Kentucky’s ‘paradise lost’ estate for sale for first time in 131 years.

November 3, 2015
David Meade built the octagonal parlor at right at Chaumiere des Prairies about 1823. The rest of his house was a collection of log cabins, now long gone. The Greek Revival house now to the parlor's side was built by a subsequent owner in 1840. Photos by Tom Eblen

David Meade built the octagonal parlor at right at Chaumiere des Prairies about 1823. The rest of his house was a collection of log cabins, now long gone. The Greek Revival house now to the parlor’s side was built by a subsequent owner in 1840. Photos by Tom Eblen


NICHOLASVILLE — A pioneer estate whose elaborate gardens attracted three U.S. presidents and virtually every other notable person who passed through the Bluegrass two centuries ago is for sale for the first time in 131 years.

Chaumiere des Prairies, 1439 Catnip Hill Road, which includes an antebellum mansion and 169 acres of farmland that once included the 40-acre gardens, will be sold to the highest bidder at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 14. If Wilson Auction Co. can’t sell the entire estate, the house and five acres will be offered separately from 164 acres of land.

Margaret Steele Rash’s grandfather bought the place in 1884 to celebrate her mother’s birth. Rash lived there for 40 years, until she died in 2013 at age 95. Her son, Lloyd McMillan, is moving to South Carolina and decided it was time to sell.

“It’s a real treasure,” McMillan said. “It’s my wife’s and my hope that there’s somebody who falls in love with this place as much as my mom did.”

Lloyd McMillan is selling Chaumiere des Prairies, a famous antebellum estate that has been in his family since 1884. The estate's builder, David Meade, entertained three U.S. presidents and many other notables there. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Lloyd McMillan

The Greek Revival mansion, built about 1840, has stellar craftsmanship. But what makes Chaumiere special is an adjoining eight-sided parlor with a 16-foot ceiling. It was built about 1823 in anticipation of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Kentucky in 1825.

The parlor is the last remnant of early Kentucky’s version of “paradise lost.”

David Meade was born in 1744 to a wealthy Virginia family and was educated in England. A patriot, he helped finance the American Revolution. In 1795, he decided to sell his 600-acre Maycox plantation along Virginia’s James River, where for 22 years he had dabbled in English-style garden design.

Meade sent the eldest of his nine children, also named David, to Kentucky, where he bought 330 acres in what is now northern Jessamine County. The elder Meade, his wife, Sarah, and the rest of their family arrived the next year with 40 slaves and 50 wagons of possessions.

Meade had a log house built on his new estate, which he called La Chaumière des Prairies (or La Chaumière du Prairie), which roughly translates from French as “little house on the prairie.” (The accent mark has since been lost to history.)

By 1806, the house had grown into a cluster of log rooms connected by hallways. The heart of the home was a large, square dining room for guests. Meade was a man of leisure, always ready to entertain.

Under Meade’s direction, his slaves created the elaborate gardens. The Rev. Horace Holley, who left Boston for Lexington in 1818 to transform Transylvania into one of the nation’s best universities, described them in a letter:

“His house consists of a cluster of buildings in front of which spreads a beautiful sloping lawn, smooth as velvet,” Holley wrote. “From his walks diverge in various directions forming vistas terminated by picturesque objects. Seats, verdant banks, alcoves and a Chinese temple are all interspersed at convenient distances. The lake over which presides a Grecian temple, that you might imagine to be the home of water nymphs, has in it a small island which communicates with the shore by a white bridge of one arch. The whole park is surrounded by a low, rustic stone fence almost hidden by roses and a honey-suckle, now in full flower. … There is no establishment like this in our country.”

In addition to frequent local guests including Holley and statesman Henry Clay, Meade hosted Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor. When former Vice President Aaron Burr was on his way to Virginia to stand trial for treason in 1807, he spent several days at Chaumiere. (Burr was acquitted of a charge of trying to separate Western from Atlantic states and create a new nation.)

David Meade died in 1829, a year after his wife. They were buried in the gardens. Their monument, destroyed by vandals, was replaced a decade ago by a descendant.

Meade’s children decided to sell Chaumiere at auction in 1832. When farmer William Robards won the bidding, distressed neighbors posted a sign proclaiming “paradise lost.” The sign infuriated Robards, who spitefully turned his livestock loose in the gardens until they were destroyed.

The only part of Meade’s house to survive was the octagonal brick parlor built for the French general, who apparently never saw it. A subsequent owner, Edward Carter, added the fine brick house to the parlor.

Recent open houses have been well attended, Nicholasville auctioneer Bobby Day Wilson said, and several out-of-town prospects have toured Chaumiere des Prairies and have expressed interest in restoring it to glory.

Perhaps “paradise lost” may yet be found again.

Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

The front hall of the Greek Revival house built in 1840.


Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

Outside detail of the circa 1823 octagonal parlor.


The octagonal parlor at Chaumiere des Prairie was built about 1823, reportedly in the hope that the Marquis de Lafayette would be entertained there when he visited Kentucky. Longtime resident Margaret Steele Rash bought the chandelier and mirror, which came from old Lexington homes. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Inside the octagonal parlor.


Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

A descendant helped restore the Meades’ cemetery in 2005, including new monuments.


Now a cattle field, the grounds around Chaumiere des Prairies were beautiful botanical gardens in the early 1800s that gained international fame. Decorative Greek and Chinese temples once stood beside the ponds. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Now a cattle field, the grounds around Chaumiere des Prairies were beautiful botanical gardens in the early 1800s that gained international fame

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.”

The fascinating story of Henry Clay’s ‘mad artist’ younger brother

December 27, 2014

Gigi LacerPorter Clay is thought to have made this games table in his Lexington shop in the early 1800s.  Henry Clay’s younger brother made excellent furniture, and charged high prices for it. Photo by Bill Roughen from the book, Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860.


Henry Clay has been famous for two centuries, but almost nobody remembers his younger brother, Porter, whom the statesman once described as “the greatest man I ever knew.”

Porter Clay, born two years after Henry in 1779, was a Baptist preacher and lawyer who served as Kentucky’s state auditor and Woodford County attorney. He also was a mercurial man who lacked the people skills that made his brother the “great compromiser” — and he paid dearly for it.

