While Ashland was for most of its history a family home, for 16 years it was owned by an academic institution: Kentucky University. K.U. was the brainchild of John Bryan Bowman, an educational visionary and son of one of Kentucky’s founding families.
Bowman sought to create an institution accessible to all who wanted higher education, one which would provide both an academic and utilitarian education. He wished to see subjects like agriculture and manufacturing taught alongside philosophy, religion, and history. Bowman started his institution at Bacon College in Harrodsburg and named it Kentucky University. In 1864, the school suffered a devastating fire and had to relocate. Bowman merged with the flagging Transylvania University in Lexington and moved his school there. In 1865 Bowman and the State of Kentucky agreed to partner to create a merged Kentucky University combining Bowman’s earlier school and the new land grant Agricultural and Mechanical College.
In 1866 John Bryan Bowman acquired Ashland and the adjoining Woodlands farm as the new Mechanical and Agricultural campus. By 1867 John Bryan Bowman had moved into Ashland as compensation for holding the position of Regent of the University, having refused a salary. In that same year, Bowman received a sizable donation from Pennsylvania lawnmower magnate C.Y.N. Yost in exchange for testing his new mower. This donation was used to build a mechanical arts building at Ashland with classrooms, labs, and manufacturing facilities.
Kentucky University would operate at Ashland for 12 years until 1878 when the rift between the state and the Disciples of Christ Church who jointly operated the University would grow too deep to heal and the institution split. The Disciples of Christ continued to operate Kentucky Unversity on their original campus downtown returning to the original Transylvania name in the early 20th century. The A & M college moved to the old fair grounds and became the State College and, ultimately, the University of Kentucky. Ashland was rented out from 1879 through 1882 and in 1883 became a family home again under the ownership of Henry Clay’s granddaughter, Anne Clay McDowell and her family.