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Farmington Plantation In Kentucky Is A Site Of History & Culture In Louisville.

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Docent & University Of Louisville Culture Graduate Discusses Impact, Sociology & The Psychology Of Abraham Lincoln

Ailene Meiman Outside Farmington House In Louisville, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Hidden away nestled between a major road and an expressway lies a hidden gem of pre-Civil War living called Farmington Plantation, which is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Important for the short time an impressionable lawyer named Abraham Lincoln stayed on its grounds…its sociology and culture seems to have deeply impacted him as he grew older. Docent Aline Meiman, who has lived in its vicinity on the edge of Louisville, Kentucky most of her life, spoke to The Buzz about its intricate history, its relevance to today and how it shows a perception into the mind of one Abraham Lincoln.

The Buzz: Can you talk about the idea of history you could touch, see, sense and feel at Farmington Plantation.

Aline Meiman: It's very important especially with....I'm going to focus on young people...to introduce them to a lifestyle that is unknown to them, [basically] coming into the house, turning on the lights, turning on the water and opening the refrigerator just from a cultural day-to-day living perspective. Coming to Farmington is opening a door to the past and it's important. It's important that we know where we came from so that we don't make some of the same mistakes that we made before. Or at least that we appreciate where we came from. For example, these people having 60 African American slaves to enable them to live in such a luxurious lifestyle [helps you to] appreciate the fact that it took that many people to live probably not as nicely as we live today without any help because we have computers, electricity, and all that sort of thing. Abraham Lincoln [also] stayed here for three weeks, and that it was a very important time in his life because he had never experienced a plantation with slavery. It probably did help change and solidify his perspective on slavery.

The Buzz: Can you talk how he ended up here?

AM: Joshua Speed [one of the sons of Farmington] met Abraham Lincoln I believe it was about five years earlier when Abraham Lincoln showed up in Springfield at a little mercantile he was running. Abraham Lincoln had just gotten his lawyer's license or [whatever] the equivalent of passing the bar was back then. He had come to Springfield to set up a law office and start his experiment of being a lawyer. He was buying bedding at this mercantile but the sad thing was Lincoln didn't even have the money [to pay for the bedding]. He was on a borrowed horse. So Joshua said, "Well, look. I have a big room upstairs. Why don't you stay with me, and by the end of the summer, you'll know whether your experiment in the law was worthwhile or not." Well, the two became fast friends and very, very close. I know that they had a lot of different gatherings with a lot of other local men in town. I like to think of it as like a spring-filled Algonquin Round Table.

The Buzz: The interesting thing is to look at the psychology of Lincoln when he comes here about dealing with society. You see it in that one room he stayed in as well as the reports of his almost manic depressive state.

AM: One of the reasons [Lincoln] came [to Farmington] is because Joshua was called home in 1840 after John Speed, his father, died. Later, [Joshua] received a letter from Lincoln, and Lincoln said, “I'm the most miserable man alive.” Lincoln had just broken up with Mary Todd, who was a visiting debutante. She was visiting Springfield but she was from Lexington, Kentucky…from a very, very wealthy, slave-holding and Confederate family. Joshua knew how depressed his friend could get and said, "You need to come home to me." And Lincoln did. Of course, when Lincoln got here, he also had a raging toothache. So there were a lot of good things that came out from this visit. I mean, Lincoln got a good perspective of slavery but he also got to spend a lot of time at Joshua’s brother James' law office [in Downtown Louisville]. They lent him a cart and a slave to take him downtown so that he could go there and read the law books. Lincoln was a very self-taught but studious type person. He wanted to read everything he could.

Painters Rendering Of Farmington Plantation in the Mid 1800s. [Courtesy: Farmington Plantation]

The Buzz: Can you speak about the lay of the land here. Farmington Plantation used to be much more expansive-- like 550 acres. It is of course smaller now.

AM: The big intersectors are Bardstown Road and the Expressway here [to our left]. But Bardstown Road ran about two and a half miles through, north to south. That’s where, John Speed [Joshua’s father] had set up toll booths and made a plank road. But the property would be 554 acres. It would take up about a mile and a half footprint on the earth if you were looking down at it on a bird's-eye view. The property would extend to the east quite a ways back, and the hemp fields would have been there. I grew up behind Farmington, so I was due east of the house.

The Buzz: So it obviously it had an impression on you as a child, but then when you grew older, you came back here. Can you sort of talk about that journey if you don't mind?

AM: When I used to visit Farmington years and years ago, it looked nothing like it does today. They have done a meticulous job of trying [since 2000] to do this accurately as possible, decorating the house to 1840. I remember it being darker and drearier, and there wasn't as much story. There wasn't as much of a storyline to tell people. I like to talk about the “Bread & Butter”  letter because it says so much about Lincoln because being a self-made man, didn't even know to look to his host to see which fork his host was using [at dinner]. And, of course, Lincoln made the incredible faux pas of not passing the jelly at the big mutton dinner that he was invited to the first night that he spent at Farmington. And when he left, he was really just sitting down to write a thank you note and everybody does that.

The Buzz: Most of it now is by text or email.

AM: And some of us still use fountain pens and thank you notes and write people and say, "Thank you. I had a lovely time." But his problem was he didn't know to whom to send a note. He decided on Mary because Mary was the oldest daughter of John Speed. She was 41. He was 32 [at the time]. He wrote the letter to Mary because she was his crony…she was the devoted one, and even in the opening lines, he comments, he says, "I should have asked for permission but I didn't." So you're going to read a pretty silly letter. "By the way, I'm sorry I shut you in that room but I had to do so to keep you from doing me bodily harm," which says a lot about Lincoln.

The Buzz: When I hear that right now, "you could have caused me bodily harm," it's sort of like an email. You can't get sarcasm in a letter sometimes but the humor if you know to look for it is there.

