Meet Henry Clay
Who was the Great Compromiser?Meet Henry Clay
Nothing describes the grounds of Ashland during Henry Clay’s lifetime better than quotes from Ashland visitors:
“Clay has … paid great attention to ornamenting his lands with beautiful shade trees, shrubs, flowers, and fruit orchards. From the road which passes his place on the northwest side, a carriage course leads up to the house, lined with locust, cypress, cedar, and other rare trees, and the rose jasmine and ivy were clustered about them… Mr. Clay’s mansion is nearly hidden from the road by the trees surrounding it, and is as quiet and secluded, save to the throng of pilgrims continually pouring up there to greet its more than royal possessor, as though it were in the wilderness.” – Nile’s National Register, 1845
“Leave Frankfort, and come through a district of fine land, very well watered, to Lexington… Had the good fortune to meet Mr. Clay, who carried us to his house, about a mile in the country. It is a beautiful residence, situated near the centre of a very fine farm, which is cleared and is coming into excellent cultivation.”
– From a journal made during a tour of the Western country by Thomas Hulme in 1828
Descriptions of the carriage road leading to the main house all have a similar theme: “serpentine” or a “curving avenue of tall pines and broad leafed Catalpas ” or “snaking its way to the mansion through a grove of cypress, locust, and cedar trees.”
Lord Morpeth, Earl of Carlisle, one of Ashland’s most distinguished visitors gave Clay’s efforts high marks, claiming that the woodland park at Ashland was “the nearest approach to an English park of any in this country.” And from The Country Magazine “From the front lawn (was) commanded a fine and extended view of the surrounding country, the domes and spires of the city standing out prominently against the sky.”
During the nineteenth century Ashland was a working farm and the activities of the service area had to do with storing, preserving and preparing food. The old farm road is still clearly visible by looking eastward along the garden wall and through a line of trees. One is still able to see the road bed where the horse and wagons brought in the crops.
The two children shown in the photo are between the cottage and smokehouse. The wooden shed (possibly the chicken house) is in line with the smokehouse. The farm slave quarters were probably located out this road, and the domestic slave quarters were located down the road which is now the driveway and across Fincastle Road. In addition to the present buildings, there would have been cheese, butter and chicken houses. There once was a large barn in this area.
In this photo (date unknown) the wooden platform is in line with the old farm road. The smokehouse is on the left.
According to an 1850 Census of Agriculture, Ashland had 39 horses, 19 asses, 33 cows, 2 oxen, 23 other cattle, and 130 swine. The livestock was valued at $20,000; produce – 700 bushels of wheat, 500 bushels of rye, 6,000 bushels of Indian corn, 1,000 bushels of oats, 3 bushels of peas, 20 bushels of potatoes, 200 pounds of butter.
There are references to Henry Clay walking the tan-bark paths while meditating the problems of our country and composing his famous speeches. The Henry Clay Walk consists of two large loops that encompass the rear lawn of the main house and the north lawn along Richmond Road. The Locust Walk is a section of the north lawn walkway near the house. The walk was described as serpentine with many large canopy trees with their delicate foliage interlacing overhead. Also adding to the color and beauty along the walk would have been smaller flowering trees such as the redbud and dogwood. The combination of Norway spruce and sugar maple along the walk is the most intact group of trees on the grounds that date from Henry Clay’s life time. Richmond Road, once owned by Henry Clay, was a turnpike with a toll house that provided some income for the family. It was later renamed “McDowell’s Speedway” in honor of Major Henry Clay McDowell.
The savanna plant community was one of the unusual features that early settlers found in central Kentucky. Savannas were ideally suited for pasture, but grazing livestock prevented the trees from regenerating. Only small remnants still exist in the Lexington area. The Clays cleared underbrush from their savanna pasture to improve the grazing quality and called the pasture a park. The two old blue ashes along Woodspoint Road are remnants of Clay’s park.
This drawing, “The Park,” illustrates the open woodland character of the savanna pastures at Ashland. The tree in the foreground is probably a blue ash.
The rear lawn was known as the social area. In fact, when Henry Clay rented his home in the 1820s while he was Secretary of State, he stipulated that animals were not to graze in the “Pleasure Area.” This was the area for lawn tennis, barbecues and parties. Nannette McDowell’s marriage to Dr. Thomas Bullock in 1892 was celebrated in a large temporary banquet hall in this area. The first electric lights were at Ashland for this much celebrated wedding reception of Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter.
The view across the rear lawn once looked into a savanna pasture that visitors described as a large area of parkland. During the time that the McDowells lived at Ashland (1883-1917) this view of the landscape persisted and can be seen in the photograph of the family on the lawn tennis court. Significant landscape features in this view include the plank fence at the east end of the lawn and the view into the savannah pasture beyond.
Who was the Great Compromiser?Meet Henry Clay
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