Here's a trivia question for you: Who was Lexington's first business tycoon?
The answer is William Morton, who was known around town two centuries ago as "Lord" Morton. No image of Morton is known to exist, but he was described by contemporaries as tall, stately and dignified, which explains his noble nickname.
Morton is remembered today for two reasons: Morton Middle School is named for him, because of his early support for public education; and because he built one of Lexington's first grand mansions, whose bicentennial will be celebrated Thursday at 10 a.m. with a ceremony and tour.
Morton came to Lexington from Philadelphia around 1787. He was one of a handful of entrepreneurs who transformed a pioneer blockhouse into the most important trading city on America's young western frontier.
As early Lexington prospered, primarily through manufacturing and the cultivation of hemp and tobacco, its citizens craved the finer things in life. Morton provided them, opening a store in 1787 at the corner of Main and Upper streets.
By the early 1800s, Morton owned a tannery where the Lexington Convention Center now stands and a row of commercial buildings along Upper Street between Main and Vine streets. The last of "Morton's Row" was demolished in 2008 to make way for CentrePasture.
In 1803, Morton became the first president of the Kentucky Insurance Co. It was created to insure commercial shipments, but its cleverly worded charter also allowed it to become the city's first bank. People then were suspicious of banks, because they printed their own money and often went bust, leaving customers with worthless paper.
Morton was active in civic affairs, serving as a city trustee and an officer in the local militia. He made a lot of money, and he did some good things with it. He and Walter Warfield purchased a lot on Market Street in 1804 where Christ Church was built, and he became one of the Episcopal congregation's first vestrymen.
He was an early trustee of Transylvania University. Upon his death in 1836 at age 84, Morton left about one-third of his estate — the then-enormous sum of $12,000 — to start one of Lexington's first public schools. At the time, wealthy children went to private schools. Poor children went to work.
Morton's other legacy was a 20-acre estate he bought in 1795 at what was then the northern edge of town. He built a Federal-style mansion, with a tall front door flanked by Palladian windows, that many people regarded as the finest in town.
Two years after Morton's death, the property was bought by Cassius Clay, who became famous and unpopular for campaigning against slavery with his newspaper, The True American. He lived in the house until 1850.
Clay sold the property to Dr. Lloyd Warfield, who subdivided three-fourths of it. In 1873, Warfield sold the home and surrounding five acres — bounded by Limestone, Fifth, Sixth streets and what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — to Henry T. Duncan. He started the Lexington Daily Press newspaper and served two terms as mayor.
Duncan's family sold the property to the city in 1913, and it became Duncan Park. The much-altered mansion has had many renovations over the years, and it needs another one. As city property, it has had many uses. It now houses The Nest: The Center for Women Children and Families, a non-profit social service agency.
Many successful Lexington businessmen have been quickly forgotten after their deaths. Morton's memory lives on because he invested some of his wealth in making Lexington a better place — and because he built a fine piece of architecture that is still worth celebrating.