In 2003, the City of Cynthiana and Harrison County jointly purchased the Handy farm to build Veterans Park. The park?s Master Plan indicated that the only place on the 120-acre parcel for a public swimming pool was the 2,000sf footprint of the Handy House – a house that has stood majestically on the hill overlooking the Cynthiana valley for almost 200 years. Once the plans became widely known, many Cynthiana residents rallied to save the house. With a petition of over 2,000 signatures, the house was saved from the wrecking ball. Upon further research, the house was found historically significant and listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Governor Ernie Fletcher declared the house to be a Kentucky Historic Landmark. Despite the attention garnered for the house a few years ago, the full story of the Handy House is still coming to light – a story that reaches far beyond the City of Cynthiana and leads to Washington D.C. and ultimately to Abraham Lincoln?s White House. I believe that the significance of this rich history could be the key to securing the funding necessary for the Park?s completion.
Let me begin by introducing myself: I am the great, great, great grandson of Colonel William Brown, the first owner and builder of the Handy House? or as he named it – Ridgeway. Many of you know the Colonel was a man of significant means and dedicated to public service –a veteran of the War of 1812, a widely respected attorney throughout the region and a U.S. Congressman serving with Henry Clay and Thomas J. Metcalfe. We must also remember that the Colonel was a slave owner, as was his great friend and political ally – Henry Clay. Similarly to his fellow congressman, the Colonel felt that, despite his personal involvement, slavery was an abhorrent, unconscionable practice. He eventually put his words into action and personally brought six of his slaves to the free state of Illinois to free them in 1831, decades before the Emancipation Proclamation signed in 1863. Out of their free will and gratitude, these ex-slaves, worked for their former master - the Colonel - after he moved to Illinois and serving him until the day he died. Sadly, the Colonel only lived a few more years without fully finishing his own emancipation goal.
The Colonel?s early abolitionist views appeared to have a great impact on the people around him and particularly his son – James N. Brown. James N. Brown was born, the oldest child of nine children, at Ridgeway (aka the Handy House). He lived at Ridgeway until he was 26 when he helped to move the family up to the frontier of Illinois. The Brown family was not alone and many great Kentucky families, such as the Warfields and the Todds, made the migration to Illinois.
This familial connection to the Todds and the Warfields came through the Colonel?s wife and matriarch of the Brown family, Harriet Warfield from Lexington. The Warfield and Todd families were neighbors in Lexington, and Harriet purportedly was an older confidant of a young Mary Todd Lincoln. Harriet?s brother, Dr. Elisha Warfield was a very close friend of Mary Todd?s father, Robert Smith Todd. In fact, Dr. Warfield was one of the doctors called upon to deliver Mary Todd Lincoln in 1818 – the same year Ridgeway was built. Beyond this, Dr. Warfield raised and raced ?Lexington?, one the most illustrious race horses to grace the rolling hills of Kentucky?s bluegrass, and the sire of many of today?s thoroughbred lines. Dr. Warfield?s ?Lexington? was so well revered at the time that President Lincoln was known to have ridden a Lexington-sired horse, being the favorite horse in his stable. When Lexington died, his bones were provided to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., where they resided until 2010 when they were returned to Kentucky and are currently on display at the Horse Park.
In the early 1830s when many of these illustrious Kentucky families were migrating to Illinois, James N. Brown assisted the Colonel and other members of his family as they purchased large tracts of land to farm in Sangamon County, Illinois, which at the time was undeveloped frontier. Not long after their move, James became a successful attorney and decided to hire a poor farm hand originally from Kentucky – Abraham Lincoln. He quickly found that Abraham Lincoln was opinionated and loved to argue the issues of the day with James and those around him.
James became a very close friend and confidante of Lincoln. Eventually, Lincoln also entered the Illinois legislature and the two law-makers corresponded throughout their careers on diverse topics, particular slavery. At one point, Lincoln compiled a scrapbook of his own political writings on slavery and gave it to James as a gift. But even more remarkably, many historians and history books quote a letter sent from Abraham Lincoln to James, on Oct. 18. 1858, written by Lincoln when he was on the presidential campaign trail, for Lincoln?s fundamental philosophy on slavery and racial inequality. In this letter, he states:
?I believe the [Declaration of Independence] that ``all men are created equal'' is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest; that [African American] slavery is violative of that principle??
Throughout the remainder of the letter he proceeds to state that the government has an obligation to free the slaves and suggests that the people, regardless of race, should be treated equally under the law. It is clear from this letter that Lincoln shared his deepest personal feelings to James, and after Lincoln was assassinated, James would be bestowed the honor of pallbearer at Lincoln?s funeral.
It is unclear from the records, but James could have been Abraham Lincoln?s introduction into the legal field and potentially even politics. James was the son of a former U.S. Congressman and was a successful politician in his own right representing Sangamon County and having served in the Legislature of Illinois for over a decade. Lincoln was a poor boy from rural Kentucky that had no significant social connections so it would have been natural for James, a wealthy man of significant standing, to introduce Lincoln into society and eventually to James? cousin, Orville Hickman Browning, who was also a successful attorney in Jacksonville and was to become one of Lincoln?s dearest friends.
Orville Hickman Browning was also a native Cynthiana boy and Colonel William Brown?s nephew. As the Colonel?s legal protÇgÇ, he ?read the law? with the Colonel up at Ridgeway and was sent by the Colonel ahead of the rest of the family to Illinois to purchase farmland in the Illinois frontier. Orville took with him the Colonel?s strong viewpoint against slavery and once he met the radical young Abraham Lincoln he knew that he had met a kindred spirit and they became close life-long friends and political allies. Orville rapidly rose in the political ranks to the state legislature and then to the U.S. Senate. Lincoln?s and Orville?s political philosophies were so well matched that they created a new political party together in Illinois - the Republican Party.
According to many historical sources, including Orville?s much referred to personal diary, Orville was also was a valued advisor of Lincoln?s. In crisis, Lincoln would seek Orville?s advice particularly on issues relating to their mutual native state of Kentucky. This could not have been more apparent when Lincoln wrote Orville as he was distraught about General Fremont?s radical and unauthorized edict where he attempted to impose martial law on the state of Missouri and ordered all slaves in the state to be set free. The upset Lincoln wrote to Orville on September 22, 1861:
??to lose Kentucky is to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.?
At the time, Orville was prompting Lincoln to continue the radical course set by Fremont, but the politically cautious Lincoln ended up reversing Fremont?s mandate and staid a more moderate course which in part helped to keep Kentucky loyal to the Union. By the end of Orville?s career, he arose to the Presidential Cabinet and served as the Secretary of Interior and U.S. Attorney General under President Andrew Johnson – not bad for a native son of Cynthiana and Colonel William Brown?s legal protÇgÇ who got his legal start within the walls of Ridgeway.
As most of you know, there was more Civil War history associated with Ridgeway apart from the Brown family. Dr. Joel Fraser, the subsequent owner of Ridgeway after the Browns, a beloved physician and slave owner, supported the Union and allowed the Union Army to camp on his property while they guarded the important bridges and railways that were the Union?s lifeline to the battlefield. When the area turned over to Confederate leadership, Dr, Fraser harbored a wounded Union soldier at Ridgeway. The next owner of Ridgeway was William Torrence Handy who became the youngest commissioned officer in the Union Army, having been commissioned aide de camp by Ohio Governor David Tod.
Kentucky was a battleground both militarily and ideologically as the interests of slave owners and abolitionists (who were oftentimes the same people like the Browns, the Frasers and the Todds) spared off in this great civil conflict. It was not a simple matter of black and white as the residents of Ridgeway displayed the many shades of gray over the decades.
I think we should not take a blind eye to the past as we look toward the future, when it comes to Veterans Park. While various visions for Veterans Park have over-promised and under-delivered, we deserve a plan that integrates the past with the present. The tantalizing images of a public swimming pool have been dangled in front of the good people of Cynthiana without any clear means of paying for such a public amenity.
I propose that Cynthiana looks to its rich history as an asset to help pay for the completion of the park. One idea is to repurpose the house into a community center and administrative offices for the park. For financial support, I point to the fact that both the house AND the park are on the Federal Register of Historic Places and a Kentucky landmark. Therefore, BOTH the house AND the park are eligible for federal and state grants, matching funds and other financing. Thus the house and its history may in part help fund the completion of the park – swimming pool and all. Further, as the story of the rich history of Ridgeway and its people become known, I believe this landmark will attract private donations and national attention. Verizon has already contributed $10,000 to the preservation of the house, without knowing the house?s connection to Abraham Lincoln and national history. Lastly, several notable veterans have owned Ridgeway including Colonel William Brown who originally built Ridgeway in 1818, thus making the preservation of the house at Ridgeway most appropriate for a park whose new name was meant to honor Veterans of all generations.
Sadly, despite this new historical information that has come to light, and despite the new volunteers who have come forward to make this mutually beneficial goal a reality, the house is in even greater danger of demolition as the Harrison County Historical Society has been discouraged over the magnitude of their mission. The Committee to save this landmark is still very much willing to continue their work but we need others to step forward to help with the effort. If the Historical Society gives up on the restoration effort, and the house is demolished, state and federal funding to complete the park will be next to impossible to acquire and the entire cost of completing the park with fall on the taxpayers of Harrison County. Further, the opportunity to create a community center from the house will have been lost. The future and enduring legacy of this nationally significant home is still in our hands – but not for long if those who were entrusted to save it have given up. I implore the Harrison County Historical Society and the people of Cynthiana: Please do not let Ridgeway go the way of the Griffith house! There is still time if we join together to make a difference!
For more information on Ridgeway (aka the Handy House), its preservation efforts and the proposed community center, please go to www.friendsofridgeway.com, like us on Facebook (Friends of Ridgeway) or follow us on Twitter: @RidgewayFarm.
Christopher L. Starr, Acton, MA
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