Reclaiming The Grandeur of Clay’s Estate

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1940s

Thirty years after Henry Clay’s death, after the ravages of time, war, and use by the state college had taken their toll on the 324-acre Ashland estate, granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell returned to the family’s hallowed grounds.  She and Major McDowell transformed Ashland, providing Clay’s old estate its new public face.  They believed that Ashland belonged to the public as a living memorial to Henry Clay.

Ashland’s front lawn, 1905

As with the house, the McDowells chose not to fix the grounds and farm in a former moment in time, as a replica of Clay’s.  They instead intended to capture the best of the spirit of the past and customize it for themselves and their times.  They also intended to evoke Clay’s memory at every turn.

They planted and replaced trees, hedges, vines, and flowers – beautifying the entire place.  The lawn was said to have looked like “emerald velvet.”  They made countless improvements to the Ashland grounds, so much that Elbert Hubbard, when visiting in 1898, observed, “…Ashland is probably in better condition today than when Henry Clay worked and planned, and superintended its fair acres.  The place has seen vicissitudes since the body of the man who gave it immortality lay in state here…”

Henry Clay Walk

Yet the McDowells never failed to emphasize to the press and public the connections between Ashland’s physical surroundings and Henry Clay.  Despite the myriad of McDowell improvements, alterations, and differences, the perceived resemblance between the McDowells’ and Henry Clay’s farms invariably became the focus of every published description.  The grounds and the farming operations were consistently described as a continuation of Henry Clay’s Ashland, in effect erasing from public memory the intervening decades.

Only months after the McDowells’ arrival, the estate was said to have been in impressive shape and dramatically evoking Clay’s memory.  A journalist described his 1883 visit to Ashland in the Philadelphia Times:

The capacious grounds are a forest of shade, variegated in type and threaded with walks and drives, and beautiful with shrubs and flowers.  It is a home worthy of Henry Clay, and that exhausts eulogy.  Colonel [sic] McDowell inherited Clay’s love for horses, and his stable would have delighted Clay…All that is about Ashland has the appearance of grandeur.  Its gently undulating fields…the high bred cattle grazing on the bluegrass coated lawns, and the primeval forests which freshen the fascinating landscape and stand as sentinels over the bountiful fields, all tell why the home of Henry Clay was to him the dearest spot of earth.

Dogwood and myrtle. From Country Homes, 1905

Another visitor believed that he was seeing the original Ashland:

…the general appearance of Ashland is unchanged…the walk of Mr. Clay, where he ‘thought up’ some of his most celebrated speeches; the dairy, where Mrs. Clay continued through half a hundred years to keep her milk and butter; the old pigeon house, the cottage, cabins, walks and trees, are still as they were in the days of the orator’s lifetime, and it is hoped will remain unchanged and undisturbed for many generations to come. (Lexington Daily Transcript, 15 May 1887.)

More than James and Susan, the McDowells viewed Ashland’s grounds—especially “Clay’s Walk”—as a precious and perpetual memorial to Henry Clay.  The Henry Clay Walk was a winding path, circumscribing the back lawn, that Clay was said to have frequently strolled while busy contemplating the issues of his time and planning his speeches.  The McDowells restored and publicized it, now the primary highlight of the Ashland grounds.  A 1934 visitor described this hallowed feature: “The whole place is delightfully redolent of the great man who was its founder.  His favorite promenade, a serpentine walk wandering beneath an avenue of pines and cedars, with here and there a redbud or dogwood, has been preserved intact.”

The walking path most of all provided a tangible link to Henry Clay because his feet had actually trod there.  It evoked a vision of lofty inspiration.  A writer for House and Garden magazine described what she saw in 1907: “The pathway of tan-bark, where Mr. Clay’s biographers love to picture him walking with bowed head deeply engrossed in affairs of state, is left intact.”

Unidentified person on Henry Clay Walk

The Walk was also highlighted when a writer for the Atlanta Constitution visited in June 1887.  She was treated to a tour of the house by “…[great-granddaughter] Miss Nannette McDowell, whom we found at home to do the honors of the mansion…‘I’m sorry to say,’ she said, as she showed us through the rooms, ‘that we haven’t many relics of Henry Clay to show you, as my aunt has most of them, but you can see how the house was arranged and,’ pointing out to the side, ‘that was his favorite walk.’”

By the McDowells’ time, Henry and Lucretia Clay’s kitchen and flower gardens had suffered neglect for decades and, in some cases, had been nearly obliterated during the nineteenth century.  But around the turn of the twentieth century, the McDowells sought to restore them.  Nannette told Alice Trabue in 1923 that her mother, Anne, had twenty years earlier revived Henry and Lucretia’s formal garden.  A 1939 visitor reported that “the interest of Mrs. Clay in her flower garden is not forgotten.”  But, although Nannette tried to keep up the garden after her mother, that original garden seems largely to have disappeared by the 1940s.

Major McDowell’s horse farm was frequently compared to Henry Clay’s.  But again, the McDowells had updated and focused the Ashland farm to fit their needs.  Instead of the great variety of blooded livestock of Clay’s original farm, the Major developed a first-class standardbred breeding establishment, concentrating his efforts on the trotting horse.  They renovated the large A & M mechanical building for use as “one of the most complete stables in the nation” with stalls and an indoor track for exercising their horses.  One visitor observed that this was where “100 splendid horses are housed, and tended like 100 royal people…”

Horse stable

The Major’s distinguished standardbred operation was seen as maintaining the legacy of Henry Clay’s estate:

Indeed it is believed that Mr. Clay intended that Ashland, though a great retreat for the man who preferred being right to president, should be a breeding establishment.  In any event from the time it was laid out up to the present, with the exception of the few years when owned by the Kentucky University, it has been used as such…It was here that until his death a year ago, Major H. C. McDowell, grandson-in-law of Mr. Clay, maintained the place’s reputation with a collection of stallions and brood mares that will make live for many years the glory of the nation’s greatest legislator…(R.E. Hughes and C.C. Ousley in  Kentucky the Beautiful, c1900).

Famous standardbred, Dictator, purchased by Major McDowell in 1883

The McDowells adapted the grounds in grand style to create the ‘good life’ at Ashland.  When tennis became the rage, they demonstrated their fashionable taste by installing two of the first tennis courts in Kentucky upon Henry Clay’s “pleasure lawn.” Major McDowell authorized the development of a golf course at Ashland, “on the grounds made sacred to Kentuckians as the home of Henry Clay,” to accommodate the Lexington Golf Club, of which he was a member.  Lorraine Seay later claimed that the open space had once been a bowling green.

While the McDowells played tennis, golfed, bred and raced horses, the public continued to come desiring only to breathe the hallowed air and walk the historic paths of Henry Clay’s estate.

Tennis on Ashland’s back lawn

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