Reminiscences: The Ice Storm of 2003


You can always count on wild weather in Central Kentucky, and local museums and historic homes take great precautions in defense against extreme conditions. For Curator and Site Manager Eric Brooks, last week’s ice storm brought to mind the Ice Storm of 2003; an event that permanently impacted the way that stories are told at Ashland about the legacy of Henry Clay and his family.

As the winter ice storm started last week, it brought back memories of the ice storm of 2003. Personally, I was without power for five days; I knew some who lost power for far longer. Ashland was closed for a full week and while it suffered extensive tree damage, it miraculously never lost power. As destructive as the whole situation was for the estate, it set in motion events that changed the course of history for Ashland and led the organization to where it is today.

That February in 2003 Henry Clay Simpson Jr., a descendent of Henry Clay through famed horsewoman Josephine Russell Erwin Clay, was in town visiting his mother when the ice storm stranded him at her home. Having little else to do, Clay picked up his third great-grandmother Josephine’s scrapbook and began to read.

After discovering items like a thank you letter from Abraham Lincoln to John M. Clay, Henry Clay’s son and Josephine’s second husband, and the pass issued by Ulysses S. Grant to Josephine to get her through Union lines after her first husband died at the Battle of Vicksburg, Clay Simpson was convinced there was a story to be told.

Several months later, on a return visit to Lexington, Clay and his brother Wood came to Ashland to propose an exhibit on Josephine Russell Erwin Clay. Ashland did not have the space or resources to mount a large exhibit, so the organization collaborated with the International Museum of the Horse, which hosted the exhibition. That exhibit became the largest ever done on Henry Clay and his family and brought to the fore many artifacts never seen before.

After that exhibit, many of those artifacts came to Ashland and became cornerstones of our current interpretation and exhibition. These items also enabled Ashland to reinterpret the house and completely reimagine the Billiard Room where the story of the Clays and the horse industry is told. In short, the ice storm of 2003 changed the very nature of the estate and set Ashland on a path that paved the way to more fully interpreting the legacy of Henry Clay and his family. Sometimes great opportunity can be found in great difficulty.

Photo credit: Wendy Bright


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