Family Stories

The First House on Walnut Street – Thomas Prather – Jefferson County

Prather family plot, Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Any time I see the last name Prather my mind goes to Ritchey’s 5th great-grandfather, William Baruch Prather, 1742-1810, buried at Raven Run in Fayette County.  Baruch was born a Marylander, the son of Aaron Allen Prather, 1710-1777.  Interestingly Aaron’s marriage license was issued by Governor Ogle to All Hallows Parish, of the Episcopalian faith, in Anne Arundel County.  Although his wife remains unnamed, she was a daughter of Jonathan Prather and a cousin to her husband.  One of Aaron’s brothers was Thomas MacKay Sprigg Prather, 1702-1785.  And this Thomas Prather was the father of our subject today, Thomas Prather 1770-1823, of Jefferson County.  Ritchey’s William Baruch and the younger Thomas were first cousins.  Both moving to Kentucky after the Revolutionary War, but landing in different counties.

Thomas Prather, son of Thomas McKay Sprigg Prather and his second wife, Jeanette Smiley, became president of the Old Bank of Kentucky in Louisville.  His wife was Matilda Martha Fontaine, daughter of Aaron Fontaine and Barbara Terrell.  Thomas and Matilda were the parents of James Smiley, William, Mary Jane, Matilda, Maria Julia and Catherine Cornelia Prather.

Following is a most interesting article on the old house of the Prather’s in what would now be downtown Louisville.

The Courier Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Sunday, November 12, 1899

The First House on Walnut Street

It is not out of place here to enter a description of the old Prather homestead.  It stood on a square between Green and Walnut, Third and Fourth avenues.  This house was built at the beginning of the century by Judge Fortunatus Cosby, who seems from all the accounts, rumor and remembrance to have been a ‘Kentucky gentleman’ in every sense of the word.  He was an intimate friend of Mr. Henry Clay, who often visited him when in this city.  The house, however, was best known as the ‘Prather home,’ as Judge Cosby was forced to sell it on account of business difficulties, and it became the homestead of his brother-in-law, Mr. Thomas Prather.  It fronted toward Green Street, but had entrances from Fourth Avenue and Walnut Street.  Mr. Prather improved it, and, as he lived in it, it was a fine two-story brick house with a verandah running all around.  An attic or third story room was built over the hall.  There were nine rooms in the original building, the servants’ quarters being in another house in the rear.  There was a large flower garden about it, broad graveled walks, an apple orchard along the Fourth Avenue side, and a thick grove of splendid walnut trees on the Walnut Street side.  On the corner of the lot where Macauley’s Theater now stands the grove of walnut trees had been cut away, and here was the family burying ground.  Mr. Thomas Prather’s character is one which has come down through the century as a beautiful type of the early pioneer and philanthropist.  His hospitality was never formal, but genial and unassuming.  He was a friend to every enterprise and met every appeal.  His manners were courteous, but never cold.  In the possession of his granddaughter, Mrs. Frederick Hussey, of Fourth Avenue, there are fine portraits by Jouett of this representative founder of the prosperity of the city.  It is a handsome picture of a man of great force of character.  In addition to his own qualities, he had for a wife one of the nine beautiful and admirable daughters of Captain Aaron Fontaine, the descendant of an illustrious French Huguenot family.  Captain Fontaine married a Virginian woman of birth and beauty and came to Kentucky in 1798.  He had twelve children, and nine daughters graced the young community with their wit and beauty.  They married at early ages, each into a prominent family of the city.  Matilda became Mrs. Thomas Prather and ruled the household that made ‘Prather Square’ famous.  From this house set out her younger sister, Maria Fontaine, for her new home in the far south a few days after her marriage to Sterling Grimes, of Georgia.  It is told that on that day the entire relationship and connections gathered at the ‘Prather house’ to bid a farewell and Godspeed to the young bride.  When the hour for departure came they gathered on the verandah and broad walk while the young husband and wife mounted their horses to ride away.  The girl, who was leaving all her genial kindred and friends, kept her face turned back upon the assemblage as long as she could see them, and she waved her hand again and again ere she passed out of their sight into the forest.  Although she lived twelve years and bore several children, none of all that assemblage ever saw her after that parting day.  Opposite this house on Walnut Street, in the second decade of the century, John I. Jacob built a substantial house after he married the sixteen-year-old sister of Mrs. Thomas Prather, Ann Overton Fontaine.  The house was set back from the street, all embowered in trees and outbuildings.  It is remembered by many as still standing in the 40’s and as a homelike and retired place after splendid mansions were built in front and about it.

Did you notice the Kentucky artist Matthew Jouett was mentioned in the article?  I searched for a photo of the portrait he did of Thomas Prather, but to no avail.  It must be in a private collection.  However, the portrait of his daughter Catherine Cornelia Prather was in my book, Matthew Harris Jouett, Kentucky Portrait Painter 1787-1827 by E. A. Jonas.

Thomas Prather, December 2, 1770 – February 3,1823.

Thomas Prather died in 1823.

Matilda, wife of Thomas Prather, born September 18, 1782, died November 28, 1850.

Matilda Fontaine Prather died 27 years later.


5 replies »

  1. Thank you for this excellently written and researched article. The subject is my 1st cousin 7x removed. I grew up on the “sunny side” of Louisville near “Prather” in Clark Co., IN.

  2. To whom it may concern, Do you have any more history about Aaron Fontaine of the Fontaine Manse in Kentucky the same family related to Fontaine Ferry on the Ohio River. Any pictures or the children that might of died at a early age in Kentucky at The Fontaine Manse and how they died? I Love history, and would love to learn more about The Fontaine Manse family that lived there.

  3. Hello,

    Jouett did indeed do a portrait of Thomas Prather, and his son, William Prather. Both were in the collection of my great great aunt, Emily Hussey Minnigerode, (who was Thomas Prather’s great great grandaugter) until her death in 1964. My grandfather, who would be Thomas Prather’s great great great grandson, inherited the portrait of William, and it now belongs to my uncle (who still lives in Louisville). The portrait of Thomas Prather was inherited by my grandfather’s cousin, Thomas Lewis Jefferson, in who’s family it still remains. Both portraits were exhibited at a retrospective of Jouett’s work, at the Speed, in 1926.

    All my best,

    • Thank you for the information on the Prather portraits. We have since moved to Michigan, but during our married years in Kentucky we lived in Harrodsburg, Mercer County. Jouett lived there until his father moved to nearby Woodford County. Therefore I have an interest not only in the family, but the portraitist.

Any thoughts?

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