Henry Clay is remembered as a great politician and lawyer. But in his day, the Lexington resident had another claim to fame: Farmer.
Clay (1777-1852) was an innovative breeder of horses, cattle, sheep and mules. He was an investor in Kentucky wine and a grower and promoter of hemp, a botanical cousin of marijuana that is experiencing a revival.
The fifth annual Living History Day at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, on Sept. 23 will highlight the contributions “the Great Compromiser” made to agriculture. More info: Henryclay.org.
“This was one of the most important agricultural establishments in the whole country,” said Ashland curator Eric Brooks. “Henry Clay was doing things that were truly remarkable.”
Clay was an important figure in the early Thoroughbred industry. He started one of Lexington’s first racetracks and helped form the Kentucky Association, which had a track in the East End until 1933. Three years later, Keeneland was created.
Clay also was a Thoroughbred breeder. Eleven Kentucky Derby winners can trace their bloodlines to the Ashland stables. (The last was Sunny’s Halo in 1983.) Three Ashland descendants ran in this year’s Derby: Classic Empire, Girvin and Hence.
Clay was one of five owners of the first syndicated stallion, Buzzard. “It was blind in one eye and lame in one hip,” Brooks said. “But it did stand for stud for several years and did OK.”
He also brought some of the first Arabian horses to Kentucky — two stallions that stood at stud in Winchester and Mount Sterling. He thought they might improve Thoroughbred lines, but they didn’t. They were one of Clay’s many agricultural experiments.
In 1817, Clay introduced Hereford beef cattle to the United States. He also was one of the earliest and most renowned breeders of Merino sheep. Clay won many silver trophys from the Kentucky Association for the Improvement of Livestock Breeds, and Ashland has one on display.
It also has on loan another julep cup with a more colorful story. Sheep breeder Mark Cockrill, who tried for years to beat Clay in livestock competitions, finally did in 1835. On the bottom of the award cup he had engraved: “Clay’s Defeat.”
“It shows you just how much people admired, respected and to some extent envied or wanted to compete with Henry Clay,” Brooks said. “They knew he was at the top.”
To represent these accomplishments, visitors to Ashland on Living History Day can see an Arabian horse, Hereford cattle, sheep and other animals. The Thoroughbred industry will be represented by people from Keeneland and Spendthrift Farm, whose stallions include Ashland descendant Goldencents.
Heritage seed grower Bill Best will show examples of produce that would have been served at Clay’s table. Visitors also can see a patch of hemp, which for two years has been grown at Ashland with special government permission.
Clay was heavily invested in growing, processing and promoting hemp. He was once so over-exposed financially that he almost went bankrupt when hemp prices fell.
The U.S. Navy was a major hemp customer, and Clay wanted it to be Kentucky hemp. But the young nation’s primitive transportation network made that impossible. It is one reason Clay pushed for government investment in roads, bridges, canal and other economic development infrastructure. “His agriculture was informing his politics,” Brooks said.
About half the enslaved workers at Clay’s 660-acre Ashland farm worked with hemp, a labor-intensive crop. “There’s no question that Clay’s wealth and the wealth of many Kentuckians derived directly from slave labor employed in hemp production,” Brooks said.
One black woman enslaved to Clay, Charlotte “Lottie” Dupuy, filed suit against him for her freedom in 1829 in what became a famous court case. (She lost, but Clay eventually freed her in 1840.) Chautauqua performer Elizabeth Lawson will portray Dupuy on Living History Day.
Another actress, Joy Fowler, will portray Josephine Russell Clay, who married Clay’s son John and earned respect as an expert manager of his stables after he died. Clay’s son James and grandson-in-law Henry Clay McDowell operated Ashland as a Standardbred farm and were influential in the trotting industry.
First Vineyard Winery also will have representatives at Ashland. The Jessamine County business is near where Swiss immigrant John James Dufour established America’s first commercial winery in 1799. Henry Clay was among its investors.
“We’re trying to show that he did things that are still having an impact on today’s world,” Brooks said.