Family Stories

A Famous Bluegrass Home and Its Historic Associations – Spring Hill – Woodford County

For my blog today I went to photos taken at the Frankfort Cemetery.  Those of Nathaniel Hart and family caught my attention.  The elder Nathaniel Hart and wife Sarah Simpson Hart are buried at Boonesborough, in Madison County, but the later Harts lie in Frankfort.  The family home, Spring Hill, was located in the ‘V’ created by US 60 and US 62 in Woodford County.

Sadly, the home no longer stands, but this interesting remembrance, written in 1898, gives us a wonderful picture of not only the home, but the family who lived there.  In December of the following year, a fire started in the basement of the home and all the paintings and family heirlooms were lost.  At least we have the following article to give us a picture of the glory of the home before the fire.

When Mrs. Rebecca Tevis Hart died in 1911 her obituary states she ‘was interred in the family burying grounds on the Spring Hill farm.’  Since all members of this family have matching gravestones I thought it possible the bodies were brought to Frankfort at a later date and buried together.  Susanna Preston Hart Camden was buried in Frankfort in January of 1929.  Perhaps other family members were moved before or after this date?

The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Sunday, October 23, 1898

A Famous Bluegrass Home and Its Historic Associations

Versailles, Ky., Oct. 22 – “Spring Hill” is perhaps the best type to be found in the Bluegrass region of those Kentucky estates, which descended from father to son, grandson, and, sometimes, great-grandson, in an unbroken line, and have in a hundred years almost rivaled in poetry, dignity and charm the world-famous English country homes which are the work of many centuries.

Many of these “old Kentucky homes” were acquired through Revolutionary grants, and have never been out of possession of the descendants of those entering the land.  This is the case with “Spring Hill.”

Nathaniel Hart II, 1770-1844, son of Nathaniel Hart and Sarah Simpson Hart.  Frankfort Cemetery, Franklin County, Kentucky.

William Preston, of Virginia, obtained the land through such a grant, but never occupied it.  His daughter, Susanna Preston, married Nathaniel Hart the younger, who traded Virginia land to his father-in-law for the Spring Hill property, and came to live on it.  He built a log house close to the spring from which the place takes its name, probably between 1796 and 1800, and lived there with his family until about 1805, when the stately old colonial house which has sheltered the family ever since, and which has always been the seat of a noble hospitality, was completed.  The original tract was very large, containing several thousand acres.  At his death it was divided, but the largest portion of it, being that on which the residence stands, comprising Spring Hill proper, descended to his son, William Preston Hart who greatly improved and beautified the place, and who loved it with a passionate devotion.  He had a large deer park, and, among other things, had a large number of trees set out to form a delightful labyrinth, which has long since been cut away.

Susanna Preston, 1772-1833.  Wife of Nathaniel Hart.

William Preston Hart

Col. William Hart was an extremely handsome and stately man, as his full-length portrait at Spring Hill, painted by Carpenter (of New York) attests, and his courtly and fascinating manners are still remembered.  He was married about the close of the late war to his cousin, Miss Rebecca Tevis, who is a great-granddaughter of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first Governor.

William Preston Hart, 1807-1868.  son of Nathaniel Hart II and Susanna Preston Hart.

He died a few years later, having one child, Susanna Preston Hart, who, with her mother, is the present owner of the estate.  During her daughter’s childhood and girlhood, Mrs. Hart dispensed a royal hospitality at Spring Hill, not only keeping up its old traditions, but greatly increasing its fame.  Being a woman of great refinement, broad information and fine literary taste, she naturally drew about her brilliant and charming people.  Such men as Senator James B. Beck, Murat Halstead, Col. A. K. McClure, Gen. John C. Breckinridge, Justice Stanley Matthews, Joseph Jefferson, Sam Bowles and others equally as able delighted to enjoy her hospitality.  No country home in the state is better adapted for entertaining than Spring Hill.  The house is built in the pure colonial style, so well known in this part of the south, and is admirably suited to the lavish manner of Kentucky entertainment.

Rebecca Carnon Tevis, 1844-1911.  Wife of William Preston Hart.

Amidst such surrounds, with every advantage that wealth could procure, Miss Susanna Hart grew to womanhood.  She was educated at the best schools this country affords, and spent a year or more in Europe.  She attracted great attention abroad, and her regal brunette beauty brought admirers by the score.  Her hand was sought by a prince of one of the oldest houses in Europe, but she remained simple and unspoiled, and returned to America as sweet and unaffected as ever.

Susanna Preston Hart, 1867-1929.  Wife of Johnson Newlon Camden.

She spent several seasons in the east and in Washington met Mr. Johnson N. Camden, son of ex-Senator J. N. Camden, the West Virginia millionaire, to whom she was married in 1888.  Mr. Camden was at that time engaged in looking after some of his father’s interest in West Virginia, but soon after, finding that the climate of that state did not agree with his wife’s health, came to Kentucky and established one of the most extensive thoroughbred breeding establishments in the country at Spring Hill under the name of “Hartland Stud,” headed by the great Spendthrift.  Mr. Camden has met with great success as a breeder.  He is a fine judge of horses and has unlimited nerve in backing his judgment.  Like his wife, he has had every possible advantage, and is a man of fine culture and very popular in his adopted state.  He and Mrs. Camden have just returned from a short trip abroad.  They have two children.