But his greatest achievement came in his first career, as one of early Kentucky’s best cabinetmakers. Several pieces of furniture he is thought to have made still survive, and they are attracting new attention from scholars and collectors.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., has just published a biographical essay about Porter Clay in its online journal ( It includes new research by the author, James Birchfield of Lexington, retired curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky Library’s Special Collections.

Birchfield will give a free lecture about him at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Antiques & Garden Show March 6-8 at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena.

And in 2016, the MESDA Journal will publish a companion article about his furniture by Mack Cox, a Madison County geologist who has become a leading scholar and collector of early Kentucky decorative arts.

PorterClay“I think he was very bright, a mad-artist kind of a guy,” Birchfield said of Porter Clay. “He was a superior craftsman, but he was always breaking up with everybody.”

Like his older brothers Henry and John, Porter was born in Hanover County, Va., to the Rev. John Clay, a Baptist minister jailed for preaching contrary to the colonial Church of England, and his wife, Elizabeth. He died in 1781, and Elizabeth remarried Henry Watkins. They moved to Kentucky in 1791 and ran a tavern in Versailles.

Henry stayed in Virginia to study law before moving to Kentucky in 1797. By that time, Porter was apprenticed to Lexington cabinetmaker Thomas Whitley. But a year before his seven-year indenture was finished, he ran away to New York, where he worked as a journeyman amid America’s best furniture craftsmen, who included Duncan Phyfe.

Porter Clay returned to Lexington a year later — his brother having negotiated a financial settlement with Whitley — and set up shop making furniture. Henry was one of his brother’s clients, and records show that not only was he charging prices higher than Phyfe was in New York, but he apparently didn’t give a family discount.

Porter Clay, like most Kentucky cabinetmakers then, did not sign his work, so identification of pieces has been based on style, provenance and available records. Henry loved to drink and gamble, and the furniture he ordered from his brother in 1803 included a pair of games tables, now thought to be in a private collection.

Porter’s first shop was in a house that still stands at the corner of Mill and Church streets. Three years later, in 1806, he built a new house and shop behind a bank on Main Street, beside what will soon become the 21C Museum Hotel.

In 1804, Porter married Sophia Grosh, a ward of the Hart family, Henry’s in-laws. Her sister married John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire who built what we now know as the Hunt-Morgan House museum.

With his craftsmanship and social connections, Porter should have been a successful businessman. He took on a partner, Robert Wilson, in 1807. But a year later, they split and Porter left cabinetmaking to become an entrepreneur.

He partnered with William Smith in 1808 in an ironworks and boat-building business. But they split up within three years, and Porter moved to Richmond, Va., to follow his brother’s path and study law. He returned two years later and practiced law in Nicholasville, Versailles and Lexington and served as Woodford County Attorney. Then Porter Clay got religion.

At the time of his conversion, he later wrote, “I determined to throw myself under the protection of my Heavenly Father and wait His good providence rather than make my thousands in an unholy calling.”

Porter Clay apparently reconciled the conflict, because in 1820 the governor (perhaps through his brother’s influence) appointed him state auditor at the then-handsome salary of $3,000.

But being both a state official and preacher brought him nothing but grief. When he audited a legislator who belonged to his church, they became embroiled in a bitter dispute. Porter Clay was excommunicated from his church in 1827. His people skills, Birchfield writes, were apparently “less polished than his sideboards and tea tables.”

In 1829, tragedy struck: death claimed Porter Clay’s wife, daughter, mother, step-father and eldest brother, John. He remarried six months after his wife’s death, but his new wife came with debts and a son who didn’t like him. Porter resigned as state auditor in 1834, and the family moved to Illinois.

Within five years, Birchfield writes, Porter Clay had become an outcast in his own home and he left for Missouri to stay with a relative. His brother then got him a job with the American Colonization Society, which urged masters to free their slaves and send them back to Africa, to a colony in Liberia.

By the 1840s, Porter was an itinerate Baptist preacher in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. He refused further help from his brother. Stricken by fever in Camden, Ark., he died Feb. 16, 1850 at age 71. He was buried in a grave unmarked for 60 years.

Porter “has gone, poor fellow,” Henry wrote his wife, Lucretia, when he heard the news. “He had but little to attach him to this life.”

Ashland estate marks War of 1812 with artifacts, re-enactors

September 23, 2014

If you hear cannon and musket fire near downtown Saturday, don’t be alarmed. The colorfully costumed soldiers and Native Americans aren’t invading Lexington; they’re just performing for Living History Day at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.

Ashland this year is marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. And, no, it’s not two years late. Among the many little-known facts of this often-overlooked war is that, while it began in June 1812, the fighting didn’t stop until February 1815.

Ashland is commemorating the Treaty of Ghent, which Clay, John Quincy Adams and other American representatives negotiated with the British and signed on Christmas Eve 1814.

ghentjacketAs the congressman from Central Kentucky and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Clay was a politician for all seasons. He not only helped end the War of 1812, he helped start it, too. That dual role helped launch one of the most illustrious American political careers of the 19th century.

But Clay was hardly the only Kentucky connection to the War of 1812.

“Kentucky doesn’t have any battlefields for this war; the war itself didn’t happen here,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “But more than any other conflict this nation has fought, the War of 1812 was a Kentucky war.”

Kentucky contributed 25,000 soldiers to the War of 1812 — more than all of the other 17 states combined. About 60 percent of the war’s casualties were Kentuckians. At the battle of Wild Cat Creek in northern Indiana, almost every U.S. soldier was from Hopkinsville.

Much of the gunpowder used by American forces was made from saltpeter mined in Kentucky, including at Mammoth Cave. Newport was the U.S. Army’s major supply depot. Twenty-two of Kentucky’s 120 counties are named for War of 1812 veterans.

In 1812, Clay and other “war hawks” pushed for declaring war on Great Britain, which despite its Revolutionary War loss continued to mess with the new nation. Of greatest concern was Britain’s arming of Native American tribes, who were attacking white settlers who had taken their land.

While the War of 1812 settled most of those issues, it ended up being a military stalemate that came at high cost: British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol.

“We as a state need to understand the role we played in solidifying this nation as a legitimate and survivable nation in the world,” Brooks said. “Prior to the War of 1812, there were a lot of countries that thought the United States was a flash in the pan, that democracy would never work.”

Saturday’s festivities at Ashland will include re-enactors from Ohio and Michigan portraying the 2nd Kentucky Militia. There also will be Native American re-enactors, who will demonstrate tomahawk throwing at their encampment on the 17 acres that remain of Clay’s 600-acre estate, most of which is now the Ashland Park and Chevy Chase neighborhoods.

