Tom Eblen

Surrounded by history, one family marks 175 years working the same farm

Bob and Leslie James outside their home at Walnut Hall Farm, which was built by Bob James' ancestors in 1893. His family has owned and worked the farm continuously for 175 years.
Bob and Leslie James outside their home at Walnut Hall Farm, which was built by Bob James' ancestors in 1893. His family has owned and worked the farm continuously for 175 years.

John Graves James was a young school teacher from Virginia when he rode through Fayette County on horseback in 1822 on his way to Mississippi, where he became a cotton broker.

Family lore says James was so impressed with the Bluegrass landscape that he vowed to return and buy a farm when he earned enough money. By 1842, he was back.

James bought several hundred acres along Military Pike and settled his family above the Shannon Run of South Elkhorn Creek. The family has worked that land ever since, making Walnut Lawn Farm one of Central Kentucky’s oldest continuously operated family farms.

Bob and Leslie James recently threw a party to celebrate their farm’s 175th anniversary. More than 200 people came to see family memorabilia inside the Victorian mansion Bob’s great-grandfather built in 1893 and mingle in Leslie’s beautiful flower gardens.

How has one family managed to farm one tract of land for so long? “A lot of luck and dedication,” Bob said.

He also credits the “kindness” of relatives, a family tradition of agricultural innovation and Lexington’s Purchase of Development Rights program. City conservation easements helped make it financially feasible for the family to continue farming rather than selling the land for development.

“It might have been impossible to have done without it,” he said.

John Graves James’ decision to leave Mississippi for Kentucky turned out to be fortuitous. He became a prominent farmer and banker who was elected to the state House of Representatives and helped start what would become the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture.

His sons, David and Richard James, joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War and fought with Lexington cavalry raider John Hunt Morgan. They were taken prisoner at the Battle of Buffington Island in Ohio and were held in Illinois and New Jersey until the end of the war. After walking home, Richard died of his war wounds.

David took over the farm and continued his father’s interest in banking. In 1883 he helped start Lexington’s old Second National Bank. He raised shorthorn cattle to be sent out west, where they were replacing longhorns. He also started raising burley tobacco and bluegrass seed as the market for hemp declined.

As the farm prospered, David decided to demolish the 1790s house his father had bought from the Dedman family in 1842 and build a “modern” home. It includes a handsome stone porch, which Bob said his great-grandmother paid for by selling chickens, turkeys and eggs.

But David preserved the old house’s original brick kitchen and “weaving house” as well as a four-room brick complex built about 1850 to house enslaved farm workers. Those buildings remain, along with an old smokehouse, dairy, ice house, carriage house and an 1800s barn.

After David’s death, his youngest son, Robert Lee James, took over the farm — as well as a seat on Second National Bank’s board of directors that he held from 1916 until 1972. He was born in the Victorian house and died there 93 years later.

A family history Leslie put together describes him as a man of many talents: farmer, nurseryman, gardener, flower expert, pigeon fancier and poet.

Next to manage the farm was his son, Robert Coleman James II, who in 1968 built a second house on the property, designed by the noted Lexington architect Robert McMeekin.

His son, Robert Lee James II, 62, now runs the farm with his two sons, Robert Coleman James III, 33, and John Hunt James, 30, and his wife, Katie. In addition to their 400 acres, they also farm more than 400 acres of leased land around Central Kentucky.

While many farms in their area of southwest Fayette County have become fancy horse farms in recent years, Walnut Lawn remains a diverse “wire fence” farm.

Bob and his sons raise tobacco, corn, wheat and rye. His father planted one of the first “no-till” corn crops in Central Kentucky in the 1960s, and Bob said he steadily moved the whole farm to no-till, which has prevented soil erosion and made the farm more productive. The Jameses also raise cattle.

Bob thinks his sons will continue Walnut Lawn Farm’s family tradition at least through its 200th anniversary.

“My father always said that when you’ve got land, you’ve got something,” he said. “My sons seem to have that same dedication.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen