One Louisville Family’s Life at Locust Grove

There are a great many surprises from a tour of Historic Locust Grove, the original George Rogers Clark homestead on Blankenbaker Lane. The first surprise is that it wasn’t George Rogers Clark’s homestead.

The house was actually built in 1790 by William Croghan (pronounced Kron), who served alongside George Washington at Trenton and Valley Forge.

Croghan, surveying the Western Territory for the Virginia military after the war, claimed the property, built the 3600-square-foot house that is still standing there and married Lucy Clark, the general’s sister.

Clark, who did indeed found Louisville in 1788, lived instead in a log cabin in Indiana, where he suffered a stroke and stepped into the hearth, badly burning his leg, which had to be amputated. Disabled, he moved into a first floor bedroom at Locust Grove in 1809 for the last 10 years of his life.

The house, which came into the hands of the state and metro governments in 1961 as a historic landmark property, has been lovingly tended to and preserved by Historic Locust Grove Inc. to resemble the house as the Croghan family knew it 200 years ago.

As guests enter the red brick Georgian from one end of a long center hallway, to the left is a parlor or sitting room where Lucy Croghan had likely crocheted, read, or enjoyed a cup of tea.

Further along the hallway is a formal dining room with the imported porcelain the family almost certainly used, imprinted with the monogram of the Society of Cincinnati, to which William, as a war veteran, was entitled to membership.

Over the long dining table is a punka, an Indian system of fans that keeps flies off the food, operated with a cord by one of the slave children.

“Kentucky was a slave state,” said Carol Ely, Locust Grove executive director, “and the Croghans seem to have had as many as 40 slaves at a time.”

Also downstairs is the bedroom George Rogers Clark used, presumably so he didn’t have to walk up and down the stairs, with a bed on the floor for the slave named Kit who cared for Clark (and who was freed when Clark died).

Another room has been set up as William Croghan’s office, complete with law books and a glass of “whiskey” on the desk along with  a Kentucky long rifle resting against the wall near a door to the outside.

Although the entire structure and most of the woodwork is original, Ely admits that only a few original family items and pieces of furniture remained. The rest has been acquired or reproduced.

“We don’t always know exactly what their individual tastes were,” Ely said, “but our objective is to replicate the life of the period in Kentucky, using the best research available.”

Said efforts produce the occasional found piece of research, such as a letter daughter Ann Croghan wrote to her mother after moving to Washington, D.C..  “She wrote about choosing the right carpeting for her Washington home,” Ely recounts, “whether to choose an ingrain carpet or a Brussels carpet. That told us she was familiar with both.”

So now there’s machine-made Brussels carpet with an uncut pile downstairs, and woven, flat ingrain carpeting upstairs.

Another “a-ha” moment came when they hired an analyst to dig out some tiny paint fragments and determined the original color was a lovely vertigris green, which now adorns many of the walls in the house.

And the original wallpaper – described by Ely as “a glowing velvety turquoise French-style pattern” – was reproduced upstairs in a large great room. That room has been set up as an artist’s studio where in the 1820s the family members likely sat for the period portrait painter John Wesley Jarvis. Some of those family portraits are in the house and some are part of the Frick Collection in New York.

But the room was also used for parties, which Ely says today’s movie-goers would recognize from party scenes in movies about Jane Austen’s books, like “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice.”

Unfortunately, life was not all parties for the Croghans. The youngest four of the eight children all died in the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1820s. That led oldest son John to become a doctor and affect a treatment for the disease, even buying Mammoth Cave to turn it into a sanitarium.

But that was life in the early 19th century, which Louisvillians are lucky enough to step into for an hour or so at Locust Grove. Tours are daily and special events are frequent. Call 502-897-9845 or go to locustgrove.org for information.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune

  • Betsy Hatfield

    Nice article; great photos. Thank you for sharing!