by Kristin Nador/@KristinNador
I feel a bit claustrophobic. This is my first winter in Kentucky. I like it here but the forced confinement after snow and freezing temps that rival Siberia has got me antsy in my apartment. When wind chills go into the negative digits, it’s time for hot tea and a good movie. I’m not a winter person, so I hope the cold will move on soon.
Before the weather turned arctic, I spent an afternoon at a local landmark with immense spaces and loads of history attached. It inspired me to dig deeper in the writing research I’m doing for my historical fiction.
Write Anywhere #80: Plantation House
Ward Hall is named for Junius Ward, (1802-1883) a wealthy Mississippi planter who built his summer home two miles west of Georgetown, Kentucky. This Greek revival style antebellum mansion was completed in 1856. It’s one of only a few structures with the original interior design intact.
The mansion cost $50,000 in gold to build, which in today’s prices is about 1.2 million dollars. The home stands four stories tall and with over 12,000+ square feet was particularly spacious, considering the family lived there four months out of the year.
The mansion, now overseen by the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation, is open only one weekend per month, so I grabbed my chance to look inside. Even with obvious deterioration it’s amazing how this house survived over 150 years, virtually unchanged but for basic electricity.
After gawking at the massive 25-foot Corinthian columns lining the portico, I found the back door entrance and felt as if I’d become a time traveller. A huge foyer, running the length of the house, welcomed me with ornate mirrors and chandeliers. The plaster medallions surrounding the chandeliers still hold their original decorative colors.
History is embedded in the pores of this home. Junius Ward became one of the wealthiest men in the south, and made his money from cotton, hemp, and his powerful connections. He owned slaves who farmed his crops, maintained his houses and the family’s personal needs. Ward acquired prime Mississippi bottomland in 1827 as one of the first white men to obtain lands while the Choctaw Indians were being systematically removed from their southern homelands.
Junius Ward played a part at the beginnings of thoroughbred racing in Kentucky. He had part ownership in Lexington, a winning racehorse, and a sire to many more prize-winning horses, including Preakness, namesake of one of the Triple Crown races. The Belmont Stakes, another Triple Crown race, is run in honor of Lexington.
Junius’s father, General William Ward, appointed as the U.S. government’s Indian agent during the land treaties with the Choctaw Indians, seems to have supported President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal efforts, and is sited in numerous historical records to have refused the majority of Choctaws the ability to register for their own lands. He indulged in what was later said in Congressional investigations to be ‘obvious and overwhelming frauds’.
Junius’s uncle, Richard Mentor Johnson, (1780-1850) became vice-president of the United States during the Van Buren administration. He was a war hero who supposedly killed Indian chief Tecumseh, yet ran a school for Choctaw Indian boys, for which he received payment from the Choctaw Nation. He lived in common-law marriage with three different slave women, the most notable being Julia Chinn. And then there was Sallie.
Sallie Ward was the niece of Junius and his wife Matilda Viley Ward. Sallie was known for her dazzling beauty, her ostentatious dresses, and was not your “typical” young Southern woman. Once she rode a horse up the stairs of a Louisville hotel. She was married four times, withstood a contentious and well-publicized divorce, and wore ‘“paints and cosmetics”. Her second husband’s family disapproved, but he wrote to them that he would “rather go to hell with Sallie Ward than to go to heaven without her”. (source: A History of Kentucky by Thomas D. Clark)
Although she flaunted social conventions of the day, she was still considered one of the loveliest and most admired southern belles. Sallie and her aunt hosted summer parties for the high society Kentucky families at Ward Hall.
What a cast of characters! Reminds me of the television series “Dallas“.
I walked through the first floor rooms, connected by beautiful floor-to-ceiling pocket doors, admiring the furnishings. The windows had an otherworldly quality from their patina and glass distortion common to older glass.
Pamphlets and documents are available in the foyer that help tell the story of Ward Hall, but the volunteer docents share an abundance of knowledge about the architectural, historical, and cultural details, too. Built-in closets on the second floor were uncommon except in the wealthiest homes. Although the doors were tall, the closets themselves were not very deep.
The cupola, a raised dome lined with windows at the top of the house, was opened during the warm summer months and cooled the house when air conditioning was non-existent. The cupola is kept closed now, and the stuffy rooms prompted me to ask the tour guide about how the family survived the hot summers. He said the family really didn’t do anything that resembled work, so they probably didn’t get that sweaty. They were waited on constantly, and that included being fanned by slaves used for only that purpose. Mind-boggling.
One of the reasons the home may be mostly intact is that after the Civil War Junius Ward went bankrupt and until the present day, the home only had four owners.
I climbed the elegant elliptical staircase to the top floor and down again, out of breath and knees aching. Who can conceive the exhaustion slaves felt running up and down the winding staircase, attending to their master’s every need?
Except the slaves didn’t use that staircase. A hidden narrow stairway, now too damaged to ascend, let them tend to their duties discreetly. Ward Hall doesn’t sidestep this part of the building’s history, as the pamphlets and basement slave kitchen rooms attest.
Some might argue that slaves of a very wealthy family had a more comfortable life than most, but that’s a moot point. I know some people might prefer to use the term servant, but servants worked in places like Downton Abbey, where although they came from the lower class, had a choice to work for Lord Grantham or not. Slaves had no choice of employer, trade, home, sexual partner, or whether they got to raise their children. Slaves helped build wealthy southern dynasties without any payment, without any choice, without acknowledgement that they were anything more than property. It’s very hard to get my mind around the fact this repugnant mindset was morally and legally acceptable, but it’s a part of America’s history that people need to preserve and talk about if we are to understand, accept, and help heal today’s issues on race in America.
Touring the mansion gave me a sense of both majesty and melancholy. At one point I was left by myself at the far end of the second floor, near a bedroom filled with cribs and toy dolls. My skin felt electric for a moment. It happened again in the silence of the basement. The eerie energy urged me back into the main areas where other tourists gathered.
It’s hard to imagine the house in its heyday, warm summer nights filled with power and opulence, shrewd business dealings and society parties, against a backdrop of native displacement and human enslavement.
I stepped out into the late autumn air and strolled around the grounds, a shadow of its former self. Ironically the plantation, now surrounded by modern suburban neighborhoods, fights to keeps its place on the landscape. Gargantuan trees, allowed to grow unmolested for at least 150 years, swayed in the breeze.
I wondered about the stories. Stories of power and scandal, love and heartbreak, mystery and misery. That’s what attracts me to history: the characters. History gives basic facts, but it’s also the stories of people behind the facts. Some stories we know, others only allow speculation.
I scribbled some notes sitting on a bench behind the mansion that day, but the more important thing I did was commit to go deeper with the research on my own historical fiction about German immigrants during the late 19th century.
Characters may be fictional, but getting the facts behind your characters lives makes your story vibrant and ring true.
You don’t have to write historical fiction to get inspiration from visiting local landmarks. You can gain a broader perspective on life, learn how history is interpreted based on who is telling the story, understand the importance of an accurate historical record, be stirred to activism, or find a fascinating person to inspire a character in whatever genre you may be writing.
What historical building, place, or landmark in your area will you explore?
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