Traveler's Rest — former home of Kentucky's first governor — has new life after restoration

At Traveler's Rest, a Henry Faulkner painting hangs over a bed with tobacco leaves carved into the posts. Roseann Downey and her husband, David, have lived in their house 20 years.
At Traveler's Rest, a Henry Faulkner painting hangs over a bed with tobacco leaves carved into the posts. Roseann Downey and her husband, David, have lived in their house 20 years.

STANFORD — Preservation Kentucky will present its Excellence in Preservation Awards on Saturday at a particularly notable historic site: Traveler's Rest, home place of Isaac Shelby, the first and fifth governor of Kentucky.

Hosting the event will be David and Roseann Downey, who restored the house almost 20 years ago, and have furnished it with a collection of early Kentucky tables, chests, desks, beds and sideboards. Many pieces date to the early 1800s.

A little about Shelby: He was the son of a Virginia landholder. He worked on his father's farm until he was 21. He first came to Kentucky for a year in 1775 as an explorer and surveyor.

Thomas Jefferson, then the governor of Virginia, gave the first land grant in Kentucky, for 400 acres, to Shelby in 1779 in recognition of his military service. Shelby acquired adjoining land until the tract had 3,000 acres.

On this land, Shelby built Traveler's Rest and the brick slave quarters, both of which survive today. Nearby, he built houses named Knightland, Millwood and Arcadia for three sons. Those houses also still stand.

Shelby was elected the first governor of Kentucky in 1792 and its fifth governor in 1812.

Traveler's Rest is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a state historic site.

The house Shelby built in 1786 burned in 1905. The current house was built on the original foundation by a Shelby descendent starting in 1906.

The Downeys bought Traveler's Rest in 1997, spent three years on renovation, and moved in in 2000. They lived previously in Stanford. David Downey is a banker with First Southern National Bank. Roseann Downey is retired after a 34-year career teaching second grade in Lincoln County. Their two adult children grew up in the house.

David Downey is the dedicated collector in the family. He is drawn to Kentucky furniture because of the simple lines, the design and craftsmanship, he said.

"It was probably the prettiest furniture on the frontier," he said. He also has Shaker pieces made by the Shakers at South Union in Auburn.

Living in the governor's house encouraged him to hunt for appropriate period pieces. Downey has an original lap desk that belonged to Shelby and a handwritten letter Shelby sent to then-Gen. Andrew Jackson.

Collecting antiques is in the family: Roseann Downey's grandfather was an antiques dealer in Harrodsburg.

"When he died, we got some very nice antiques from his house," she said.

Collecting "is like a disease," David Downey said with a chuckle. "In the beginning, you can't find anything. Now things find me, and sometimes I wish they wouldn't.

"In the beginning, I made a lot of mistakes, bought wrong things."

Assembling a collection of museum-quality furniture "takes years of collecting" and working with two or three "really good dealers," he said.

His most outstanding piece is a walnut and poplar secretary with a delicate inlay. It's made with excellent craftsmanship, he said. It's attributed to a furniture maker identified only as "Campbell of Madison County."

"It far exceeds, in quality, everything else," he said.

Another rare find is a five-piece Hepplewhite inlaid banquet table, dated about 1810.

"I know only of one other early Kentucky Hepplewhite banquet table, ... and it's in the Speed museum (in Louisville)," Downey said.

Furniture from Downey's collection has been exhibited at the Speed Art Museum, the Headley-Whitney Museum and the Blue Grass Trust Antiques and Garden Show. Two Paul Sawyier oil paintings are on display in the Governor's Mansion in Frankfort.

The Downey's house and furniture are featured in a coffee table book, Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860, written by Genevieve Baird Lacer and Libby Turner Howard. It was published last year.

Unlike Thoroughbred racehorses, fine pieces of early furniture don't always come with a written pedigree. Many pieces are signed, but not all. Age and the craftsman's name are information frequently passed down through families that have owned the furniture for generations, and through high-quality antiques dealers, he said.

Traveler's Rest is a spacious house with a large living room, dining room, entrance hall, study and kitchen on the first floor, four bedrooms up and a finished attic with a sofa and a large television. Each room is furnished with Kentucky antiques.

But even Traveler's Rest can hold only so much. When Downey buys a new piece, something in the house has to go.

"It's been that way the last five or 10 years. I can get more of the same, but I don't have room for more of the same," he said.

In addition to furniture, Downey has several glass pieces by Stephen Powell, a noted glass artist on the faculty of Centre College. He also has paintings throughout the house by the late Henry Faulkner, a Lexington artist.

Two years ago, First Southern National Bank bought the Green Settle Collection of Faulkner's work. It includes oils, acrylics, sketches, watercolors and poetry, about 250 pieces in all.

Downey is a member of the Kentucky Collectors Group, about 50 members with similar interests in antique silver, paintings, furniture and pottery.

The Downeys' house is not open to the public. But the public may visit the nearby Isaac Shelby family cemetery. The Preservation Awards annual meeting and ceremony is by invitation only.