There also will be farm animals, crafts, special activities and an actress portraying Charlotte Dupuy, a slave who filed a highly publicized lawsuit against Clay trying to win her family’s freedom.

Ashland has several important relics related to the War of 1812 that will be on display. They include a copy of the Treaty of Ghent in Clay’s own handwriting, his place card at the negotiating table and an ivory cane he received as a gift.

The mansion also has one of two paintings Clay won while playing cards with his fellow negotiators. (In addition to being a masterful politician, Clay was a party animal who loved to drink and gamble.)

Ashland’s most important War of 1812 relic is the military-style coat Clay wore during treaty negotiations in Ghent, which is now in Belgium. Clay’s coat set the style for American diplomatic attire for decades. It was last worn by a Clay descendant when Ashland opened to the public as a museum in 1950.

“That’s the last time it will be worn, too,” Brooks said. “If for no other reason than there are not a lot of 6-foot-2, 145-pound men around anymore. And, obviously, it’s very, very fragile.”

If you go

What: War of 1812 Living History Day

When: 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27

Where: Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Road.

Cost: $14 adults; $7 younger than 18; $35 family.

More information:, (859) 266-8581

Celebrate 250th birthday of architect who shaped early Kentucky

April 26, 2014

130826PopeVilla0046The main parlor rooms of Pope Villa, which has been owned by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation since a 1987 fire. Benjamin Latrobe designed the house for U.S. Sen. John Pope. It was finished in 1813 but drastically altered in the years since.  Center, an 1804 of Latrobe by Charles Wilson Peale. Bottom, the Pope Villa exterior.  Photos by Tom Eblen


Thursday marks the 250th birthday of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect of renown and a man who left a lasting impression on Kentucky.

Latrobe, who is best known for his work in the nation’s capitol, had eight Kentucky commissions between 1802 and 1817, six of which were in Lexington and five of which were built. His designs influenced many Kentucky architects and builders, including Gideon Shryock and John McMurtry, setting the tone for much of the state’s most iconic architecture.

Only one of Latrobe’s Kentucky buildings survives, but it is among his most significant: Pope Villa in Lexington. The house will be open for free tours Thursday evening as the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which is slowly working to restore it, throws a birthday party for Latrobe and marks the beginning of National Preservation Month.

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 to a British father and American mother. He came to America in 1796 and died in New Orleans in 1820 after an illustrious career. Early on, his neo-classical designs caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe’s work in Washington included the U.S. Capitol and White House porticos.

Patrick Snadon, a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Architecture and Interior Design, has studied Latrobe’s Kentucky work, which he detailed in a chapter of the 2012 book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

Most of Latrobe’s Kentucky projects were the result of his friendships with Rep. Henry Clay and Sen. John Pope. Snadon thinks Latrobe, the nation’s most avant-garde architect of the time, found the Kentuckians willing clients for his ideas.

140501Latrobe0002Latrobe’s first project in the state, in 1803, was the First Kentucky Bank in Lexington, on Main Street just east of Wrenn Alley. It was demolished before the Civil War.

In 1807, Latrobe was asked to design First Presbyterian Church, which then was on Broadway at Second Street, where Broadway Christian Church now stands. But by the time Latrobe’s detailed plans arrived, the church had already been built using a design that may or may not have followed his initial proposal. That building was demolished in 1857.

Latrobe designed three projects for Clay. The first was his Ashland mansion, 1811-1814. It was demolished after Clay’s death in 1852 and rebuilt on the same foundation by Clay’s son, James, and his architect, Thomas Lewinski.

Clay’s influence led to Latrobe being asked in 1812 to design the Transylvania University building in what is now Gratz Park. But his plan was too big and costly, so trustees hired Lexington architect Matthew Kennedy instead. That building burned in 1829 and Transylvania moved north to its current location.

Clay asked Latrobe in 1813 to design several townhouses, shops and tenements for property he owned at the northwest corner of Short and Market Streets. Parlay Social and Dudley’s on Short are now located in late 1800s buildings there that replaced Latrobe’s structures.

140501Latrobe0001Latrobe asked to design Kentucky’s second state capitol when the first one burned in 1813. But when another project kept him from traveling to Kentucky, that job, too, went to Kennedy. Pope asked Latrobe in 1817 to design an armory for Frankfort, but it was never built.

Also in 1817, Latrobe designed a house in Newport for Gen. James Taylor. It was completed in 1819, but burned in 1842.

Pope Villa is perhaps the most significant house Latrobe designed. That is because Pope and his wife, Eliza, gave the architect freedom to express his radical ideas for what a “rational” American house should look like.

“Altogether, the Pope Villa is theoretically and spatially the most sophisticated house designed in federal-period America,” Snadon wrote.

Pope Villa was a perfect square with service rooms on the first floor and main rooms on the second floor, which had a domed center rotunda with a skylight. It had full-length, three-panel windows upstairs that were widely copied in other Greek Revival houses in 1800s Kentucky.

When Pope wasn’t re-elected to the Senate in 1813, he and his wife sold their new house. Later owners did everything they could to obliterate Latrobe’s unique design. The remodeling included addition of a back wing and center hall, two then-common design elements that Latrobe hated.

Pope Villa was divided into apartments in the early 1900s. The Blue Grass Trust acquired the building in 1987 after a fire did considerable damage. Restoration according to Latrobe’s original drawings has been slow, both because of a lack of money and uncertainty about Pope Villa’s future use.

One idea at a brainstorming session last November was to use the reconstruction-in-progress interior as gallery space for contemporary art. An initial installation is planned this fall by the Lexington Art League. Details are still being worked out.

“It’s going to be the first foray into the next step for the Pope Villa.” said Sheila Ferrell, the Trust’s executive director.

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

September 24, 2013


“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,

Ashland marks 150th anniversary of Lexington’s odd Civil War battle

September 25, 2012


Lexington played a central role in the lives of leaders on both sides of the Civil War. Union and Confederate troops each occupied the city. Yet, there was only one significant military engagement in Fayette County, and some aspects of it were almost comical.

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate will mark the 150th anniversary of that battle with four events during the next month.

