Between Henry Clay’s first acquisition of property in 1804 and the development of the neighborhood in the early 20th century, the ownership of any part of his estate left family hands only once. When James B. Clay died in 1864, his wife was unable to afford to remain at Ashland and was emotionally unable to as well. She sold the property to John Bryan Bowman as a campus for the Kentucky University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.
This institution was a joint venture combining the state land grant college and a traditional academic college run by the Disciples of Christ. Bowman’s vision was for it to become the centerpiece of the community and serve both the students and residents.
The Ashland property was the mechanical, or engineering, campus. Bowman, with funds donated by a Pennsylvania lawn mower manufacturer, had a mechanical building built with labs, demonstration spaces, and manufacturing area.
Bowman’s only compensation as President of KU A&M was residence in the Ashland mansion. He also ran the college from offices there and had classrooms as well.
Perhaps Bowman’s most amazing accomplishment was the establishment of a Museum of Natural History in the mansion.
The College operated as KU A&M from 1866 to 1878. Sadly, the state and Disciples of Christ always had different goals for museum and eventually they split, leaving Bowman without a job.
KU rented the property for four years to tenant farmers and in 1882 sold it to Major Henry Clay McDowell and his wife, Henry Clay’s granddaughter, Anne.
The Museum of Natural History was a truly remarkable institution. John Bryan Bowman wanted to expose his students and the community to the widest possible array of items representing the world and all that was in it. It included archaeological artifact, cultural objects, biological specimens, and even a small zoo. Bowman collected from the community and involved the students in the process. He also connected the museum to other institutions, even arranging a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution to collect specimens from their expeditions around the world. Bowman hired several professional staff and detailed records were kept of the collections as they grew. The long-term plan was to build a museum building to house it at Ashland.
Sadly, the dissolution of the college in 1878 ended the museum as well. Had things gone differently, it might today be similar to the Kentucky Science Center in Louisville which started about the same time in a similar way.