The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation exists to promote the legacy of Henry Clay, to share his continued relevance locally and nationally as a great statesman, and to preserve his beloved “Ashland” as a testament to his life and his love of Kentucky and country.
The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation owns and operates the Ashland Estate today and is dedicated to preserving Henry Clay’s historic estate and important legacy for future generations. Governed by a diverse volunteer board of directors, the Foundation is working to ensure Ashland remains a vibrant and progressive National Historic Landmark and community resource.
The Story of the Foundation
In the years leading up to the formation of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation in 1926, Henry Clay’s great-grandchildren through his son Henry Jr., the McDowell siblings, were grappling with the question of the occupation and maintenance of Ashland—and now considering its inevitable sale. Only weeks before she died in 1920, youngest sister and national suffrage leader, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, wrote a letter to her brother stating that she and her husband Desha had considered moving to and managing Ashland, but after much deliberation, decided against it. Madge expressed their rationale: “We should not be willing to live there without the spending of considerable money.” The improvements needed on the estate were cost-prohibitive for them.
The family had by this time recognized that passing the estate into the private hands of a family member was impossible. Great-granddaughter Nannette McDowell Bullock, who was living at Ashland, determined that what remained of the estate should be protected from encroaching development. With the help of noted historian Judge Samuel M. Wilson, Nannette conceived of the establishment of Ashland as a historic house museum. They both believed that saving Ashland as a Clay memorial would “be of continuing service to those who revere the memory of the sage of Ashland…” and, Nannette believed, would be the best way to preserve the family legacy.
Nannette and son Henry
By 1942, five of the McDowell siblings had died, leaving Ashland resident Nannette as the sole living heir. In July 1948, she also died. A Lexington Herald-Leader article described the stipulations of her will: “Ashland, tree-lined estate where Henry Clay once lived, will become a perpetual memorial to the great statesman of early Kentucky if provisions of the will of Mrs. Nannette McDowell Bullock are carried out.” Nannette’s will expressed her fervent wishes for the estate: “I make this gift to said Memorial Foundation in the hope that…said foundation may be enabled to acquire, preserve and maintain Ashland and the grounds immediately surrounding it as a public park and perpetual memorial; and the gift is made in trust for that purpose…” In December 1949, the Foundation was finally able to purchase Ashland. President of the Foundation, Raymond McLain, wrote in 1950: “Without the sustained interest and generosity of both Mrs. Bullock and Judge Wilson, it would not have been possible to present this gracious home to the people of the nation as a reminder of the way of life of one of its most interesting, resourceful and valiant citizens.”
On April 12, 1950, Ashland was formally dedicated with much pomp and ceremony and opened to the public. U.S. Vice President Alben Barkley delivered the dedication speech.
In June 1950, the first Executive Secretary of the museum, Mrs. Lorraine Seay, was hired and would remain at Ashland until her retirement in 1986. In September of 1961, Ashland was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.