Historic Homestead as College Campus

YOU ARE HERE ->1866-1879

After the Civil War, Kentucky University took ownership of Ashland.   (SEE ALSO: Clay Family Loses Ashland, University of Kentucky Predecessor Moves In.)

Ashland post Civil War (credit: Louisville Library)

Regent John B. Bowman believed that Kentucky University was to be permanently located at Ashland, so he made plans for the buildings and grounds to prepare them for University use.

The extant buildings at Ashland and the adjoining Woodlands estate had proved adaptable for University use, although “many of them were in a poor state of preservation,” as Bowman remarked when the University had first settled there.  He described what they had to work with: “Over these grounds there are scattered about thirty separate buildings, which are used for educational purposes, professors’ residences, dormitories, club houses, mechanical shops, etc.”

Since the University initially lacked the resources to embark on a major building campaign, the extant buildings would suffice.  Bowman made plans to establish most University buildings on the Ashland and Woodlands estates: residences, dormitories, and lecture halls.  The old slaves’ quarters were possibly converted for use as student housing and the mansion itself was presented as a residence to Bowman and his wife by the University Board, since Bowman refused monetary compensation.  Other houses on the estates were offered to faculty members.

The Agricultural and Mechanical College situated at Ashland, in particular, had specific needs for experimental farming and mechanical shops.  Bowman erected a large barn and stables on the grounds.  The Mechanical Department’s shops for carpenters and blacksmiths were erected.  Over 100 young men worked and learned a trade, while also helping maintain the buildings and grounds at Ashland.

In 1868 Bowman constructed a large, two-story brick building, the “Ashland Mechanical Works.”   It featured a distinctive three-story tower and was equipped for the manufacture of agricultural implements. A Pennsylvania inventor looking to test his new mowing machine, donated $25,000 to the College, which Bowman used to construct the building.

Ashland Mechanical Works building

He also devised a program for beautification of the campus.  All of the land between the Woodlands border and the Ashland mansion was cleared for cultivation.  Bowman’s plans for the University’s physical plant ultimately never progressed far, but farming operations were successfully established on the A & M campus (Hopkins).

During the University’s years at Ashland (1866-1879), the Ashland mansion served as institutional headquarters while Regent John B. Bowman and his wife Mary made their home there.  Bowman and his wife surely savored living in the large and famous house.  People of the day noted that, to the already illustrious residence the Bowmans added “distinction through their celebrated hospitality…”   It is presumed that the Bowmans utilized the second floor for private living space.  But it is known that they hosted dinners and parties at Ashland, thus surely making use of the first floor public and domestic service rooms.

Kentucky University’s A & M College letterhead

But the mansion served as more than home and headquarters: the University’s burgeoning Natural History Museum would be located within the house.  Bowman explained the new museum’s situation: “…for the accommodation of this Museum, I have fitted up rooms at Ashland, which will answer our purpose until we can erect a suitable Museum building.”

The Museum of Natural History probably occupied space on the first floor of the mansion.  The collection was stored and displayed there along with facilities for a taxidermist.  It is likely that the museum was in the library wing of the house because the parlors, dining room, and domestic service wing were used by the Bowmans for their intended purposes.

The Museum in the mansion was a source of great pride for Bowman, proving the progressive character of his new University.  It was intended first for the education of the students, but it also provided the impetus to invite the public to Ashland.  Bowman opened his University museum for the benefit of the community, merging the University’s role as educator of private students with the education of the public.

The Lexington Daily Press described the Museum that Bowman had been busy “creating at Ashland for several years, almost entirely by donations from liberal individuals throughout the country” as being visited “constantly” by Lexington citizens for “pleasure and profit.” By that point, the collection contained 20,000 specimens that had been gathered in the “various departments of natural history” (11 June 1872).  Donations described include eighty “specimens” from the Smithsonian Institution and a “valuable box of birds and mammals” from Australia.  The article stated that Bowman had set aside rooms in the Ashland mansion (“his private residence”) to exhibit part of the collection, but the majority of items was stored in boxes “awaiting the liberality of some wealthy citizens to erect a museum building…”

The Kentucky University Museum of Natural History could have developed into a great institution.  It possessed the Smithsonian collection, had employed the former Harvard museum director as its curator, its huge numbers of items and contributors—over 200 individuals and organizations had made donations (including the Chicago Academy of Science and the British Museum of London)—but the driving force behind it, John B. Bowman, was at cross purposes with the organization and in the end, it was largely forsaken…

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