AM: Yes, exactly. I think they were playing a game of tag. There were a lot of children involved, living in that house, and I think they were playing a game of tag and he actually shut her into one of the “bonifieds”, what we would call closet today. But closets weren't really necessary until 1903 when they started manufacturing the wire coat hanger. I just think they were playing a game of tag but maybe they had a real, true, budding friendship or relationship starting, who knows? But I just think it says something about Lincoln that he really wanted in his own fashion to say, "Thank you," and recap the nice time that he had on his trip. He also goes on to talk to Mary, to tell her about what was happening on the ship [he was on], seeing the slaves being shipped from one place to another. [In] meeting one slave, Lincoln must've actually talked to him because he said [in the letter], "This one slave got sold because he got too close to his own wife." I just think that says a lot about Abraham Lincoln as a man, being empathetic and kind and wanting to know more, not leaving any stoned unturned.

Entrance To Farmington House In Louisville, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
Looking Out From Entrance At Farmington House In Louisville, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: You attended University Of Louisville and were educated specifically in cultural studies. Can you talk about looking at Farmington from that perspective?

AM:  I haven't really had time to wordsmith here, but coming from a cultural background studying culture is cyclic. I think it's important because…I love tours with the children because sometimes they are just amazed that more than two people slept in a bed, or that, "Is that a giant teacup on the floor?" "No, that is a chamberpot." "Is that a popcorn popper?" "No, that is a bed warmer." There  are just some things that are so foreign to them. They all know, "Sleep tight, don't let the bugs bite."

The Buzz: But the psychology of these people and how they dealt with life was so much different.

AM: This is just a lifestyle that is not here anymore. We can go into the room and turn on a light. And, of course, we do have electricity in Farmington, for obvious reasons, and heat and air. But some people don't appreciate how hard it is just to live on a daily basis if you were a pioneer. The first thing you had to do was get up and start a fire in the morning. Or, heaven forbid, if you let the fire go out, you had to stoke it back up. Think of if you had to hunt for your own food, actually grow your own food, and actually go to the spring house and get your water. They're just so many basic things and yet these people lived with a crew of 60 people doing all the hard labor for them. So they were able to do nice things like learn how to embroider or learn how to play the piano or practice their penmanship or learn to sing and learn to dance…or learn the niceties of life like how to pass the jelly and which knife and fork to use.

The Buzz: A great aspect is that all the antique items here at Farmington are tactile.

AM: They are. Just the fact that when you show visitors the tub [and relate that] people didn't bathe very often…you get this horrified look on people’s faces. It's like well, people got used to more body odor back then, too. It was just a part of life.  I'm sure if I walked back in time, I would probably be a little bit shocked myself. But if I was used to it, I would just wake up. During the Middle Ages, nobody told them that they were lived in the Middle Ages. They were contemporaries. It probably wasn’t until the 19th century that they called it the “Middle Ages”. When you're living a lifestyle, you're contemporary. 100 years from now, they're going to think we were barbarians, or that we've lost our minds. It's hard to say. But Farmington, it's historically important because of Abraham Lincoln's visit here. It's a treasure in the middle of city of Louisville that a lot of people just don't even know about simply because it is tucked away beside Sullivan College. It’s just its own little niche. When you drive back that long driveway, you do sort of step back into time. That is why living history museums are so popular. Go to Spring Mill Park [in Indiana] during the summer. Those people are dressed up in costume, and they're actually doing chores and labor, using 19th century methods.

The Buzz: It gives you a different perspective.

AM: How would you live? What would you do? How would you live if your lifestyle changed? Could you do it? Could you manage? I'm not trying to say we should become survivalists.  I think I'm just saying as we develop as human beings and as we get new technology, we sometimes get away from the basic human beings [we are]. We get so absorbed with devices and other things that we forget that at one point, people actually had to do things themselves. (laughing)

Photo Of Abraham Lincoln Hanging In Room He Stayed At Farmington House In Louisville, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
Room Abraham Lincoln He Stayed In At Farmington House In Louisville, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: Can you talk about the parallels between your emotional connection here and what Abraham Lincoln maybe felt?

AM: I think it was about the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and a family that was very important to him [with views] that were different from his views. We know that John Speed actually didn't approve of slavery, but yet, his lifestyle was enabled by virtue of slavery. We know that Abraham Lincoln definitely didn't approve of slavery, and yet, I'm sure there were some pretty animated conversations about it.

The Buzz: Because Lincoln was born not too far from here…

AM: Right near what is now Hodgenville. He had very strong Kentucky roots. He even married Mary Todd who was from Lexington.  I think he got in trouble when her family came to visit The White House. People were saying, "You've got Confederates…slaveholders visiting The White House? What's wrong with you?" The thing is, I think it shows something that we need today that people need to learn how to get along, and that we may have differing opinions but we need to reconnect to each other and understand where each other are coming from. That's for me one of the things that I see with Abraham Lincoln and Joshua and his family is that even though they may have felt one way and he felt another way, they found a way to get along. I think it would have been very interesting had he not died. I think it would have been interesting to see how things would have fared with the family relationships but I think they probably would have worked out because he was so close to them. Even though he never came back to visit here, it was a very significant time for him.

The Buzz: Why truly do you think that was?

AM: I think there's an empathy in Abraham Lincoln that is very rare. He felt things extremely deeply. His thought process must have been amazing, because they say he could start a speech and…it would be wordsmithed from the time he started writing. He could be interrupted, walk away from it, and come back, and start at that same point, with even  have to reread, and keep writing.  I would have loved to have been inside his head just to see how the man thought and how he processed things. I think he must have been an amazing human being. I wish more people were like him.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

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