large collections of Botanical, Geological, Mineralogical, and other specimens, could be made for the Museums…greatly to the benefit of the State and of the College.

So Bowman set about organizing the “required” facilities and many of his envisioned scientific pursuits at Ashland. From the old—and now absorbed into Kentucky University—Transylvania University, library, apparatus, and museum collections that had been scattered during the Civil War now came to Kentucky University.   A meteorological observatory was established at Ashland in 1872, a zoological collection was initiated, and a natural history museum installed.

Some of the items that were in the Natural History Museum (photographed later, at Transylvania University). From Eric Brooks, Images of America, Ashland the Henry Clay Estate, Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

The extant evidence points to a curious zoo at Ashland.  It was mentioned in a February 1872 Lexington Daily Press article a “gift of two fawns” that was added to “the zoological collection at Ashland.” The paper declared that “the collection promises to become one of great importance.”  But the only other animal known to have been a part of this collection is a bear.  An event recorded by Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter, Lucretia Clay Erwin Simpson, identified a “pet bear” that had escaped from Regent Bowman’s “embryonic State University” at Ashland.  She felt the need to qualify the account with, “this incredible story was true.” (Ashland archives)  Clay’s youngest son, John, inherited the stud farm of Ashland, which was located adjacent to Kentucky A & M at Ashland proper.  A servant at the stud farm, who carefully tended the prize mares and foals, broke into a family gathering stammering that a bear was walking around the horses “having the time of its life trying out the young foals.” (Ashland archives).

But Bowman’s Natural History Museum was a far more substantial endeavor. His motivation to create a museum was rooted in his educational goals, especially in the area of the natural sciences, but was perhaps influenced by his milieu, as well.  Bowman was a product of his time in his intrigue with the material world and the penchant for acquisitiveness that characterized mid- to late-nineteenth century culture.  Bowman’s idea of a museum may have come from a Victorian conviction that progress increased with knowledge, and the more artifacts exhibited, the more knowledge gained.

Ledger of donations to the Natural History Museum. From Eric Brooks, Images of America: Ashland the Henry Clay Estate, Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Bowman was undoubtedly inspired by the renowned Charles Willson Peale and his Philadelphia Museum.  Peale was a natural historian and artist who, in the 1780s, conceived of the idea of an American museum of natural history where rare and commonplace specimens of nature would be exhibited together.  The Philadelphia Museum opened to the public in Philadelphia in 1786 as a for-profit institution.  His “collection of curiosities” at first involved only preserved animals arranged in careful order. But he soon looked to expand his museum collection with a greater variety of animals, including birds and fish, reptiles and insects. Peale also sought vegetables, minerals, shells, fossils, medals and old coins and other “curiosities” from around the world to display.  By 1799, he had amassed a collection of hundreds of animals and thousands of insects, fish, minerals and fossils, as well as exotic animals for the first time displayed in American, such as anteaters and giraffes.  In 1801 he acquired the skeleton of a mastodon.  Peale’s museum, like Bowman’s, also included a zoo where live animals could be observed within close range.

Museums were regarded as vital to universities in the 19th century, particularly in relation to the sciences.  Not only did Peale set the stage for many natural history museums to follow, but James Smithson’s 1836 bequest and the decision of Congress to create the Smithsonian Institution, composed of a group of museums, added to the midcentury momentum toward museums intended for serious study and research.  University museums were regarded as laboratories for students and researchers, but ideally accessible to the public.

It is telling that most of Bowman’s museum collection was in storage due to lack of space, but no matter:  he continued to collect.  A plea went out in the June 11, 1872 Lexington Daily Press, entreating readers to consider what they themselves might contribute to Kentucky University’s museum “in the way of relics or other curiosities…,” suggesting coins, Indian relics, old books, newspapers, letters and paintings and “especially anything which will illustrate the lives of our early pioneers and distinguished men.”  The Louisville library and natural history museum are held up as prime examples for Lexington:

Why cannot our citizens do the same, and let us foster our own great institution of learning, and hold up the hands of its founder, who is toiling in so many different ways to make it attractive to the public.  Let everyone who visits Ashland remember to take something rare or curious which may be lying by, and which will soon be lost unless deposited in some such permanent place, where it will be well preserved and credited perpetually to the kind donor.

We know that at least one of Henry Clay’s descendants responded. When Clay’s family vacated Ashland by 1866, the Henry Clay artifacts of course went with them.  But one important Clay relic returned to Ashland: the Museum of Natural History accepted as a donation Henry Clay’s Ghent jacket.  It had been on display in James and Susan’s Ashland library and later ended up in the possession of one of their sons, but sometime during the 1872-73 school year, this grandson donated it to the Museum of Natural History.  There amidst the stuffed birds, shells, and bones in the Museum at Ashland, was Henry Clay’s splendid Ghent jacket.  (Kentucky University Catalogue, 1872-73.  Transylvania University Special Collections.)

It is unknown if the Ghent jacket was ever on display in the University Museum at Ashland.  But this Clay artifact would have fit well into Bowman’s vision for his museum and its call to the public to donate historical items.   Other historical artifacts donated to the Museum included “relics from Mount Vernon” and a piece of Martha Washington’s wedding dress.  A curious Henry Clay artifact was donated, as well: a model of farm implements “made from the old house and coffin of Henry Clay.”  It was Bowman’s intent that the Kentucky University Museum of Natural History would be a repository for the safekeeping of historic artifacts…and Ashland was the site of this safekeeping for twelve years.

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