Clay Family Loses Ashland, University of Kentucky Predecessor Moves In

YOU ARE HERE -> 1860s

Although Ashland had survived its first transfer of ownership (from Henry Clay’s widow Lucretia to his son James), remaining in family hands, after the Civil War it would not.  Due to James’s death in 1864, the financial hardship after the war, and complex dealings with settling the Ashland estate, James’s widow Susan was forced to sell Ashland in February of 1866.  The buyer was John Bryan Bowman, founder and regent of Kentucky University.

Bowman possessed a lofty vision for higher education in Kentucky and the new Kentucky University grew quickly in the mid-1860s with the establishment of its (land grant) Agricultural and Mechanical College and a merger with Transylvania University.  Bowman had searched to find a farm in or near Lexington with appropriate buildings to establish a University campus and launch the A & M College.  In February of 1866 Bowman purchased for the Kentucky University/A & M campus both the Ashland estate for $90,000 and the adjoining Woodlands estate (which had belonged to Henry Clay’s daughter and son-in-law, Anne Brown Clay and James Erwin) for $40,000, a total of 433 acres for $130,000.   These two properties joined the existing downtown Transylvania campus.

The Lexington Observer & Reporter applauded the purchase, saying that the University “will do credit to our State, and serve as a monument to the memory of Mr. Clay.”  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 had made.  The estate was ideally located a short distance from town on a main thoroughfare and virtually everyone knew how to find Ashland.  It would have been impossible to produce such a fine physical setting for the University campus elsewhere.

In Ashland’s history, the Kentucky University period is an anomaly.  The Clay family was no longer involved in the status and fate of Ashland.  It was now an institutional property, interpreted and preserved by non-family members.  In the absence of the living memorial that his family and artifacts represented, the connection to Henry Clay was now less tangible.

Yet Henry Clay was undeniably important to Kentucky University.  Bowman knew that the historical significance of Ashland lent dignity and gravity to his cause, as he described it in 1866:  “The associations which cluster around it as the homestead of the great Commoner and friend of Agriculture, the inspiration which will be caught by the student…, the advertisement which it will give the Institution…all give it a value above money, and make it eminently fitting that it should be held sacred and dedicated to a great and permanent work such as ours…”

Ashland after the Civil War continued to symbolize the greatness of Henry Clay and his home state, serving as something of a spiritual capital for Kentuckians.  In this period of healing and optimism, a time of rebuilding and investing in young people, Clay was a fitting beacon of conciliation and progress.  The Great Compromiser’s efforts had not prevented Civil War, but his major role in forestalling it cast him as an even larger hero in its aftermath.  His former home was tangible proof to Americans that there had been such a great man who had walked among them and manifested the highest ideals.

People from all around the country continued to journey to Ashland, which remained the public destination it had long been.  University students were known to have given visitors tours of the historic grounds; one visitor described how he was shown around by students who pointed out “as a relic of the hallowed past” the bath-house where “the statesman courted health, and philosophized, like Diogenes, in his tub” (c1870s unidentified newspaper).  Bowman commented on how the lasting memory of Henry Clay at Ashland drew “the thousands of his admirers who visit it from year to year.”  Lexington in 1874 was described as a “quiet town,” which also happened to be “the Mecca of thousands of pilgrims, because it contains the old residence and the grave of Henry Clay…” (Scribner’s Monthly, December 1874).

As much as Henry Clay was revered by the University, its students, and the community, he represented Ashland’s past, while the University pointed to the estate’s future.  Thus the preservation of Ashland was about keeping the essence—the cachet—of the historic estate while making it workable for the nascent University.  Bowman did not contemplate any particular form of historic preservation of the mansion or other Clay-era outbuildings because he believed that the University was to be permanently located at Ashland.  He freely razed, built, and altered buildings for University use.  Bowman and his wife lived in part of the Ashland mansion while part was given over to University administration and to the housing of the University’s Natural History Museum.

Bowman had devised a program for beautification of the campus, and though his plans ultimately never progressed far, substantial changes occurred to the farm, the grounds, and the buildings.  There was at that point no inkling that Ashland would return to the private ownership of a Clay heir nor that it would eventually serve as a public memorial to Henry Clay…

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