Ashland event showcases little-known fact: 150 years ago, Henry Clay’s farm became the University of Kentucky’s first campus

September 22, 2015
The Mechanical Building at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky was located on the Ashland farm, about where Fincastle and Sycamore roads are now. The building was demolished for their construction in the 1920s. Photo Courtesy of UK Special Collections

The Mechanical Building at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky was located on the Ashland farm, about where Fincastle and Sycamore roads are now. The building was demolished for their construction in the 1920s. Photo Courtesy of UK Special Collections

 

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.

John Bryan Bowman Photo Courtesy of Transylvania University Library Speical Collections

John Bryan Bowman Photo Courtesy of Transylvania University Library Speical Collections

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.”


Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to Visitlex.com, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Kyhorsepark.com) or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information: Keeneland.com.

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information: Kybourbontrail.com.

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar: Bgcycling.net.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (lowerhowardscreek.org), Floracliff Nature Sanctuary (Floracliff.org) and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: Bluegrasswoodland.com or email campmeet@gmail.com.

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information: Venerabletrees.org.

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 


‘Diggers’ help discover real site of Ashland’s Civil War skirmish

September 24, 2013

130925Eblen-Ashland0005

“Ringy” Tim Saylor, left, and “King” George Wyant, right, hosts of the National Geographic Channel show Diggers, used metal detectors to search for artifacts at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Eric Brooks.

 

When Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, invited the public over last fall to mark the 150th anniversary of a Civil War skirmish there, curator Eric Brooks needed a convenient but inconsequential place to put portable toilets.

He didn’t want them near the mansion, historic outbuildings or gardens. And he didn’t think they should go near the corner of Woodspoint and Fincastle roads, where it was thought that Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry surprised a camp of sleeping Union soldiers on the morning of Oct. 18, 1862.

He found a nondescript spot for the toilets about 20 yards from a back corner of the mansion. “But we’re not going to do that this year,” he said about Saturday’s second annual Living History Event.

That’s because metal detectorists with the National Geographic Channel show Diggersmade a surprising discovery when they visited Ashland last spring to work with Brooks and archaeologist Kim McBride. The Union camp wasn’t where everyone thought it was. It was right where the portable toilets had been placed.

“The beginnings of protecting a resource are identifying where it’s located,” McBride said with a laugh. “Now that area will get the respect and special treatment it needs, and we can study it further.”

Ashland staffers and docents will be there Saturday, explaining how Morgan’s men used rifle and cannon fire to quickly subdue the Yankee camp. They also will show whatDiggers found there: a button, a rations tin, a knife, bullets, a mortar fragment and the brass handle from a cannon’s leveling mechanism.

Saturday’s event will focus on the war and the preceding Antebellum period, when Clay played the central role in stalling Southern secession.

“The bitter, brutal irony is that once he died, there was no one to keep that from happening,” Brooks said. “And the consequence of secession literally came to his back door. That’s a pretty amazing story.”

McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, has done occasional work at Ashland since 1989. She excavated former privies, finding a trove of broken china and crockery, and she recently checked for artifacts on the mansion’s north lawn so geothermal wells could go there.

McBride had never done any excavation related to the Civil War skirmish. So when producers forDiggers asked permission to explore the 17-acre grounds, she and Brooks saw an opportunity.

McBride set up a grid near Woodspoint and Fincastle, beside a stone monument erected decades ago to mark the skirmish. Diggers hosts George Wyant and Tim Saylor searched there but found nothing.

“We thought that was odd, and quite disappointing,” Brooks said.

Then he remembered an old book that a visitor had brought in a few weeks earlier. It was a history of the Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, the unit that set up camp at Ashland the day before the skirmish.

When Brooks read the book more closely, he found this passage: “Our camp was in a fine grove of native forest trees on the south side of the road, and a short distance east of the Clay mansion.” So Brooks, McBride and the Diggers hosts went to that side of the Ashland property and started finding artifacts.

Discovery of the camp’s true location helps explain a couple of old stories, Brooks said. One was that Union soldiers came to the mansion the evening before the skirmish because they heard piano playing. The other story was that Susan Clay, Henry’s daughter-in-law, held her 5-year-old son, Charles, on the floor because he kept wanting to look out the window at the battle.

“She was afraid he was going to get shot,” Brooks said. “And no wonder! The fighting was really close to the house. That’s a cool dimension to the story we didn’t have last year.”

There will be plenty to see and do Saturday. Civil War re-enactors will drill and fire cannon. Others in period dress will cook, do laundry and demonstrate farm work. Artisans will make and sell crafts.

Milward Funeral Directors, which handled Henry Clay’s burial in 1852, will have its old horse-drawn hearse there, along with the same type of metal coffin used to bury him.

And if visitors need toilets, they will find them on the north side of the mansion, where the geothermal wells will soon be dug. Brooks and McBride are pretty sure there’s nothing important under there.

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:

If you go

Ashland Living History Event

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 28

Where: Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.

Admission: $14 adults, $7 ages 17 and younger, $35 family rate.

Information: (859) 266-8581, Henryclay.org