Ashland event showcases little-known fact: 150 years ago, Henry Clay’s farm became the University of Kentucky’s first campus
The Ashland estate was more than the home of statesman Henry Clay. A century and a half ago, it became the first campus of the University of Kentucky.
That little-known chapter of history is among the things being showcased Saturday at Ashland’s annual Living History Event.
Artifacts from the university years are on display through Dec. 31. Saturday’s event will include Civil War re-enactors firing antique rifles and cannon, tours of the mansion, costumed actors, farm animals and period crafts.
Transylvania University was the first state-supported college, having been started in the 1780s when Kentucky was still Virginia. But state support of higher education in Kentucky has always been erratic. After a flowering in the 1820s, during which Transylvania became one of America’s best universities, it fell into decline.
After the Civil War, Transylvania was reconstituted as part of Kentucky University and a new sister institution, the Agricultural and Mechanical College, created by the federal Land-Grant College Act of 1862.
The force behind Kentucky University and the A&M college was John Bryan Bowman, the grandson of pioneer Abraham Bowman, for whom Bowman’s Mill Road in southern Fayette County is named.
“He was quite a visionary,” said Ashland Curator Eric Brooks. “He wanted to make education more egalitarian, accessible to a much larger spectrum of the population. He wanted it to encompass very academic subjects, but also to include business, agriculture and what he called the mechanical arts and we now call engineering.”
A decade before Clay’s death in 1852, Bowman studied law under him. Perhaps that is why, when searching for a campus for the new college in 1866, Bowman bought Ashland and an adjoining Clay family estate, The Woodlands. The 433 acres cost $130,000.
“He chose Ashland specifically because it was Henry Clay’s farm,” Brooks said. “It was the most recognizable piece of property around and he knew it would have instant credibility.”
As regent, Bowman and his wife lived in the Ashland mansion, which also served as the college administration building. He created a small natural history museum there, and some of the artifacts have been returned for this exhibit.
The Woodlands mansion, which stood about where the Woodland Park swimming pool is now, housed agricultural classrooms. Engineering classrooms and labs were in an imposing new building, which was constructed at what is now the corner of Fincastle and Sycamore roads.
The Mechanical Hall was built in 1868 with a $25,000 gift from G.Y.N. Yost, a Pennsylvania lawn mower manufacturer.
The cottage that still stands beside Ashland was an early dormitory. Brooks said it housed 16 young men — all of the students were young men until 1880, when the first women were admitted — who raised their own livestock and vegetables and hired a cook to fix their meals.
Bowman’s long-term goal was to relocate the rest of Kentucky University from Transylvania’s campus north of Gratz Park to the Ashland-Woodlands property.
But the church-state politics that had always plagued Transylvania kept getting in the way. Although a state institution, Transylvania had a long history of church affiliation, first with the Presbyterians and then the Disciples of Christ.
Amid these tensions, Bowman was fired in 1878 and the A&M college separated from Kentucky University. James K. Patterson was appointed college president, a job he held until 1910.
Worried that the college might move elsewhere in the state, Lexington donated its Maxwell Springs fairgrounds as a new campus. UK has been there ever since.
Kentucky University reverted to private, church-affiliated ownership and changed its name back to Transylvania in 1908. The A&M college, also called State College, officially became the University of Kentucky in 1916.
The Woodlands estate became a city park and surrounding subdivisions. Ashland was rented to tenant farmers until Clay’s grandson-in-law, Henry Clay McDowell, bought and renovated the property.
Most of the Ashland estate was subdivided in the 1920s into the Ashland and Ashland Park neighborhoods. The 17 acres that remained around the mansion went to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, which since 1950 has operated the house museum and park-like grounds.
The main artifact from Ashland’s college years, the Mechanical Hall, was demolished when subdivision streets were cut through in the early 1920s.
“It was an incredible structure,” Brooks said. “I wish we still had that.”