Editor’s note: this is the first article of a series highlighting buildings in Henry County on the National Historic Registry.
The history of the Smith house in New Castle intertwines with the historical thread of the county in such a manner it is impossible to exclude one from the other.
Thomas Smith built the Federal style house in 1818 at the age of 28. In the same year, congress approved a 13 red-and white-striped flag with 20 stars, Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Florida, engaged Native American and Spanish forces during the Seminole Wars, and New Castle incorporated just the year before in 1817. New Castle boasted 700 inhabitants, six taverns, nine dry goods stores and a seminary and female academy.
Thomas Smith known as the ‘Mercantile Prince of the West’ was born in 1790 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia. His father Nicholas Smith married Mary Jones and settled on 500 acres near New Castle. Smith inherited the farm from his father, but took an interest after his education in trading.
Smith reportedly worked for a store in Shelbyville before venturing out into his first business with a Capt. Searsy in Old Port William (present day Carrollton) at the junction of where the Kentucky River pours into the Ohio River. Smith reportedly returned to New Castle and entered into business with his brother William Smith and a Daniel Branin. Smith massed much of his wealth during this time, as the partners’ store became a depot for everything in demand. Smith reportedly rode on horseback to Baltimore to purchase large amounts of merchandise from sellers who came to use the term wholesale. One source stated Smith marked off large areas of goods in warehouses with chalk and purchased them at one lump price. Smith would ship goods via flatboat into Madison and Carrollton and then transport them by wagon to New Castle. During this prosperous time, Smith began construction of his home at 524 West Cross Main St.
The bricks for the house were prepared on site. The front entrance of the house is dramatically majestic with Ionic columns supporting its Greek style porch. The Smith house serves as a monument to 19th Century craftsmanship and history with features unique to the house still intact.
From the porch looking out to the street, the right hand corner column is fashioned differently than the rest. A woodworker carved a heart into the corner of its crown. The chair-rail trim in the western front parlor still has the original design of a beaded bottom with a pattern of grooved lines depicting Greek revival type swag. The curvilinear arcs of the design were popular of during the time of the house’s construction, which emulates the American Federal and Neo-classical designs.
According to one source, the semicircular winding staircase is made of ash and imported from neighboring Virginia. Trim designs ornament the steps with a scrolling vine design. A Palladian window, inspired by the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio’s design style which became fashionable again in America during the 1700 and 1800s, illuminates the top of the staircase with the original glass still in its arch. Each room with 12-foot ceilings and poplar rafters were heated with a fireplace. A mantle with the original latticework still exists in the house. The Smith House at one time was a hotel in 1866 and was called the Village Inn. Thomas Carpenter currently owns the home and it was put on the National Historic Registry in 1977.
Business and Prospect
Smith’s mercantile business grew to control a large portion of the market within the state. Smith bought crops, livestock and property. In 1837, Smith sold his mercantile business. According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century, Smith had accrued over half $500,000 before selling his business. Smith has also been described as the first millionaire in Henry County. During the expansion of his estate, Smith owned a large portion of the deeds and mortgages in Henry and surrounding counties. He reportedly repossessed land and mortgages to debtors at a reduced rate.
In 1847, Smith was elected to be the president of the Louisville and Lexington Railroad. If Gideon King can be historically credited with bringing the railroad through his farm and into Eminence, King should thank Smith for being the one who decided the railroad should come through Henry County and instead of Shelby. Smith is credited as an acting director in the Bank of Kentucky where his business house acted as a deposit bank for the county and surrounding area.
Thomas Smith married Harriet Owen, daughter of Henry Countian Col. Abram Owens, a veteran of the War of 1812. The couple had seven children. One son, Thomas Smith Jr., is credited with uniting two Baptist factions in Louisville and founded the existing Walnut Street Baptist Church. Clark O. Smith, one of Smith’s three sons, became a respected businessman in Louisville.
Smith died from cholera in August 1850 at the age of 60. Smith willed equal amounts of his estate to his seven children and the home to his wife Harriet. Smith is described as a philanthropist and contributing member of his community. One of the greatest insights to his character can be found in his will, composed one month before his death. Smith writes in regards to the remaining slaves in his household, “…Black Allen, Old Lucy, and Hannah to be free whenever they chose with $50 per year as long as they live.”
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