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Founder and Regent of Kentucky University, John Bryan Bowman (1824-1891) held a lofty vision for higher education in Kentucky and was devoted to the ideal of egalitarian education, proclaiming, “I want to build up a People’s Institution, a great university eventually accessible to the poorest boy in all the land…”[1]

John Bryan Bowman

Bowman was a man of energetic determination and a finely-honed gift of persuasion, repeatedly raising enormous sums of money and convincing many of the need for a great Kentucky university.  Bowman’s plans for his university were big and bold, even though Kentucky had so far lagged behind other states in education.  Bowman fully expected his new university to attain a first-class national reputation: “…we would not be deemed arrogant in proposing to build, upon a more modern basis, an Institution equal to any in America…with a high grade of scholarship…”[2]

Kentucky University, a private, sectarian institution situated in Harrodsburg, was officially formed in 1858 and opened in the fall of 1859 (emerging from the defunct Bacon College, 1836-1850).  It survived the war years, but didn’t survive in its location in Harrodsburg when its main building was destroyed by fire in 1864 and Bowman couldn’t procure enough land to expand and develop the University there.

The University’s Board decided that the permanent location of the University would be moved to a community that would subscribe at least $100,000 for it.  Louisville and Covington made proposals.  And Transylvania University in Lexington (established 1798) – which had proposed a merger with Kentucky University four years earlier – renewed its offer.[3]

Transylvania’s original main building, downtown Lexington

Three years prior to this, President Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which allotted states public land or equivalent “land scrip” to generate endowment funds for schools, particularly Agricultural and Mechanical colleges, to teach practical skills instead of the customary curricula based on the classics. Kentucky’s participation in the Morrill grant program was tardy due to the war and heavy debt, inducing the State Legislature to consider refusing it altogether.

But Bowman stepped in.  He made his proposal: that Transylvania and Kentucky Universities would merge and take on the A & M College as a part of the new enlarged University, that it would be located in Lexington, and that the University Board would faithfully execute the intent of the Morrill Act.[4]

The bill was passed to create the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical College as a part of Kentucky University. [5]  Although organized under the private, sectarian Kentucky University, Kentucky A & M was Kentucky’s land grant college.[6]

The Ashland mansion depicted during Kentucky University’s tenure

Now that Transylvania’s campus was part of the new vision, Bowman searched to find a farm in or near Lexington with appropriate buildings to launch the A & M College.  He considered many “desirable locations which were offered,” but “in harmony with the wishes” of many of the Fayette County donors, he purchased Ashland.[7]  This was a decision widely applauded by citizens who saw it as a noble use of Henry Clay’s historic homestead and a source for continued pride within the community.

A letter written by an unidentified person, prior to Susan Clay’s 1866 sale of Ashland, was sent to Susan’s brother and trustee of her estate, Thomas Jacob.  The writer provides an argument for Kentucky A & M’s establishment at Ashland.  It is quite possible the letter was written by John B. Bowman in an effort to convince Jacob to sell the estate: “…it would place Ashland where it may be supposed the friends of Henry Clay would prefer to see it, in the hands of the state rather than in the possession of some unknown individual.” [8]

The “hands of the state” refers to the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical College’s funding specifically as the land-grant college of the Commonwealth, because its umbrella institution, Kentucky University, was a privately funded, denominationally-affiliated establishment.

A Lexington paper fully approved, saying that the University “will do credit to our State, and serve as a monument to the memory of Mr. Clay.”[9]  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 made over the course of 47 years.  The maturing landscape with its exceptional variety of fine trees, shrubs, lawns, flowers and gardens was a tremendous gift to the new College.  The estate was ideally located a short distance from town on a main thoroughfare and everyone knew where Ashland was located.  It would have been impossible to reproduce such a fine physical setting.

In February of 1866 Bowman purchased both the Ashland estate for $90,000 and the adjoining Woodlands estate for $40,000[10], for the Kentucky University A & M campus, a total of 433 acres for $130,000.[11]

The Ashland and Woodlands estates that Kentucky University purchased in 1866


[1] John D. Wright Jr.  Transylvania: Tutor to the West.  Lexington, KY: Transylvania University, 1975, 198.

[2] Henry Milton Pyles.  “The Life and Work of John Bryan Bowman.”  (Diss., University of Kentucky, 1944), 25.

[3]Transylvania University endeavored to bring the University to Lexington in 1860, but Bowman was opposed to it at the time because he expected to secure the Harrodsburg Springs property. – Pyles 36-37.

[4] Pyles 52.

[5] Pyles 52.

[6] Carl B. Cone. The University of Kentucky: A Pictorial History.  (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1989), 3.

[7] Pyles 65.

[8] Undated and unsigned letter known to have been sent to Thomas Jacob. From Library of Congress, Collections of the Manuscript Division; a reproduction in the Ashland archives.  It is in currently unrecognizable handwriting, but the point of view of the letter implies someone whose interest lies with the College, if not Bowman, perhaps a member of the University Board of Curators.

[9] Lexington Observer & Reporter, January 17, 1866.

[10] The Woodlands had belonged to Henry Clay’s daughter and son-in-law, Anne Brown Clay and James Erwin.

[11] James F. Hopkins,  The University of Kentucky: Origins and Early Years. Lexington,KY:University of Kentucky Press, 1951 67.  Kiesel puts the amount at $147,000, 106.  Linda Raney Kiesel. “Kentucky’s Land-Grant Legacy: An Analysis of the Administrations of John Bryan Bowman and James Kennedy Patterson, 1865-1890.”  Diss., University of Kentucky, 2003.

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