Kentucky University Leaves Ashland

YOU ARE HERE -> 1870s

From such grand and glorious beginnings, John Bryan Bowman’s vision for Kentucky University began to unravel in the 1870s.  The details of the troubles he and the university encountered could—and has—filled volumes.  Ashland plays a central part in the sad story.

Ashland during Kentucky University/A & M years

All of the tumult made the period of 1865-1878, which should have been one of great growth and success, one of fracture and failure.  A contemporary of Bowman’s later assessed what had gone wrong with Kentucky University: “The rock of offense–the thing that brought grief to [Bowman’s] soul and disappointment to his plans–was his endeavor to unite under one control a college historically and traditionally denominational with an institution under state control.”

Finally after years of bitter conflict, private Kentucky University split from the public A & M College.  What was left of the University relocated to the old Transylvania campus downtown and later took back that name.  In 1878 after 19 years of service, John Bryan Bowman would no longer serve as Regent of Kentucky University.  He was ordered to vacate Ashland.

John Bryan Bowman

A poignant scene occurred at Ashland during these dark days for Bowman and the Lexington Daily Press recounted the details.  The faculty and class of the Law College came to the house for dinner and presented Bowman with a “beautiful, gold-headed cane” as testimony of their respect for him and the work he was doing, congratulating him for the latest vindication in the struggle.  One of the faculty rose before dinner and thanked Bowman, stating that everyone gathered possessed “unshaken confidence in your fidelity to that grand and noble object to which you have already given the manhood of your life.  Believing, as we do, that your every act has been prompted by motives the purest…”   Bowman was moved, calling it “one of the most cherished remembrances” of his life.  Dinner was “heartily enjoyed” and followed by speeches, anecdotes and songs.  When Bowman’s guests left late in the evening they wished the Regent long life and prosperity (June 17, 1877).

While the A & M had been situated at Ashland since 1865, Bowman proposed in 1877 that both the Ashland and adjoining Woodlands estates be sold to the state for use by the A & M College, but the Kentucky A & M College Commission rejected his proposal, claiming that the state did not need so much property.  A final agreement was reached which allowed the A & M College to rent the Ashland property for two more years, continuing to utilize all buildings and equipment for that time, while Kentucky University retained ownership and oversight.   Once the agreement was reached, Kentucky A & M managed to thrive for a time.  The future appeared more hopeful, although the search for a new site was on.

Citizens of Lexington grew especially worried about the A & M leaving Ashland and leaving the city.  It seemed out of the question for the school to be located anywhere but Ashland:  “Where else in our State can a more suitable tract of land be offered for its location?” the Lexington Daily Press asked in April 1878, “Where is agriculture carried on with greater success?”  Lexingtonians also saw the move as morally reprehensible: after all, their contributions had specifically brought the Agricultural and Mechanical College to the city for the benefit of the entire citizenry.  They refused to accept that sectarian Kentucky University now held ownership of the Ashland and Woodlands estates.

In the summer of 1879 the donors and citizens of Lexington presented a petition to the University Board demanding that a portion of the Ashland and Woodlands tract be offered to the state.  The Board ultimately rejected it.  The people of Lexington were bitterly disappointed to have lost the historic Ashland and Woodlands tracts as the state college campus.

The A & M Mechanical Building

State-wide bidding began for the A & M College site.  Lexington was especially anxious to retain the state’s only public college and the city won by offering its fairgrounds. The A & M moved to its new campus on South Limestone Street in 1882.  It became commonly known as the “State College,” until in 1908 it adopted its legal name, “State University of Kentucky,” and in 1916 took on its current name, “The University of Kentucky.”

In 1879 the University Board had settled all financial dealings between the University and Bowman.  The Secretary of the Board was to “transmit a copy of this resolution to John B. Bowman, accompanied with a polite request that he surrender possession of the Mansion and appurtenances at Ashland to the Executive Committee.”

In a letter to the Board of Curators, Bowman said, “In regard to the Surrender of Ashland and its appurtenances, I will say that I have advertised to see my Household furniture, stock, [etc.] on the 29th of July and I will give possession of the place and other property of the University on the day following.”  The sale of the Bowmans’ belongings took place at Ashland with about 2,000 people in attendance.

John and Mary Bowman—and, soon, the Kentucky A & M—left Ashland for good.

See also: Historic Homestead as College Campus and Clay Family Loses Ashland, University of Kentucky Predecessor Moves In.

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