Monday, September 2, 2013

Saving Ridgeway

Over the years I have watched many historical places whither and die due to neglect, bureaucracy or perceived progress. Last year I was made aware of a local struggle to save a historic plantation in the heart of the Bluegrass. In fact, the more I learned about this house, the more I wanted to back the effort. Its historic value goes beyond Kentucky and reaches to the national level. Unfortunately, despite its addition to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, the closer we get to saving it, the harder the struggle becomes.

During the NGS Conference in Cincinnati I took a friend down to Cynthiana in Harrison County to see the house for the first time. He was one of the only known descendants of the house's builder: U.S. Congressman and War of 1812 veteran, Colonel William Brown. The house has been protected from demolition by a decade's worth of efforts from a few local angels. Over that decade, the land around the house has been beautifully re-developed into a community park. The Flat Run Veterans Park has provided much needed space for a farmers' market and several new sports fields for the local teams. Appropriately, the house stands as a beautiful sentinel at the top of the ridge, overlooking the entire park and Licking River valley. Absolutely one of the most beautiful views of the area that I have ever seen.
Built in 1817 (per a local tax increase seen in 1818), the home's builder was quite a historic gentleman. He was a noted local attorney and friend of Henry Clay. He served in the House of Representatives during the Missouri Compromise. His family connections became significant with is marriage to Harriette Warfield, the sister of Dr. Elisha Warfield - prominent Lexington Doctor who delivered Mary Todd Lincoln. This friendship with the Todd family would later influence many others known to the journey towards an end to slavery.
Ridgeway was built to be a large plantation worked by enslaved individuals. According to records, the Brown family enslaved almost 40 slaves, which was modest based on the size of acreage. By the late 1820s, something changed with the Colonel. He became unsettled with the concept of slavery. By 1830, with land grants in hand for the Illinois territory, due to his 1812 service, he made plans to relocate his family and slaves to Illinois as a means of freeing them. This process was not instantaneous. In 1831, the Colonel and his son-in-law relocated the majority of their slaves to Illinois, securing their freedom. A few slaves were left behind in Kentucky with the Colonel's son as they prepared to move the entire family to Illinois. Unfortunately, in 1832, tragedy struck. The Colonel became ill and died in Illinois.

Within the following decade, the Brown family had to recoup, but had not given up on their plan to move the entire family north. The Colonel's son, James N. Brown stayed for a few more years and tried to secure the beginnings of his new family - which resulted in the death of at least two children that we know of....their gravestones still exist, but have been vandalized and removed from their original resting place. The gravestones hope to be restored to their original location, or incorporated into a children's diversity garden in the back of the house - depending on the funding and plans approved. At the present, they lie in the foyer of Ridgeway.
Once the entire family finally made it to Illinois, they were already closely intertwined with the other Central Kentucky families that had relocated to the northern territory. Two such families were the Todd and Lincoln families. In fact, in the earliest years of the Brown's attempt to secure a future on their new farm, one of their first farmhands in Illinois, was a young Abraham Lincoln. This relationship only grew stronger as the years progressed. A few facts about this relationship:

James N. Brown: Son of Colonel Brown remained friends and colleagues with Lincoln throughout his lifetime. One of Lincoln's most important letters that explained his view on slavery was written to James. After Lincoln's death, James was chosen by Mary Todd Lincoln as one of the pallbearers in Springfield for the final journey of Lincoln's body.

Senator Orville Hickman Browning: Nephew of Colonel Brown and Cynthiana native. As an aspiring attorney, while still in Kentucky, he "read the law" with the Colonel at Ridgeway. Browning later became one of Lincoln's closest friends and advisers...later being appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Johnson. It was to Browning that Lincoln penned the famous line "to lose Kentucky is to lose the whole game." (1861)

After the Browns left Kentucky, the house had a long agricultural history. Slavery was once again a sad reality under the new owner, Dr. Joel C. Frazer. As a slave-holding Union supporter, he freely allowed the Union army to camp on the plantation just north of the river during the Civil War. As a critical area during the struggles with John Hunt Morgan in relation to the two Battles of Cynthiana, history has labeled the encampment as Camp Frazer.

After the Civil War, the house changed owners a few more times, all the while maintaining its strong agricultural heritage in the tobacco and horse industries. One of its last owners of the 19th century, William Handy raised competitive Trotter horses and was known nationally for their great quality. His work was so respected that the house later became known as The Handy House.

The structure itself has already been deemed structurally sound. The flooring throughout is comprised of thick Chestnut that blanketed the Eastern U.S. prior to a blight that wiped out this native resource. The carvings enhancing the stairs and mantle pieces are beautiful examples of period workmanship. Walking the house in this state was sad, but realizing the potential before our eyes reminded us of the importance of our efforts. The historic value in combination with the beautiful architectural elements makes this place special, and very worthy of salvation.

A New Future:
Our plans include re-vitalization, not period restoration. We would enhance and restore the period elements while incorporating some modern conveniences. With these improvements, Ridgeway would secure a new future as a much needed community center and ranger station to watch over the park. Unfortunately, misinformation has inspired a small local faction that is ever determined to get rid of the house - with intentions of building a swimming pool in its place. For the record, there is ample room next to the house where the barns once stood, plus, there is no funding available for any pool construction once the house was demolished. As an added deterrent, federal assistance would be blocked for further improvements to the park if the town decided to demolish a federally recognized structure as Ridgeway was declared in 2005.
And then there are the nearby graves...
Regardless of intention regarding need for a local pool, there is also the matter of two nearby cemeteries. Some of the families that resided at Ridgeway over the decades, both free and enslaved are buried somewhere near the house. Unfortunately, this does not seem to impress upon the local opposition, despite the legal implications of digging up a couple of cemeteries.
How you can help:
We are so close....the city has given us a temporary lease to make improvements on the property for the purpose of converting into a community center. Of course, major funding is being sought to complete the work. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000. Many local folks have worked for over a decade to get this far, but time is running out. If we do not secure funding to begin improvements soon, the city will take the lease away, and the house will be disposed of in short order. Please consider donating any small amount to help with the effort! Tax-deductible donations can be made through the site.
We would also love some additional support via our Facebook page: Friends of Ridgeway.
Thank you all for your support!
PR Chairman, Harrison County Heritage Council


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