The first is a Civil War “living history” day Saturday at the 17-acre estate, where most of the fighting occurred. A dozen re-enactors will drill, fire cannons and play period music, cook and quilt.  There will be special tours of the mansion and performances by actors portraying statesman Henry Clay, slave Lotty Dupuy and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman will perform in concert with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra on Sunday. The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation will award Perlman the Henry Clay Medallion.

The other events are a Civil War Ball on Oct. 13 at Christ Church Cathedral, where Clay worshiped, and a speakers panel Oct. 21 with historians James Klotter, Lindsey Apple, Kent Masterson Brown and UK textile professor Kim Spillman, who will talk about reenactors and their costumes.

Ashland isn’t trying to compete with larger Civil War re-enactments at Perryville and Richmond, the sites of more significant battles, said curator Eric Brooks.

“Our goal is to provide something that will help people understand what was going on in this community,” he said. “That was living life under occupation, living life in which you and your siblings might be on opposite sides.”

Before his death in 1852, Clay spent much of his career in Congress forging compromises over slavery to try to prevent the Civil War. But war came anyway, and it literally reached his family’s doorstep at dawn Oct. 18, 1862.

After the battle of Perryville, on Oct. 8, most Confederate forces began withdrawing to Tennessee. Morgan, a cavalry leader from Lexington, sought to protect their retreat by attacking Union troops camped behind Ashland.

Morgan had three units of troops as he crossed from Madison County into Fayette. They separated at Clay’s Ferry, with the two largest units and two pieces of artillery heading to Lexington via Richmond Road. Morgan and a smaller group went along the Kentucky River to Tates Creek Road.

Not sure of the way into town, Morgan and his brother-in-law Basil Duke knocked on a farmer’s door. Duke later wrote that, knowing many people along the river were union sympathizers, he introduced Morgan to the farmer as Frank Wolford, a well-known Union officer. It was cold and dark, and Morgan and many of his men probably were wearing blue overcoats taken from captured Union troops, said Brown, the historian.

“All the way to Lexington, this man is bad-mouthing Morgan — he ought to be shot, he’s nothing but a horse thief, on and on,” Brown said. As they get to about where Chevy Chase is now, Morgan realizes he is near Ashland and orders his men to prepare to attack.

“This guy suddenly realizes this is not a Union outfit,” Brown said. “The fellow asks, ‘Who are you?’ and Morgan says, ‘I’m John Hunt Morgan.’ The guy falls out of his saddle and starts pleading on his knees for Morgan not to kill him. The whole command breaks into laughter.”

Morgan freed the farmer, who rode home as fast as he could. The three Confederate units — about 1,800 men — surrounded and attacked the camp of 300 mostly sleeping Union soldiers behind Ashland near the corner of what is now Fincastle and Woodspoint roads. “The battle’s over in five minutes,” Brown said.

The Union soldiers were taken prisoner, as were more downtown at the Phoenix Hotel. A third group of Union troops barricaded themselves in the Fayette County Courthouse. When the Confederates brought in their artillery, “the mayor comes running, pleading with them not to blow up his courthouse,” Brown said. “He helped plead with the Union cavalry to surrender.”

Four Union solders were killed and about 20 wounded that day. The extent of Confederate casualties is unknown, with one prominent exception: Maj. George Washington Morgan, a second cousin to John Hunt Morgan, was severely wounded. Susan Clay, Henry Clay’s daughter-in-law, offered her wagon to take him to his family’s home, the Hunt Morgan House on Mill Street.

After lingering several days, Morgan asked to be propped up in a chair and given a glass of bourbon and a cigar, Brooks said, “and he would then show them how a Morgan man dies, which he did.”

If you go

Civil War Living History: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 29, Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd. $10 adults, $5 ages 17 and younger.

Itzhak Perlman: In concert with University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, 7 p.m. Sept. 30, Singletary Center, 405 Rose St. $65-$85. (859) 257-4929 or

Civil War Ball: 7-10 p.m. Oct. 13, Christ Church Cathedral, 166 Market St. $20. Formal or period attire. Reservations required: (859) 266-8581, Ext. 204, or

Civil War Speakers Panel: 7-9 p.m. Oct. 21, Transylvania University Haggin Auditorium. Free.

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A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012


I first became fascinated with Civil War history as a boy in the 1960s, soon after the centennial celebration.

Many of the books I found in the Lexington Public Library — then located in the Carnegie building in Gratz Park — made that history seem remote. They told of epic battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They showed pictures of Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond — the one in Virginia, not the one down the road.

I had no idea then how much Civil War history lay just beyond those library walls.

America is now in the midst of a more nuanced commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. There is less focus on gallant cavaliers and more reflection on the causes and legacies of that terrible, transformative war.

That makes this the perfect time to take a short history walk through downtown Lexington. There are no forts or battlefields to see. But it would be hard to find another few blocks of American soil so intimately associated with the Civil War’s key political figures, central issue and deep divisions.

Begin your walk in Gratz Park at the James Lane Allen fountain. This is where Transylvania’s main building stood in the 1820s when Jefferson Davis was a student. After a couple of years, Davis transferred to West Point. He later became a U.S. senator from Mississippi and the only president of the Confederate States of America.

Transylvania’s main building burned in 1829. Years later, former student Cassius M. Clay revealed that the mysterious fire was started by his slave, who fell asleep with a candle burning while polishing his master’s shoes. Clay, the son of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, became one of slavery’s most outspoken critics. In the 1840s, he published an abolitionist newspaper, The True American, from an office on Mill Street near the corner of Main.

Walk through Gratz Park to the corner of Market and Second streets. There is the Bodley-Bullock House, an 1814 mansion that served alternately as Union and Confederate headquarters when each army occupied Lexington during the Civil War.

Walk across the park to another 1814 mansion, at the corner of Second and Mill streets. It was the home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” It is now a museum owned the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hours and information:

Before proceeding on Second Street, look down Mill Street toward First Presbyterian Church. It surrounds a small brick building that was the law office of Henry Clay, America’s most influential politician of the early 19th century.

Clay negotiated political compromises over the expansion of slavery that delayed the Civil War for nearly four decades. (Learn more about Clay at his Ashland estate:

At the corner of Second and Broadway, you will see a parking lot that was the site of Transylvania University’s renowned medical school, which closed in 1857. The building burned in 1863 while being used as a Union Army hospital.

