Eight years ago I fulfilled a long-held dream to escape the communist state of California. Together with my husband Steve and grown son Kyle, we embarked on a new phase of our lives in the beautiful bluegrass state of Kentucky. I’ve written previous blogs about our decision to relocate and the gorgeous house we purchased, so won’t hash over those points now. If interested, links are below.
When we selected Bardstown in Kentucky for our new residence, the reasons were numerous. Surprisingly, being the birthplace of the bourbon industry — to this day the designated Bourbon Capitol of the World and first stop on the Bourbon Trail — wasn’t one of them! However, in a roundabout way, being an area steeped in American history did influence our choice. Bardstown is the second oldest city in Kentucky, and therefore has a rich history. As an avowed history buff, this was a delightful enticement and we have thoroughly enjoyed learning more about our new hometown. So much so, that it is essential I share some of these nuggets with my readers. I may even get around to delving into bourbon creation! But for today, I have chosen to shine the spotlight on Federal Hill, better known as “My Old Kentucky Home.”
The Rowan Family and Federal Hill
In 1783, Captain William Rowan, an American Revolutionary War veteran and three-term Sheriff of York County, led his family and a group of other families on a nine-month journey from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Louisville in Kentucky, which was a teeny frontier town at the time. Sometime in 1790, Captain Rowan relocated to Bardstown, a town roughly forty-miles south founded in 1780 and chartered by official land grant in 1785 to Brad and William Bard. The reason for the move was so that Rowan’s five children could attend Salem Academy. Established by noted educator James Priestley in 1788, Salem Academy was the first school in Bardstown and considered the best educational institute in the region.
John Rowan, born in 1773 and the third of Captain Rowan’s sons, attended law school in Lexington after completing his studies at Salem Academy. John studied under KY Attorney General George Nicholas, passing the bar in 1795. His humble beginning practicing law in Louisville and then in Nelson County as a defense attorney swiftly led to an illustrious career, including several positions in the KY State Legislature before serving in the US House of Representatives and as a US Senator. The focus of this blog is not primarily John Rowan himself, so to sum up— in the annals of influential politicians from Kentucky, Rowan isn’t quite on par with Abraham Lincoln, but he isn’t too far down the list!
In between his professional endeavors, in 1794 John Rowan married Anne Lytle, the daughter of a prominent family from Cincinnati, Ohio. At the time of his marriage, Rowan was gifted the deed to a 1,300-acre plantation in Bardstown by his new wife’s father. Rowan named the working farm “Federal Hill” in honor of the Federalist political party. Initially dwelling in a newly constructed log cabin, the couple began the planning and construction of a one-storey brick home.
Completed in 1812, the house included four rooms, a kitchen, and smokehouse. Due to the limited finances of a modest lawyer, as well as the extended time for building materials to reach the wild frontier of Kentucky, the initial construction process was slow. However, by 1812, the Rowan family was growing (in total, the Rowans welcomed nine children) as was the reputation, financial status, and social prestige of John Rowan, who was by then a KY Congressman.
Construction for a three-storey, 7,501 square feet mansion began immediately, built adjacent to the existing house while the family lived in it. Designed in the Federal style (essentially the Georgian style), the mansion was completed in 1818, the work primarily done by slaves and hired tradesmen and carpenters, many of whom were free blacks. The two main levels boast 13′-6″ tall ceilings and large rooms consistently over 22′ square, which was unusual for that period. The foundation is native limestone, of course, supporting a basement accessed via a rear entrance as typical of the style, two full storeys of living quarters, and a half-height attic. The exterior is red-brick fired on site and laid in a Flemish bond pattern. Wide, tall bay windows cover three facades, and sidelights flank the main entrance door classically framed with Tuscan colonettes and an arched fanlight.
In numerous details big and small, Federal Hill is a declaration of John Rowan’s fierce patriotism, such as the 5-point stars in the frieze (see images below). Additionally, the number 13 plays prominently in the design of the house, used to honor the thirteen American colonies. The front of the home has 13 windows, there are 13 steps leading up to each floor of the house, the walls are 13 inches thick, and the ceilings are 13 feet high.
The original house became the kitchen complex with attached carriage house, and the family rooms served as servants’ quarters. Auxiliary buildings were located nearby, such as a springhouse, multiple slave houses, a large stable due-west of the mansion, an ash house, and a garden house. Few traces of these structures remain today. Judge Rowan’s log cabin law office was to the front of the house, just down the hillside near a creek (see image below). Also on the vast grounds are a family burial ground, a slave cemetery, and gardens.
Between Bardstown’s importance as the County Seat and site of the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral (among other notable points which I shall cover in future blogs), and the prominence of John Rowan in the political realm, Federal Hill became a local power center for political and social activities. Prominent visitors to the home during the lifetime of John Rowan included Marquis de Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay.
John and Ann Rowan had nine children who lived to adulthood. Of their three sons, only John Rowan Jr. survived to inherit the vast estate plantation when John Sr. died in 1843. John Jr. and wife Rebecca had moved into Federal Hill with their children sometime in the late 1830s, after a brief period living in Mississippi. Unlike his famous father, John Jr. had not pursued a career in law, preferring the life of a farmer. However, he did accept an appointment by President James K. Polk as the charge d’affaires for the two Ambassadors to Italy. After dwelling in Naples, Italy for several years, the Rowans returned to Bardstown and Federal Hill in 1850. Declining any further offers to run for public office, John Jr. resumed his life as a plantation owner. Unfortunately, with a family now numbering ten children and a sprawling estate with an estimated 39 slaves in addition to free, paid workers, the farm’s income barely covered living expenses.
