Remembering Kentucky's Past At Federal Hill



My Old Kentucky Home: Federal Hill

A 7,500 Square Foot Architectural Inspiration Sitting Atop 300 Beautiful Green Acres And An Icon Of Kentucky Hospitality

Derby Ad With Federal Hill In The Background [Courtesy/Kentucky State Parks]

Federal Hill, located in Bardstown Kentucky, is not only an architectural inspiration sitting atop 300 beautiful, green acres: It's an icon of Kentucky hospitality. It's a symbol for the home of every Kentuckian. The 7,500 square foot home is approaching its 200th anniversary and Mansion Supervisor Richard Blanton is hoping people will come celebrate its rich history... And maybe stay for a song.

Each informative tour of the authentically-furnished three-story mansion begins with a tour guide singing “My Old Kentucky Home,” by Stephen Foster, who was inspired to write the lyrics after visiting Federal Hill. The tour guides will turn to the group and sing the well-known abolishonist ballad in front of Stephen Foster's portrait in one of the home's hallways.

This is actually Blanton's favorite part of working at the mansion. He said: “I like the history, but one of my favorite moments in the tour is being able to sing our state song... To watch people's reactions. People will sing along. You'll see couples reach for each other and hold hands. Sometimes eyes are welling up with tears. Some people sob... It's just an absolutely gorgeous song. It just really touches people in a very deep, emotional way. That's neat, to elicit those emotions through song, reinforced by the entire tour and history one gets from it.”


The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home.
'Tis summer, the people are gay,
The corn top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy, and bright.
By 'n by hard times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, good night.

Mansion Guides In Front Of The Mansion [Courtesy/Kentucky State Parks]
Mansion Guides Pose In Parlor [Courtesy/Kentucky State Parks]
Guide Gestures To Stephen Foster Portrait [Courtesy/Kentucky State Parks]

In his autobiography “My Bondage and My Freedom,” famous African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass stated that the song evoked a sentimental theme towards the enslaved servant that promotes and popularizes the cause of abolishing slavery, commenting: “They are heart songs, and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. They can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile...”

The emotion behind the tune kept it popular after the Civil War and throughout history, especially in Kentucky. And even more so at Federal Hill, where the song originated. Being in the home that inspired such powerful, emotional lyrics, surrounded by original furnishings, while hearing a tour guide sing the tune... For many, it's a powerful experience that can't be had anywhere else.

Federal Hill began as a one-story brick home. The land was purchased by John and Ann Rowan in 1812, who expanded and enlarged the home with a three-story addition in the Federal style. Judge John Rowan's ancestors were immigrants, colonists and participants in the American Revolution. Ann was the daughter of Captain William Lytle, a member of George Washington's elite regiment.

The Rowan family continued to own the home for three continuous generations, until the property was purchased by the Commonwealth in 1922, the furnishings included.

All of the rooms have a special meaning to Blanton, but one of his favorites is the home's extensive library. The library has over 285 volumes of law books owned by Judge Rowan (even Harvard University only had 500 law books at the time). While the room is much less formal than, say, the parlor, it's where a lot more interesting stories are told about the family, said Blanton.

One of those stories was about the time that Judge Rowan was in a duel.

Over a game of cards and some drinks, Rowan ended up in an argument with a local doctor, James Chamber, in 1801. The argument was over who could speak dead languages the best. Despite the seemingly sophistacated topic, the argument ended in a fist fight, “although witnesses said John Rowan hit the walls as often as he hit the doctor,” added Blanton with a laugh.

The Julep Tour [Courtesy/Kentucky State Parks]
Stephen Foster The Musical [Courtesy/Kentucky State Parks]
Playing Golf On The Mansion Grounds [Courtesy/Kentucky State Parks]

The drunk Chambers challenged Rowan to a duel a bit later on. Rowan attempted to apologized, but Chambers did not accept it. So they went outside of the city limits and proceeded to have the duel.

Both missed their first shots.

Rowan attempted to apologize again.

Chambers did not accept.

Rowan took a second shot at Chambers and it hit him. The doctor ended up dead.

Rowan was not charged with murder because “all forms of dueling had been followed correctly, explained Blanton. “What's interesting today,” he added, “is that as a part of oath of office for every single elected official in the state, including lawyers, policemen... They must all swear that they have never participated in a duel. It always gets some grins and giggles.”

While Federal Hill is full of history – both on the family and the state's history – being inside of the mansion feels more like a home and less of a museum. Guests can meander through each room, see the original furnishings, see portraits of the family... They can feel the stories of the people who lived there, who once walked through the home. It touches a chord with everyone who comes through.

With an 18-hole golf course, an outdoor theater and a small RV campground, staying at My Old Kentucky Home State Park is a powerful and emotional look back at the state's history, but also a place of beauty and relaxation, where guests can experience Kentucky hospitality.

“It's so important that everyone vacation in America,” said Blanton. “There's so much history right here. It's simply a way to step back in history for a while. A way to relax and enjoy the beautiful Kentucky country-side.” 

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

Grandma's RV Camping

Make Sure To Stay At:

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, beloved and favored by guests who appreciate the campground's unique round-about layout and beautiful setting amongst one of Kentucky's most beautiful parks.

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