Look down Second Street and you will see a marker outside the last home of John C. Breckinridge, whose career illustrates how the Civil War divided the city and the nation. This Lexingtonian was the 14th vice president of the United States, then a presidential candidate in 1860. When war came, Breckinridge sided with the South, becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war.

Walk down Broadway toward Short Street. You will see the Opera House, built in 1886. Before the Civil War, this was the site of a business operated by W.A. Pullum, one of the city’s many “negro dealers.” Lexington was one of the South’s biggest slave-trading centers.

Take a right on Short Street, past Saints Peter & Paul School and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and you will see a marker noting the birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Her grandmother, Eliza Parker, lived next door. Neither house remains.

Lincoln visited his wife’s family in the fall of 1847. The man who would later abolish slavery was then a freshman congressman from Illinois, just beginning to grapple with the issue. That visit to Lexington might have given Lincoln his most close-up look at the South’s “peculiar institution.”

From the Parker house, historian William Townsend wrote, Lincoln easily could have looked past the spiked fence into Pullum’s compound, which had rows of eight-foot-square slave “pens” and a whipping post.

Follow Short Street to Jefferson Street, turn left and cross Main. The Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in a restored home where the future first lady lived from 1832, when she was 13 years old, until she moved to Illinois in 1839. (Hours and information:

That’s a lot of Civil War history in less than a mile.

The Fountain of Youth, a gift to the city from the estate of the writer James Lane Allen, is on the north end of Gratz Park on the site of the original building of Transylvania University.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in that building in the 1820s before transferring to West Point.  Photos by Tom Eblen

A groundskeeper last week prepared for Transylvania University’s graduation. In the foreground is Gratz Park, the former site of Transylvania’s main building, where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in the 1820s.



The Bodley-Bullock House, built in 1814, served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate armies when control of Lexington changed hands during the Civil War. The house is across Gratz Park from Hopemont, home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Hopemont, built in 1814, was the home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a notorious cavalry raider.

Hopemont was saved from demolition by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in 1855 and is now a museum.

Transylvania University’s Medical Hall stood where this parking lot is now at the corner of Broadway and Second streets. The building was being used as a Union Army hospital during the Civil War when it burned in 1863.

The Lexington Opera House, built in 1886, on Broadway just north of Short Street, stands on the site that in the 1840s was Pullum’s slave jail. Abraham Lincoln’s closest personal exposure to slavery may have been seeing Pullums while visiting his wife’s grandmother, who lived on Short Street adjacent to the jail.

A plaque noting Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace stands outside her former home on Short Street. The house in the background replaced an earlier one that was home to her grandmother, Eliza Parker.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House is where Abraham Lincoln’s wife lived from 1832, when she was 13, until 1839, when she moved to Illinois, where she met Lincoln. The house, originally built in 1806 as an inn, is now a museum.


Cutting spending shouldn’t shortchange investment

January 30, 2011

As I was watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on TV Tuesday night, I got a text message on my cell phone from Mayor Jim Gray: “Geez I think the prez is gonna start talking abt Henry Clay next!”

Obama had just been saying that, while huge deficits require some cuts in federal spending, the nation must renew its commitment to investing in the research and infrastructure needed to ensure long-term economic prosperity.

The president did not mention Clay, the U.S. senator, House Speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who lived from 1777 to 1852. But Gray had referred to him repeatedly a few hours earlier when he delivered a similar message in his first State of the Merged Government speech.

Gray said that while Lexington government must stop spending more than it takes in, the city still must find ways to make smart investments for the future.

“In order to make our city a center of economic innovation, we must keep growing our quality-of-life infrastructure,” Gray said, noting the city’s recent investments in downtown streets and sidewalks, rural land preservation, the arts and recreational trails.

He also called for a privately financed study to assess the costs and benefits of renovating and expanding Rupp Arena and the adjacent downtown convention center. Those facilities are important drivers of Lexington’s economy, and they must remain competitive, he said.

“Business men and women recognize there are times when we have to spend money to make money by investing in the brand,” Gray said.

Nobody embodied that economic truth more than Henry Clay.

Clay is best remembered as “the great compromiser” for his ability to cut deals with opposing political factions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was what he called the “American System.” That involved federal investment in roads, canals and other infrastructure to promote both economic development and national security.

Clay argued that public infrastructure was essential for American industry to compete with foreign imports, which then came from Britain rather than China. Then, as now, free-market extremists objected. Clay’s nemesis was Andrew Jackson, who if he were alive today would probably be trying to lead the Tea Party.

Their big showdown came when President Jackson vetoed federal funding for the road between Lexington and the Ohio River at Maysville — essentially what we now know as U.S. Highway 68. Clay said the road was important for interstate commerce in the growing West, but Jackson thought federal funding for it was unconstitutional. Over time, Clay’s beliefs prevailed. Had they not, the union would not likely have survived the Civil War.

In their zeal to slash most “government spending,” Tea Partiers also want to stop decades of public investment in infrastructure, education, social welfare, health care, the arts and quality of life. But where would American free enterprise be today without that investment?

How could businesses have prospered without roads, bridges, airports and public education — not to mention all of the federally funded basic medical research and that government project now known as the Internet?

Free markets are good. But if everything were left up to the ebb and flow of the marketplace, Americans would be less healthy, less educated and have far less economic opportunity.

The strong cities and nations of the future won’t get that way by private investment and individual effort alone. That is why, for example, China and other nations are investing billions in clean energy research and technology while many American companies prefer to fund political and public relations campaigns to deny both climate change and inevitable change.

Government taxing and spending is a delicate balance that must constantly be debated and adjusted. But just as excessive public debt and wasteful spending are bad for the economy, so is a failure to make sufficient public investments in the future.

People who call for simplistic solutions to complex problems put America’s economic future and national security at risk, as Clay recognized nearly two centuries ago.

History may not repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it sure does echo.

Henry Clay Center hopes to expand its reach, encouraging civil debate and beneficial compromise

January 25, 2011

The tone of American political discourse has been a little less nasty since a federal judge and five other people were shot and killed earlier this month during an assassination attempt on an Arizona congresswoman.

In a symbolic gesture of bipartisanship, some Democrats and Republicans in Congress planned to sit together during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, rather than scowl and hiss across the aisle.

This new civility might not last long. Still, the people behind the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship think it is an opportune time to promote the ideals Clay modeled nearly two centuries ago: diplomacy, civil debate and beneficial compromise.

“The time is right — long overdue, really — to have a more conciliatory dialogue,” said Robert Clay, the center’s co-chairman and owner of Three Chimneys Farm.

Clay also is a distant relative of the U.S. senator, House speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who was one of America’s most influential leaders in the first half of the 19th century. Henry Clay was known as “the great compromiser,” and his diplomacy helped to delay the Civil War for four decades.

The non-partisan Henry Clay Center was founded four years ago with a big-name board and an advisory committee that includes retired U.S. Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The center’s main accomplishment has been sponsoring three sessions of the Henry Clay Center Student Congress, a weeklong seminar in Lexington each June for 51 rising college seniors chosen from each state and the District of Columbia.

Bigger initiatives are planned, and the center’s board has hired a new executive director: Shaye Rabold, who spent four years as former Mayor Jim Newberry’s chief of staff after managing his campaign. Rabold, a Democrat, succeeds Carol Barr, whose husband, Andy, was U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler’s Republican challenger last November. The Barrs are expecting their first child.

“This mission is something I strongly believe in,” said Rabold, 32, a Bowling Green native with degrees in political science from Birmingham Southern College and public administration from the University of Kentucky.

“I think there is an opportunity for the Henry Clay Center to grow and expand its impact because these ideals can and should be translated into many aspects of life,” Rabold said. “People can look to Henry Clay as a model for leadership in politics, business and communities.”

Rabold’s first few months on the job will focus on organizing the annual Student Congress. The seminar is taught by nationally known speakers and professors at UK and Transylvania University under the direction of Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador who now heads UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

Clay and Rabold said the center hopes to expand its reach beyond the Student Congress by developing a high school curriculum and by partnering with like-minded foundations around the country. Long-range possibilities include hosting conferences in Lexington that bring together national leaders to constructively debate controversial public-policy issues.

Those ambitions will require a lot of work — and money. Fund-raising will be an important part of Rabold’s job, but she thinks people are ready to buy into the center’s mission.

“It’s about getting people to realize that we’re all more or less trying to get to the same place, even though we often disagree about how to get there,” she said. “A lot of people are in public service for the right reasons. It’s not just about ‘gotcha’ politics.”

Rabold said she still is recovering from a bruising re-election campaign, which saw Newberry turned out of office by the former vice mayor, Jim Gray. But she said she remains committed to public service and “making a difference, as cliché as that sounds.”

Rabold now works from the tiny brick cottage on North Mill Street that was Henry Clay’s law office from 1803 to 1810. The more she studies Clay, she said, the more she realizes how much people can learn from his career and his ideals.

She is reading David and Jeanne Heidler’s excellent new biography, Henry Clay: The Essential American. She said Gray gave it to her when they met recently to talk over coffee. “It was almost in the spirit of Henry Clay,” she said of the gift.

Books review: Where is today’s Henry Clay?

May 9, 2010

Henry Clay: The Essential American By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler.Random House. 595 pp. $30.

At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union By Robert V. Remini. Basic Books. 184 pp. $24.

During the first half of the 19th century, Congress was a lot like it is today: petty, partisan, ineffective and unpopular.

Perhaps that is why two good books have just been published about the man back then who was more successful than anyone else at getting Congress to work for the good of the country: Henry Clay.

Henry Clay: The Essential American is a full-length biography by historians David S. Heidler of Colorado State University-Pueblo and Jeanne T. Heidler of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union is by Robert V. Remini, historian of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is a look at Clay’s greatest achievement: the Compromise of 1850, which delayed the Civil War for a decade.

James Klotter, a history professor at Georgetown College and Kentucky’s state historian, agrees that renewed interest in Clay might have something to do with current events. Amid a bitter red-versus-blue political culture, many people long for statesmen who can forge constructive compromises for the good of the country.

We also are seeing a historical re-evaluation of Clay’s accomplishments and those of his archrival, Andrew Jackson, Klotter said. Clay is looking better when viewed through a modern lens, and Jackson is looking worse.

Klotter is working on his own book about Clay, the five-time presidential candidate who famously said he would “rather be right than president.” The book will be titled The Great Rejected: Henry Clay and the American Presidency.

The two Clay books published this month do what good general histories should: They put people and events into the context of their time and make them come alive in interesting, well-written narratives.

The Heidlers begin telling Clay’s life story by describing its end. When Clay died in 1852 at age 75, the magnitude of national mourning showed that he was one of the most revered men of his generation — presidency or no presidency.

Before being buried in Lexington, Clay’s funeral train made a long national tour, and he was the first person to ever lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. There were ceremonies memorializing Clay in countless towns around the country. At the one in Springfield, Ill., the keynote speaker was a young lawyer who always considered Clay his idol: Abraham Lincoln.

Clay was born in Hanover County, Va., to humble circumstances — although not nearly as humble as his campaign propaganda implied. He had only a modest formal education, but thanks to good penmanship, he became secretary to George Wythe, one of Virginia’s most important judges. That apprenticeship was a springboard to Clay’s legal career, and it gave him an opportunity to watch some of young America’s best lawyers in action, including Patrick Henry and John Marshall.

In 1797, Clay moved to Kentucky, where his mother and stepfather had come a few years earlier to run a tavern in Versailles. He quickly became one of Lexington’s most successful lawyers, thanks to an abundance of land disputes and debt-collection cases. He took on enough criminal cases to develop a reputation as the common man’s champion.

Socially and politically ambitious, Clay married Lucretia Hart, daughter of one of Lexington’s wealthiest men. She was a plain woman who hated celebrity and society as much as her husband loved it. But their marriage lasted 53 years and produced 11 children — six daughters, all of whom died before age 29, and five sons.

Clay rose quickly through Kentucky’s political ranks. After serving in the state General Assembly (where he tried unsuccessfully to move the capital from Frankfort to Lexington), he was twice appointed to fill unexpired terms in the U.S. Senate. He was then elected repeatedly to the U.S. House, where he transformed the speakership into a powerful position, and then to the Senate.

The secret to Clay’s success was his talent as an orator; he had a beautiful baritone voice. He also could be an arrogant braggart, which sometimes earned him enemies. He loved to party, and there are many stories about his drinking and gambling.

After leading the nation into the War of 1812, he was instrumental in negotiating its end — something a modern political opponent would probably attack as a “flip-flop.”

