Many families move every few years, but not Joan Mayer’s. Her family has worked the same rolling farmland near the Kentucky River for more than two centuries, and her house was there long before they arrived.
Mayer’s life is an interesting window into “old” Lexington society and its equestrian traditions. But at age 83, she stays too busy to live in the past.
Most recently, Mayer helped organize the Southwest Clark Neighborhood Association to push for better land-use planning along the Kentucky River Palisades.
The association is fighting plans by the Allen Co. to expand its Madison County quarry across the river into Clark County, which would include a conveyer across the river that residents fear would kill nearby aquatic life near Boonesboro State Park.
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“So much is at stake,” Mayer said about protecting the Palisades, an area of rugged limestone cliffs, gorges and feeder creeks that form one of Kentucky’s unique and fragile landscapes. “I just can’t understand how people can see this place and not want to protect it.”
Mayer is descended from several prominent pioneer families, including the Woodfords, for whom Woodford County was named, and Bowmans, who settled southwest Fayette County. Her great-great uncle, John Bryan Bowman, founded what is now the University of Kentucky after the Civil War.
But it was her Jones ancestors who bought 400 acres here in 1809 from soldier and statesman Richard Hickman, Kentucky’s fifth lieutenant governor. Hickman’s circa 1797 brick home, Caveland, is now on the Mayers’ farm, and one of her grandsons lives there.
An ancestor set up a plant nursery on the farm about 1840, for which Jones Nursery Road is named. Since then, the family farm has been called Nursery Place. In recent years, one of Mayer’s sons converted it from a cattle farm to a Thoroughbred breeding operation.
Nursery Place is now about 600 acres, and would be even bigger if a relative years ago hadn’t sold off inherited land right in the center of the spread. That land is now the home of former Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, whom Mayer said are wonderful neighbors.
Jane Beshear, an accomplished horsewoman, has credited Mayer’s mother, the late Charlotte Bowman Pursley, with teaching her everything she knows about fox-hunting. And no wonder: Pursley, who died in 2008 at age 99, was field master for the Iroquois Hunt Club for 38 years.
Mayer’s father, William Fauntleroy Pursley, helped reorganize the hunt club in 1926 and was one of its masters from 1940 until 1983, when Mayer took over the leadership role for a decade.
Fox-hunting photos and memorabilia share the walls of her rambling house with portraits of ancestors. Several pieces of furniture were made by Mayer’s mother, who took up woodworking at age 50 and became as skilled a cabinetmaker as she was a rider.
The oldest part of Mayer’s house is log and dates to at least 1790, with original floors of poplar and limestone. Each generation or two added a room here and there, and Mayer made additions and updates after she took over the place in 1958.
Mayer also restored a family cemetery in the side yard that had been grown over for decades. One of her home’s best features is a large, screened-in porch with stone floors and a fireplace where the original cabin’s cooking was done.
Walking from room to room, Mayer pointed out a couple of places where her young grandmother and a friend scratched their names and the date in window glass one boring day in 1884. “I’ll bet they got spanked,” she said.
While houses in this rural area are scattered, Mayer said there has always been a good sense of community. Years ago, she became close friends with the late folksinger John Jacob Niles and his wife, Rena, whose Boot Hill farm was a couple of miles up Athens-Boonesboro Road toward Lexington.
Mayer has had to give up riding horses and bicycles, two of her passions, but still paints landscapes and has been writing a book about the Iroquois Hunt and her roots in the Palisades hunt country.
“I just love it here,” she said, as birds sang in the trees beyond her screened-in porch. “How could you not?”