Ashland the Private Home Overrun By Curious Tourists

YOU ARE HERE -> 1920s

After her parents’ deaths, Nannette McDowell Bullock was the next descendant to take on the yoke of hospitality at Ashland.  Yet by the dawn of the twentieth century the number of people coming to see Henry Clay’s famous estate escalated and great-granddaughter Nannette struggled to cope.

The automobile revolution between 1912 and 1928 bolstered tourism and journeys to historic shrines—a great proportion directed at the homes of American heroes like Henry Clay—achieved maximum popularity in the 1930s. With the advent of better roads and routes, the motoring public was discovering Kentucky, too…and Ashland was definitely on the tourist map.   The private McDowell home became a tourist magnet.

1903 postcard. “Drove through these grounds this afternoon. It is a grand old place.”

Since Henry Clay’s time, Ashland had naturally been one of the top Lexington and Kentucky attractions and although it had not been promoted for tourism purposes, frequent mentions in the press and word-of-mouth had long brought the crowds to Ashland.  Henry Clay and his famous home had literally put and kept Lexington ‘on the map.’

But by the twentieth century (still privately owned and occupied) Ashland WAS being actively promoted and rather blatantly advertised in tourism literature as a ‘must-see’ site and chief point of interest in Kentucky.  Local historian Samuel Wilson said that no other place could surpass Ashland’s preeminence in the “affection or admiration of tourists, visitors, or prominent guests of our city…”

Although Nannette was perhaps not as outgoing and sociable as her father Major McDowell, or her great-grandfather Henry Clay, Ashland for a time remained unreservedly accessible to the public while she lived there.

But the burden of opening her home to tourists grew heavier, the crowds at times an unwieldy imposition to her.  Finally Nannette realized that she had to restrict access to the house.

A writer of the time, Clarence P. Wolfe, described the situation: “…the family occupying this famous homestead has in a measure lived in seclusion to avoid the demands of the tourists that once flocked to the home, curious to see the home of a great man.  So great was this demand that the occupants knew no rest or peace and finally the public was denied admittance…”

When Nannette began to limit the public’s visits, tourists were truly surprised that they could not gain entry to the mansion.  A 1935 newspaper article described the disappointment of the “hundreds who want to see the house every week…at all hours of the day…”  This was the first time in Ashland’s history that an occupant is known to have cut off the public’s access to the house.

But the volume of visitors coming to Nannette’s door was unknown to her ancestors.  The Lexington Leader announced in 1938 that Ashland was no longer open to all: “The home today is occupied by descendants of Mr. Clay and is not open to the public, although visitors are permitted to inspect the grounds.”  Knowing no “rest or peace,” Nannette and her son Henry Bullock definitively drew the public-private line.

But, while Nannette could no longer allow the random and unabated flow of visitors, in more controlled circumstances she extended Ashland’s traditional hospitality to the public.  She supervised the major festivities of 1927 in honor of the 150th anniversary of Henry Clay’s birth (photo above).  After the ceremony on the back lawn, the house was opened for public viewing and several hundred people toured the house.


Major McDowell had been the magnanimous host, responding to Clay admirers, pilgrims, and tourists, and, with him, the public and private realms at Ashland existed seemingly harmoniously.  Guests from around the world – such as the Venezuelan delegation (photo above) – regularly descended upon Ashland.  Major and Anne McDowell, with the help of many family members and employees, were able to accommodate them.

But during the twentieth century public and private interests grew increasingly at odds.  Instead of continuing the tradition of unrestricted hospitality, Nannette drew the line.  She became Ashland’s guardian, for the first time protecting Ashland from the public…for what she came to believe would be the ultimate good of the public.

Nannette and her son Henry at Ashland, c1915.

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