On Sunday, June 2, the Harrison County Heritage Council, a sub-group of the Harrison County Historical Society, held its first annual Tea at Ridgeway (aka The Handy House) with guest speaker Christopher L. Starr of Boston, Mass.
Starr, the third great -grandson of Ridgeway’s original owner and builder, U.S. Congressman Col.William Brown, made the trip to Cynthiana in hopes of encouraging the growing support for the structure’s restoration that has increased over the last year.
The event drew over 35 supporters from the area, including several proponents of Cynthiana’s rich heritage.
The invitation-only event featured Starr’s message about the connected nature of the community’s history and its relation to the nation’s history, including the strong link of Ridgeway to the Lincoln/Todd families.
The event also included presentations by the Harrison County Heritage Council president, Marilynn Bell, and landscape designer/horticulturist, Neal Watts.
With many new updates to share, attendees learned about the new roof soon to be installed, an upcoming restoration project coming next summer by the Adventures in Preservation organization from Colorado, and plans for an educational formal garden dedicated to the memory of past children who lived and died at Ridgeway – both free and enslaved.
The main message, delivered by Starr encapsulated for the audience the main reason everyone had joined together: to help save a national landmark.
Ridgeway was added to the National Register of Historic Homes in 2005. Since then the effort to restore the house to a rehabilitated state for the purpose of community use has had its ups and downs.
The plans for restoration focus on rehabilitation rather than complete period restoration.
With this new emphasis, many of the period details can be retained, while new modern updates can be implemented to bring this historic structure back into a prominent place within the community.
This renewed community effort will produce an end result beneficial to all in the form of a new community center and park authority station.
Not only will Cynthiana and Harrison County have a new place for educational and civic groups, but the facility will be self sufficient in regards to funding maintenance.
When not in use by local non-profit groups, Ridgeway will also serve as a beautiful rental/event space for private special occasions that will fund not only the building’s upkeep, but should provide much needed income for additions to the park, such as the highly desired community swimming pool. In fact, the first wedding at Ridgeway is already in the works, even in its current state.
Starr wrapped up his presentation by relating the importance of this house to not only Cynthiana and Harrison County, but to Kentucky and the nation.
As an early 19th century example of plantation agriculture in Kentucky, it represents the complex nature of the families connected to this way of life, and how those connections led to the greatest change of our country’s history: the Civil War and the end of slavery.
Many members of the community are familiar with the institution of slavery and its roll in Kentucky. Some are even embarrassed over the roll slavery had in the building and maintenance of Ridgeway as a working plantation.
However, many do not realize that Brown, builder of Ridgeway, U.S. Congressman, War of 1812 Veteran and prominent slave owner himself, joined many of his contemporaries, such as Henry Clay, and became very uncomfortable with the institution.
This discomfort led him and his family to Illinois as they made the decision to begin the emancipation process with their own slaves.
This move to Illinois was not an isolated move by one Kentucky family, but a small migration movement among several prominent Kentucky families who hoped to make a new agricultural community, without the labor of enslaved individuals.
The Brown family was already very connected to the Todd family through Col. William Brown’s wife, Harriett Warfield Brown. Her brother, Dr. Elisha Warfield, delivered Mary Todd Lincoln in Lexington and remained a very close family friend of the Todds.
With this family connection, the Browns’ move to Illinois proved to solidify their connection to the Todd family, and eventually the Lincoln White House.
Col. William Brown and his son-in-law hired a young farm hand upon their arrival in Illinois, who would later become the 16th President.
This early connection to the Brown family and their transformational views of slavery continued for many years as Lincoln maintained his friendship with the colonel’s son and nephew.
Both men, James N. Brown and Orville Hickman Browning, are documented as close friends of Lincoln by his writings to each of the men.
It was to Browning in 1861 that Lincoln relayed the famous line “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
Brown and Browning were not only Cynthiana natives but spent much time at Ridgeway while growing up, and first encountered slavery on this plantation.
After the Civil War, Ridgeway maintained its agricultural traditions and became a centralized effort of Kentucky farming through co-op or family farming organization. With this chapter of Ridgeway’s history, many throughout the region have very fond memories of being a part of this small agricultural community.
As Ridgeway transformed over the decades to meet the needs of a changing community, so the effort continues to help Ridgeway make one last transformation that will serve to perpetuate its invaluable role in Cynthiana’s history.