One Tank Trip: Henry Clay’s Ashland

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By Brad Bowman

Henry Clay’s house Ashland stands as a bridge between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.


As a child, Clay witnessed British soldiers raid his house and grew up in slaveholding Hanover County, W.Va., in the same county as Patrick Henry where Henry County gets its name.

County residents can reach Ashland in an hour. It is 60 miles from Eminence to Lexington and takes less than half a tank of gas.

The Ashland house sits on 17 acres of land, with 40 different types of trees and can garner the interests of the political, historical or naturalists in your family.

“We offer many different tours depending on everyone’s interest,” said.Avery Malone, Director of Tour Operations, “If you are interested in the strong women of Ashland we can offer tours about Josephine, Madeline or  Lucretia (Hart Clay’s wife).

“We have garden tours, tree and leaf tours we have 40 different types of trees about 400 trees on 17 acres. It’s not a public park in its ownership, but people can come and use it like a public park and use the grounds for free. There is a lot of signage on the grounds and so much to learn out there while enjoying several hours in the natural setting without paying to take a tour.”

Using plans from Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the Federal Capitol, Clay built his home and called it Ashland for the large amount of ash trees on the property in 1804. Clay’s son James would buy the property and entirely rebuild the home from disrepair and incorporate Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian elements to the home as was the architectural fads of his son’s time after Clay’s death in 1852. 

“I think when people come to a historic house museum and take a tour they think that it is static. They think that that ink pen and well have been there for the past 250 years, but that’s not the case. (Eric Brooks Curator/Site Manager) changes out the exhibits. We have different clothes items that come out at different times of the years like Henry Clay’s waistcoat that he wore while signing the Treaty of Gent in 1814. This is a very dynamic experience.”

Even though it is on the National Historic Registry, Ashland receives no city, state or federal funding and relies on fundraising events. Henry Clay Memorial Foundation owns and operates the estate.

“We have events like Jazz on the Lawn, the Lawn Party in June, which is our biggest fundraiser,” said Christina Bell, Director of Development. “We try to get the message out that this isn’t a city park or funded federally. It is up to us as individuals in the city and state and country to support this 17-acre historic home which is quite substantial.”

Henry Clay, the ‘Great Compromiser’ served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Clay was Secretary of State and ran for the presidency three times.

Brooks, says it may have been for the best.

“Henry Clay shepherded this country from its founding until its greatest national crisis, The Civil War,” Brooks said. “He was nominated three times by his party and ran three times. Everyone at the time thought he would eventually win but he didn’t.

“He was one of the greatest legislators and that is probably where he belonged.”

Clay reportedly pressured President James Madison against the British, which started the War of 1812, earning him the reputation as a War Hawk. Clay drew up the Missouri Compromise, which involved Maine entering the union as a free state while Missouri entered as a slave state. He was against the annexation of Texas fearing slavery would enter into politics again.

Clay started as a clerk in chancery with little formal education. Clay came to Kentucky as a lawyer and a farmer.

Two Kentucky Derby winners, Gato Del Sol (1982) and Sonnys Halo (1983) can trace their pedigree to Ashland.

“His son John took over the thoroughbred business and John’s wife continued it into the 20th Century,” Brooks said. “The Clay family made Lexington a horse place.  The fore runner to Keeneland, The Association Track that was run by the Kentucky Association for the Improvement of Livestock, was supported by Henry Clay and later his descendants.”


For information about events, tours and everything at Ashland visit: www.henryclay.org or call (859) 266-8581.