Ashland: Unsurpassed for Party-Giving

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

Henry Clay’s granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell and her husband Major Henry Clay McDowell became famous for the “bounteous hospitality of Ashland,” as the Lexington Leader put it in 1899.  When they moved to Ashland in 1883, the McDowells brought six children between the ages of ten and twenty-two:  Nannette, 22; Henry Clay Jr., 21; William Adair, 19; Thomas Clay, 16; Julia Prather, 14; and Madeline, 10.

Julia, Nannette, Madeline

Consequently, Ashland from the 1880s became the center of these young people’s lives, along with all of their friends.  Ashland’s hospitality would accommodate and reflect this youthful spirit.  But the spirit and the references to Henry Clay were ever-present.

A magnificent ball was held at Ashland in July 1889, attended by the “largest crowd of the season,” and the house was described as unsurpassed for its “facilities for party-giving.”  A local paper described the event as if the ghost of Henry Clay had been looking on:

He would have seen the broad, ancestral halls illumined by the brilliance of many lights, in the glare of which scores of beautiful girls and manly young fellows walked and talked.  He would have heard…the many instruments that…filled every filled every nook and corner of the reverberant halls with music…The [catered] supper has been called super-excellent…nearly everybody in town who moves in youthful circles and some older ones were at the party…Last night triple parlors, the carpets of which were hidden from view by immaculate canvas, were thrown together as one large apartment.  Here most of the dancing took place… Everything about this party was modeled on a large scale…   “At Henry Clay’s Home.  The Large Party Given Last Night at Ashland.”  Lexington Leader, 17 July 1889.

When tennis became the rage, the McDowells installed two of the first tennis courts in Kentucky upon Henry Clay’s “pleasure lawn.” The Lexington Press noted: “There has been much talk of organizing a lawn tennis club in Lexington.  Why not?  It is becoming quite fashionable in several of the neighboring towns.” (26 July 1882.)   Ashland’s courts were said to be “…level as a billiard table, covered with closely cut white clover…” The young McDowells held many tennis parties and tournaments.

Lawn tennis party on back lawn, 1884

When a large party of men from Central and South America–the International American Congress–visited as guests of the United States, they planned to “tread in the footsteps of Henry Clay,” and were received in Lexington as “distinguished visitors.” The local papers emphasized the McDowells’ hospitality always in the light of Henry Clay: “International Excursionists Arrive in Lexington…Entertained in Royal Style By Major H. C. McDowell at the Home of Henry Clay.

Having been through the North visiting utilitarian factories and mills, the men were delighted with the “radical change of programme” that the genteel South provided.  Major McDowell greeted them with “an old time Kentucky welcome” in the “grand old mansion” that had never “presented a cheerier appearance.”

After conversation in the drawing rooms, they were “charmed” by a horse show on the east lawn, and refreshments served in the “presence of beautiful women, sparkling wines, and toothsome dainties,” all of which convinced them they were “at home in Paradise.”  The article reported that Ashland’s female guests “were at their best, and the swarthy-hued Spaniards fell easy victims to their charms.”  Of all the pleasure they enjoyed in Kentucky, their visit to Ashland, the home of Henry Clay, they said, was the highlight.

Overnight houseguests were also treated with gracious hospitality. One impressed visitor, Elbert Hubbard, a well-known author visiting famous people’s homes across America, provided an evocative account of his 1898 arrival at Ashland:

A lane…leads you to the hospitable, wide-open door, where a colored man, whose black face is set in a frame of wool, smiles a welcome.  He relieves you of your baggage and leads the way to your room.  The summer breeze blows lazily in through the open window…On the dresser is a pitcher of freshly clipped roses, the morning dew still upon them, and you only cease to admire as you espy your mail that lies there awaiting your hand.  News from home and loved ones greets you before these new-found friends do!…The hospitality is not gushing or effusive – the place is yours, that’s all, and you lean out of the window and look down at the flowerbeds, and wonder at the silence and the quiet and peace, and feel sorry for the folks who live in Cincinnati and Chicago…Your dreams are broken by a gentle tap at the door and your host has come to call on you…He only wishes to say that your coming is a pleasure to all the family at Ashland, the library is yours as well as the whole place… Hubbard, Elbert.  Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1898.

Tennis party on back lawn, c1890

While most of the McDowells’ entertaining was planned and private, they purposely encouraged public visitation to Ashland.  A notable example is one of the most spectacular events the McDowells hosted: the first of their daughters’ weddings when the eldest, Nannette, married Dr. Thomas S. Bullock in April 1892.  This sumptuous wedding would not be an exclusively private occasion.

The ceremony took place in the mansion drawing room and the reception was set in a temporary banquet hall erected on the back of the house.  Three-hundred guests were personally invited, but the public soon streamed to the Ashland grounds because of a newspaper notice (perhaps initiated by the McDowells):

“Street cars will run all night to Ashland,” the paper announced, because “electric lights have been introduced into the mansion.  The extemporized banqueting hall running the width of the house at the back will be thus illuminated…one uninterrupted length of brilliancy…Electric lights will blossom from pink rosettes draping the ceiling…” (“Witnesses the Beautiful Nuptials at Old Ashland…” Kentucky News Leader, 19 April 1892.)  Late into the night, scores of locals likely stood around the perimeter of the back lawn agape at the spectacular sight.

Toward the end of Major McDowell’s life, a shift in Ashland hospitality occurred.  His ill health caused a curtailment of lavish entertainment.  For daughter Madeline’s wedding to Desha Breckinridge in November 1898—a wedding that ordinarily would have attracted intense regional attention and could have been an even larger event than Nannette’s celebration six years earlier—a small and strictly private celebration was planned with only immediate family members invited.  A year later Major McDowell died and some of the most glittering hospitality that Ashland had ever witnessed would come to an end.

Gathering at front door, c1910s

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