A Glimpse of The Past

Contributing Writer

Abraham Lincoln got his first look at slavery right here in Louisville – and he was horrified.

It was during a visit to the Speed family plantation, called Farmington, in 1841. He had just broken relations with Mary Todd of Lexington and was invited to recover by his good friend and Springfield, Ill., roommate, Joshua Speed.

He spent several restful days walking and relaxing on the 550 acres. But he also spent several intense evenings debating the virtues of slavery with Speed and his brother, James, who ran the plantation.

Lincoln reportedly said, “If I ever get the chance to strike at slavery, I will strike it hard.”

The Speeds dissolved the plantation in 1865, after the Civil War. “Hemp farming was extremely labor-intensive,” says Terry Pyles, the docent at Farmington, now owned by the Historic Homes Foundation of Louisville (HHF). “Without a slave labor force, they couldn’t afford the farm.”

The property was divided among the Speed children, and then kept getting subdivided and sold off. The last owners of the house, the Dreasher family, sold it and the remaining 18½ acres to HHF in 1958.

It sits immediately behind Sullivan University, tucked into a corner of the Bardstown Road exit of the Watterson Expressway. The actual address is 3033 Bardstown Road.

The main house was built on a slight hill, to protect it from Ohio River flooding. It was built in 1815 and 1816 by John and Lucy Speed, who had come there with their 11 children and more than 50 African slaves to begin a 500-acre hemp plantation. Like a lot of Virginians, they had taken advantage of an offer of land grants in the new territory beyond the Cumberland Gap.

The architecture is mistakenly thought of as Jeffersonian. It was actually designed by Paul Skidmore, referred to as “an itinerant gentleman architect,” in an imitation of the Jeffersonian style, like a lot of houses built at that time. Also, Lucy Speed’s father was Thomas Jefferson’s bodyguard.

The original house has been restored through loving care and historical research. So today, when you walk into the Federalist-style brick building with green shutters, you’re stepping back into 1841.

In 2003, an extensive renovation replicated the original home, taking all kinds of scientific paint analyses and items from John Speed’s 1840 probate inventory to draw a picture of what the Speeds’ life was like: working, sleeping, dining, entertaining and bathing.

“What we present now is the next best thing to bringing someone back from the dead, which was not in our budget,” says Diane Young, executive director of the Farmington Historic Plantation.

A big chunk of the budget went toward structural issues. “Not surprisingly, a 200-year-old house tends to crumble,” Young says. “Old plaster absorbs a great deal of moisture, especially with a running spring on the property.”

Of course, it had to be done delicately, because no structural improvements could update the historical authenticity of the place.

Just inside the front door is a large rotunda, another Jeffersonian influence, with portraits of John and Lucy Speed hanging on either side of the space.

A glass-enclosed chandelier hangs from the ceiling, historically accurate except for the electric candles. “It’s glass-enclosed because the breezes through the house would likely have blown out the candles or, worse, spread the fire,” Young says. “Fire was a huge concern in those days.”

Carpet styles and wallcoverings are all meticulously accurate and about 80 percent of the windows have the original leaded and wavy glass. They even went so far as to identify and replicate the grains of the wood when they painted.

Matthew Mosca of Baltimore, renowned for his historic paint research and restoration, did all the paint analysis.

Furniture, children’s toys, dinnerware, cooking pots, a period pianoforte, a Kentucky long rifle, a flax broom – all are authentic representations of the Speeds’ 19th century life. In the elegant master bedroom, the woodwork was painted to look like marble because, explains Young, you couldn’t import marble here in 1841.

In one room is an original 1840s tin bathtub. “The slaves heated the water in the fireplace, then poured water over the children and washed them,” Young says. “It was a very intimate relationship.”

Children were bathed according to age, with the baby last. That, Young says, is where the phrase “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” comes from.

Farmington is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Maps are available in the visitors center. Guided tours are given all day Tuesday through Friday, and Saturday by appointment. Call 502.452.9920.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune