Tom Eblen: Mansion on Bowman Mill Road with Lincoln, Todd artifacts to become museum

It already is filled with historic artifacts related to president and Todd family

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 28, 2012 

Do political disagreements make things tense in your family? It could be worse. You could have been Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

They were in a tough spot: He was leading the Union through the Civil War. She had 14 brothers and sisters from Lexington; most were Southern sympathizers, and three were killed in Confederate service. Lincoln threatened to jail one of his wife's sisters when she came to visit, but she still kept smuggling contraband to the South.

Hardest of all was the strain war created between the Lincolns and their favorite Todd relatives: half-sister Emilie Todd Helm and her husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm, a Confederate general.

After Helm was killed in battle, his grieving widow and her three children made tense visits to the White House. Lincoln's political enemies howled that he was sheltering a traitor. Even the children quarreled: Tad Lincoln said his daddy was the president, but little Katherine Helm insisted the real president was Jefferson Davis.

You know how most of this story ends: The Union prevails; Abraham Lincoln is assassinated; Mary Todd Lincoln struggles with mental illness. But what about her favorite little sister, Emilie, the prettiest of the Todd daughters? The Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation will soon be able to tell that story.

Helm Place, the Greek Revival mansion on Bowman Mill Road where Emilie and her children spent the last decades of their lives, has been donated to the foundation to become a museum. There is a lot of renovation and fund-raising ahead, but the mansion already contains enough Lincoln, Helm, Todd and other local artifacts to get off to a great start.

The foundation will celebrate the gift at a dinner and presentation about Helm Place on Sept. 18 at Malone's Banquets, 3373 Tates Creek Road. Tickets are $38 for members, $42 for others. For reservations, call (859) 233-9999 by Sept. 10.

"This place is a treasure, and we're excited about the possibilities," said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which also is owned by the foundation.

Mary Genevieve Townsend Murphy, a co-founder and longtime board member of the foundation, left Helm Place to it in trust after her death in 2000 and the death of her husband, Joseph, in April 2011. The foundation took control of the 150-acre property in March and has spent the past few months installing a high-tech security system and live-in caretaker.

Oddly enough, the first white settler on the property was the Todd sisters' grandfather Levi Todd, who built Todd's Station fort there in 1779. But because of Indian attacks, Todd abandoned the claim and moved closer to Lexington.

The land later went to Abraham Bowman for his service in the Revolutionary War. In the 1850s, one of Bowman's descendants built the mansion, originally called Cedar Hall, which sits on a hill at the end of a majestic lawn.

Emilie Todd Helm and her grown children bought the mansion in 1912 — almost exactly a century before the foundation acquired title. Katherine, an accomplished painter, did several family portraits for the house and painted a dining room mural depicting nearby South Elkhorn Creek at sunset. One of her portraits of Mary Todd Lincoln now hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

Emilie Helm remained an unreconstructed Confederate until her death in 1930. When Elodie, her youngest daughter, was getting old, she sold the house in 1946 to William H. Townsend, a Lexington lawyer, author and accomplished Lincoln scholar and collector. His daughter Mary moved in with Elodie, who died in 1953. Mary married Joseph Murphy in 1960.

William Townsend, who died in 1964, amassed an amazing collection of Lincoln and early Kentucky artifacts, many of which remain in the house with the Helm family's possessions. They include several portraits by Matthew Jouett; a table made by Abraham Lincoln's father; writer James Lane Allen's desk and documents signed by Lincoln and Henry Clay.

The foundation's next step is to conduct a study of the mansion's possibilities as a museum, decide on a plan and raise the money to make it happen. Thompson said she didn't know how long it would be before Helm Place could welcome visitors.

"Our big priority since March has been making sure the property is secured and cared for," she said. "We're just taking it a step at a time."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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