Over these decades, tragedy struck Federal Hill multiple times. In 1833, cholera came to the area, leaving over twenty slaves and eight family members dead (three being the offspring of John and Ann). Then, in 1840, lightning hit the mansion, fire destroying the third floor and main stairwell. John Rowan had it reconstructed precisely as it was before, at a considerable cost.
The saddest story of all, in my opinion, and as related by guides every time we have toured the house, occurred in 1855. On August 14, John Jr. was attending to his daughter Margaret (Madge) in an upstairs bedroom. Madge was suffering from an episode of diphtheria and, as the weather was warm, John brought her close to the open window to benefit from any cooling breezes. According to stories reported in verbal interviews, John Jr. dozed to sleep while reclining on the window sill, and when startled awake, he fell out the window. He was critically injured, dying as a result of his injuries later the same night.
This left the widowed Rebecca to inherit the estate, which remained deeply in debt from the extravagant spending of John and Ann Rowan. Like her husband, Rebecca Rowan managed the plantation well enough to survive and support –barely– those who depended upon her, but never was able to settle all the financial problems. Upon her death in 1897 at the age of 84, the remaining properties from Judge Rowan’s estate owned in Louisville and other places, along with a portion of the plantation, were sold. The proceeds left after settling all debts were divided among the living heirs, with daughter Madge Rowan Frost inheriting Federal Hill mansion and half of the farm.
Madge reputedly loved the family home, but the Emancipation Proclamation had freed the few slaves who remained (John Jr. was opposed to slavery, so while keeping and caring for those left to him by John Sr., he never purchased additional slaves to replace those who had died.) and the farmlands were greatly depleted. The once grand plantation of 1,300 acres had whittled down to 295 acres. It is unclear exactly how much actual farming of crops was done during these years, although it must have been enough to minimally maintain the house and estate grounds. Married to John Frost since 1895, the couple spent the bulk of their time traveling throughout the US and Europe. Upon the death of John Frost in 1915, Madge returned to Bardstown, the last Rowan to reside at Federal Hill, which once again became a center of social events.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
By this time, the song “My Old Kentucky Home” written by Stephen Foster and inspired by Federal Hill (that story in tomorrow’s blog) was permanently linked to the area and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Tourists visiting the famous house and grounds steadily increased, prompting Madge to offer the mansion to the Commonwealth as a museum. Under House Resolution number 42, a commission was formed to investigate and secure the property for a state park, a task completed on March 20, 1920 at a cost of $65,000.
Work immediately began to restore the badly dilapidated house to its original glory and style. Redecorations by the Rowan family in prior decades had created a “Victorianized” motif to the interior. Restoration by the Commonwealth of Kentucky focused on reviving the original Federalist style as well as repairing structural issues. Preserving the mansion was aided by Madge Rowan’s donation of family heirlooms, artifacts, portraits, and furniture. In fact, 85% of the interior furnishings on display today belonged to the Rowan family. The process consumed three years, the newly dubbed “My Old Kentucky Home” opening on July 4, 1923 with a massive celebration and more than 15,000 onlookers.
As for Madge Rowan Frost, after the sale of Federal Hill, she briefly took up residence in Louisville but moved back to Bardstown, living in a house directly across the road from the family estate. She died on February 4, 1925, at the age of 75, and was buried in the Rowan family cemetery on Federal Hill.
The former plantation known as Federal Hill officially became My Old Kentucky Home and the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s first state park in 1923. Further renovations took place in 1977, and again in 2006, each time bringing the antebellum mansion closer to its original glory. Today it contains one of the most complete collections of any historic plantation museum in the United States. We have toured the house and pristine grounds multiple times since moving to Bardstown in 2013, including for special events such as Santa Claus visiting in December when Federal Hill is decked out in historic 18th-century holiday style.
My photographer husband has a huge album devoted to photos he’s taken at My Old Kentucky Home:
Luvthelightphotos.com – My Old Kentucky Home
For photos of the interior, since these are not allowed to be taken by visitors, I strongly encourage visiting the main website’s “Tour the Mansion” section —LINK HERE— for exquisite, detailed images.
The importance of Federal Hill, My Old Kentucky Home to the history of Kentucky, and Bardstown specifically, cannot be overstated. The Federal Hill mansion was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1992, and it is one of the symbols featured on the reverse of the Kentucky state quarter issued in 2001. The official ceremony revealing the quarter was held in the park, and it was said by then-governor Paul E. Patton that the mansion and the accompanying thoroughbred were: “…the two most visible, beloved symbols in Kentucky”.
Today the museum and visitor center welcomes on average 3000 tourists each year. The lush grounds are open to freely roam, but guided tours of the mansion do cost $16 for adults. Trust me, it is well worth it! On top of normal tours, the house and grounds host a plethora of special events and tours throughout the year.
The amazingly cultivated grounds are popular for weddings, as well as other group events. A portion of the former plantation is now a camping and RV park, while other portions were used to create an 18-hole golf course, picnic areas, and tennis courts. The J.Dan Talbot open amphitheatre has hosted The Stephen Foster Story every year since 1959.
Speaking of Stephen Foster… as illustrious as the Rowan family, especially John Rowan, the history of Federal Hill is indelibly linked to the famed American songwriter. Would the mansion have earned an eternal place in Kentucky history without the song “My Old Kentucky Home”? I suppose that is up for debate, but frankly, IMO, a question impossible to answer. It is long since a done deal that no attempts to muddy the historical facts will ever undo… a hint as to why a whole other blog is needed to delve into that bit of Kentucky history!
I hope y’all enjoyed this dive into my beloved, adopted home.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the Rowans and Federal Hill.
If you’ve visited, be sure to let me know!
Come back tomorrow for the “rest of the story”. . .