But Clay was enormously influential because of his ability to get things done by forging political compromises that allowed each side to give some and get some. Three times — in 1820, 1833 and 1850 — those compromises over slavery and taxes held the nation together. Without them, civil war surely would have come before Northern states had enough industrial might to prevent Southern secession.

Today, Republicans claim Clay and Democrats claim Jackson. But the party politics and issues of their day provide a good argument for reversing those roles. Clay generally favored supremacy of the national government over states’ rights. He argued for a national bank and federal investment in infrastructure, such as roads and ports. He believed in taxing imported goods to help build American industry.

Like many Americans of his wealth and station, he claimed to dislike slavery yet owned slaves. He favored gradual emancipation, with resettlement of former slaves in Africa. But he was willing to continue slavery if it would preserve what he considered most important: the union.

Despite his failings, Clay’s career serves as an example of how politicians can and should at times put aside ideology and political gamesmanship for the good of the country. These books tell that story quite well, and they make the reader wish today’s Congress had a Henry Clay or two among its members.

Channeling Henry Clay on today’s political mess

February 7, 2010

I don’t usually go out to the Lexington Cemetery this time of year; it’s much nicer in the spring or fall.

But I thought Henry might want to talk.

Henry Clay is remembered as one of America’s greatest statesmen. During the first half of the 19th century, he was a powerful speaker of the House, a senator of great influence, secretary of state and a frequent candidate for president.

As leader of what became the Republican party, he could be as partisan as anybody. But time after time, when the nation was in a jam, he put ideology and partisanship aside and convinced other politicians to do what was best for the country.

Clay became a model for diplomacy, conciliation and conflict resolution. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, which he helped start, and brokered compromises over taxes and slavery that delayed the Civil War three times.

Clay died in 1852. His tomb is at the Lexington Cemetery, and a marble statue of him stands atop a 120-foot column overlooking the city.

Whenever I drive by, I wonder what Clay would think of the institution he once led — a Congress that seems gridlocked by partisanship and perverted by special-interest money.

So I decided to stop and ask him.

“I have a pretty good view from up here,” Clay said when I asked if he follows current affairs. “And I catch wind of a lot of things.”

He didn’t want to discuss individuals, such as his successor, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “After all,” Clay said, “he’s the leader of my party, and he has sat at my old desk in the Senate chamber.”

Clay blamed both Republicans and Democrats for the sorry state of American governance. He also complained about ideologues who pressure the reasonable people on both sides, making it almost impossible for them to find middle ground.

“There are few principles so important that there can be no compromise,” Clay said. “For example, preservation of the Union.”

What about slavery?

“OK, you got me on that one,” he said. “In hindsight, I should have had the courage of cousin Cassius. Alas, every man is a product of his time.

“But my point is this,” he said, quickly changing the subject, “I always said we should govern with the spirit of brothers. Brothers will disagree, even fight. But when the family is threatened, they band together.

“I was right about a lot of things, such as trade protection to strengthen American industry and federal spending to build roads,” he said. “But I wasn’t right about everything. Nobody is. Leadership isn’t about always winning; it’s about figuring out what’s best for the nation. If the nation isn’t strong, none of the rest matters.”

That may be good leadership, but is it good politics?

“Of course not,” Clay said. “I famously said that I would rather be right than president. Well, I ran for president five times and was never elected. I’ll tell you this, though: I’m more highly regarded now than some of the men who defeated me.”

I asked Clay what he thought of McConnell’s strategy of filibustering almost everything Democrats try to do in the Senate, and of House Democrats’ strategy of pushing through major legislation without even consulting Republicans.

“I told you I don’t want to discuss individuals,” he said. “But it’s no wonder that public opinion of both parties in Congress could hardly be lower. From a purely political standpoint, what will happen when the shoe is on the other foot? What will happen when the other party is in power? Or in the minority? Will revenge and pettiness never end?”

I asked Clay about all of the millions of dollars that corporations and other special interests spend on campaign contributions, attack ads and lobbying Congress. Does he think it perverts government?

“What do you think?” he replied. “Campaigns weren’t so expensive in my day. There was no television or talk radio. We just had newspapers, and they were vile enough.

“But it seems obvious,” he continued. “If wealthy and powerful interests are spending millions of dollars to make you wealthy and powerful, are you going to do what’s best for their interests or what’s best for the public interest? In my day we called it bribery.”

So you don’t think money is simply free speech?

“I told you,” Clay replied with a cold, marble stare, “I don’t want to discuss individuals.”

Lexington’s bones may return to Kentucky

March 14, 2009

Why did Central Kentucky become the center of thoroughbred breeding? One reason was Lexington — not the city, the horse.

Lexington was a big bay stallion, the best racer of his time and perhaps the best sire of all time. He was born here and spent most of his life here. But he has spent most of his death in storage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and, well, Kentucky wants him back.

Lengthy negotiations are about complete to put Lexington’s reconstructed skeleton on display at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“It looks pretty good right now,” said museum curator Bill Cooke, who is expecting a call any day from Smithsonian conservators who must release Lexington’s skeleton, officially known as Catalogue No. 16020.

The effort began more than two years ago when the horse museum became a Smithsonian associate, which allows it to borrow artifacts. “The first thing I said was we want to bring Lexington back to Lexington,” Cooke said.

“I’ve always wanted to have (an exhibit) that traces the history of the thoroughbred in Kentucky,” he said. “How did we get to be the thoroughbred capital instead of Nashville or New Orleans or New York? To a large extent, Lexington determined that we did.”

Borrowing horse bones — even famous horse bones — wouldn’t seem that complicated. But bureaucracy is bureaucracy.

At the time, Lexington was on rare public display as part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Then, that museum closed for lengthy renovations, and nobody seemed to know if Lexington would be needed when it reopened. Just a couple of months ago, officials decided he wouldn’t.

“They have been very supportive all the way along,” Cooke said of Smithsonian officials. “They believe in the project.”

The timing is good because on Tuesday — the horse Lexington’s 159th birthday — the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau will kick off a marketing campaign built around a famous painting of Lexington — with the great horse recolored Wildcat blue.

The horse-of-a-different-color idea is an eye-catching gimmick. But using the horse Lexington to promote the city Lexington is a natural, said Ellen Gregory, a public relations executive who helped develop the campaign.

Gregory said the more she researched the great horse the more obsessed she became with him, because he had connections to so many famous people and events.

Lexington was born in 1850 at the farm of Dr. Elisha Warfield, a prominent physician, horseman and entrepreneur who treated Mary Todd Lincoln’s mother, was a friend of Henry Clay and became known as “the father of the Kentucky turf.”

Lexington, originally named Darley, won six of his seven starts, becoming the third-leading money-winner up to that time. He was retired to stud in 1855 because he was going blind and stood for 20 years at Nantura and Woodburn farms near Midway.

As a stud, Lexington was taken out of Kentucky only twice — to St. Louis for an exhibition in 1859 and to Illinois for safe-keeping in 1865, when Confederates were raiding Kentucky horse farms.

Lexington was the nation’s leading sire for a record 16 years, and many of his offspring became top sires. The blind horse fathered 600 foals, more than 200 of whom became winners. His descendants included Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Another famous Lexington offspring was Cincinnati, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite horse. Grant rode Cincinnati to accept Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and let President Abraham Lincoln ride him several times.

Lexington was such a celebrity that people came to Woodburn Farm from all over the world just to see him. One was Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who later wrote that visiting the horse was like being “in the sacred presence of royalty.”

When Lexington died, the New York Times published a lengthy obituary. “He was probably more famous in his day than even Man O’ War and Secretariat were in their days,” Cooke said.

Smithsonian representatives came to Woodburn Farm on July 1, 1875, not knowing Lexington had died earlier in the day. A few months later, they arranged for his remains to be exhumed and shipped to Washington, where they have been ever since.

Once he gets the word, Cooke said he will raise the private money needed to move Lexington’s skeleton and build a special glass case for it. The Smithsonian generally makes such loans on a five-year renewing basis.

“Hopefully this is going to be a long-term deal,” Cooke said of Lexington’s homecoming. “As long as we’ve worked on it, it’s already a long-term deal.”

Bringing Henry Clay’s ideals to a new generation

July 26, 2008

To many people, Henry Clay is a slightly familiar name from the distant past. Wasn’t he a politician? Didn’t he live in Lexington?

But to the 51 rising university seniors from 50 states and the District of Columbia who head home Saturday after spending a week in Lexington, Clay is now much more. Their study of his legacy may help them change the world someday.

At least, that’s the goal of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship’s first Student Congress, which was held at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. The center was created last year by the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, which operates Clay’s Ashland estate on Sycamore Road.

Clay, who lived from 1777 to 1852, was one of America’s greatest statesmen. He represented Kentucky in the U.S. House and Senate, was speaker of the House and ran unsuccessfully for president several times.

Known as ”The Great Compromiser,“ he negotiated the treaty that ended the War of 1812 and engineered compromises in Congress that stalled the Civil War three times.

The center’s goal is to promote Clay’s ideals and skills of conflict resolution, conciliation and compromise in a nation and world that badly needs them.

”If you look at the world today and the polarization – red and blue – at home, we could certainly use more compromise and win-win conflict resolution skills,“ said advertising executive Bill Giles, who co-chairs the center with Thoroughbred breeder Robert N. Clay.

The effort – one of those big ideas that makes so much sense you wonder why somebody didn’t think of it sooner – was the brainchild of several Kentuckians. It has picked up heavyweight support, both locally and around the country. The national advisory committee is chaired by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, who before retirement was an influential U.S. senator from Kansas.

Eventually, the organization hopes to leverage Clay’s legacy into a Lexington-based center for international conflict resolution, perhaps playing a role similar to that of the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first step is the Student Congress, which will become an annual event.

”It’s extremely timely, especially when you listen over the past decade to the decline in the quality of the national and global debate,“ said D.G. Van Clief, the center’s president and a former president of the Breeders’ Cup. ”This is a terrific opportunity to build awareness of these skills in young people, skills they’ll need to be good executives, jurists and diplomats.“

Carey Cavanaugh, director of UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, spoke to students participating in the first Student Congress of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship this past week. Photo by Tom Eblen

Carey Cavanaugh, director of UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, spoke to students participating in the first Student Congress of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship this past week. Photos by Tom Eblen

The students were nominated by U.S. senators and university officials. They were an impressive and diverse group, men and women of all races and political persuasions. About 75 percent were political science majors and minors, and they came to Lexington with considerable experience. Many had studied overseas or worked in congressional or governor’s offices.

The students spent a couple of days studying Henry Clay, his ideals and how they relate to today’s world.

They visited Ashland and heard from Clay scholars. They visited Frankfort to discuss state and local governance, then turned their attention to international affairs and the importance of diplomacy and dialogue.

Kassebaum-Baker spoke Wednesday night after a dinner at Three Chimneys Farm, and O’Connor sent videotaped remarks.

Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and peace negotiator who directs UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy, led much of the program and lined up a strong group of speakers.

They included a United Nations official now negotiating a dispute in Asia; New York Times and MSNBC political reporter John Harwood; and Andreas Kakouris, Cyprus’ ambassador to the United States.

Carey Cavanaugh, director of UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, left, talks with Mindy Shannon Phelps, executive director of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, and D.G. Van Clief, the center's president.

Carey Cavanaugh, director of UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, left, talks with Mindy Shannon Phelps, executive director of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, and D.G. Van Clief, the center's president.

”In the past five days, it’s hard to think of a corner of the world we haven’t touched on in the discussions,“ Cavanaugh said. ”They had a number of people talk to them who are dealing with world problems that are happening right now. It has given the students perspectives they wouldn’t have gotten at their schools.“

Indeed, in Cavanaugh’s debriefing with the students Friday, they raved about the program – but weren’t shy about offering suggestions.

”I learned more this week about foreign policy than I learned all last semester in foreign policy class,“ said Elizabeth Edwards, a student at Catawba College in North Carolina who had spent a year interning for former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. ”I’ve never met so many people my age who are so smart and love our country so much.“

Alex Bachari, a Loyola University music major who is the Louisiana campaign coordinator for Students for Barack Obama, said he felt inspired and empowered by Clay’s legacy and the Student Congress.

”You guys expect us to lead the Free World in a positive way,“ Bachari said. ”After coming to this program, I feel like I can go out and do anything I want. And I know everybody here feels the same way.“

Sitting in the sessions and listening to this remarkable group of young people ask questions and discuss issues, I got the impression that many of them will be running our government, corporations and major institutions in a couple of decades. And that’s a good thing.

Henry Clay would certainly be proud.