Johnson Newlon Camden, 1865-1942.  Married Susanna Preston Hart and Agnes McEvoy Clay.

Sheltered Many Notables

Spring Hill House has sheltered many of the most distinguished men of the century, among them Lafayette, President Madison, Aaron Burr, Gen. Winfield Scott, Henry Clay, John J. Crittenden, Vice President Henry Wilson, Thomas F. Marshall, and, it is said, Thomas Jefferson.  Thomas H. Benton spent many summers at Spring Hill, and Mrs. Hart still writes on a portfolio belonging to Benton.

Visitors to the place are always much interested in two historic trees standing near the house.  One, a bell chestnut tree, was planted by Gov. Isaac Shelby, Mrs. Hart’s great-grandfather.  He brought the seed from his home, “Travelers’ Rest,” where the parent tree is still standing.

The other is a venerable gum tree, beneath whose spreading branches Capt. Nathaniel Hart camped on his first visit to Woodford.  Thomas F. Marshall was very fond of this tree, and used frequently to sleep under it.  It is said that it is especially favored by Cupid, no less than fifty bonny Kentucky lasses having listened to the old, sweet story in its friendly shade.

Spring Hill is rich in family portraits, from Nathaniel Hart, the elder, father of Capt. Nathaniel Hart, who settled at the place, down to the present generation.  The elder Nathaniel was a very noted man.  He was born in Virginia, but removed to North Carolina with his parents, from whence he came to Kentucky in 1775.  There is at Spring Hill a quaint old commission appointing him to be Captain in the Orange regiment of militia, in Colonial days.  It reads as follows:

“North Carolina. – By his excellency, Josiah Martin, Esq., his majesty’s Captain General and Governor-in-chief in and over said province, to Nathaniel Hart, Esq., appointing him to be Captain in the Orange regiment of militia, whereof Francis Nash is Colonel.

“The 5th day of December, 1771, in the 12th year of his majesty’s reign.”

Nathanial Hart was one of the most courageous of Kentucky pioneers and figured in many daring deeds.  He was killed by the Indians in 1782.

Another interesting portrait is that of Col. Isaac Shelby, said to be the finest likeness of him in existence.  It was painted for President Andrew Jackson, who had his portrait painted for Shelby.  At the death of the two men the families exchanged the portraits.  There is also a portrait of Gov. Shelby’s wife.

In the hall there hangs a fine portrait painted by Beard, of “old Jack,” Capt. Nathaniel Hart’s body servant and the first negro who set foot upon Kentucky soil.  Jack was a very remarkable negro and immortalized himself by giving up his gun to be used in repelling the Indians at the battle of Blue Licks.  The gun was lost and the State of Kentucky replaced it by special act of the Legislature.  This resolution, which is on record, is quite a curiosity.  It reads as follows:

Legislative Curiosity

“Whereas, It is represented to this General Assembly that Jack Hart, a man of color, emigrated to Kentucky in the capacity of a servant to Capt. Nat Hart, in the year 1774, and endured the perils, privations and hardships incident to the pioneers of ‘the dark and bloody ground;’ that for fidelity and expertness as a hunter he was presented by Col David Hart with a rifle gun; that upon information being received at Boonesborough of Bryant’s Station being besieged by the Indians, he loaned his gun to a man then at the fort, to go to the assistance of the besieged, and the man returned without the gun, having lost it at the battle of the Blue Licks; therefore, in consideration of the valuable and faithful services of said Jack, in the first settlement of Kentucky, and in the further consideration of his giving up his gun so cheerfully to be used in repelling the savage foe,

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, that a gun be made, under the direction of the Adjutant General of the State, as early as practicable, with the following inscription engraved on the barrel thereof:  ‘Presented by the Legislature of Kentucky to Jack Hart, the pioneer of the African race to “the dark and bloody ground;’ awarded for faithful service and to compensate him for a rifle lost at the battle of the Blue Licks.’  Provided, the cost of the same shall not exceed thirty dollars.  And as soon as said gun shall be finished, the Adjutant General is hereby required to notify Nathaniel Hart, of Woodford, of the fact, who may receive the same for Jack and receipt therefore.  Provided, the said Jack Hart be, and he is hereby exempt from the penalties of the law against slaves carrying a gun.”

This gun was treasured as a relic until the Civil War, when it was stolen from Spring Hill by Burbridge’s men, who camped on the grounds and sacked the house.  Jack’s descendants have been servants in the Hart and Shelby families down to the present.  He died in 1844 and was buried at Traveler’s Rest, the old Shelby home in Lincoln County, a handsome stone marking his grave.  Jack’s portrait was exhibited at the Southern Exposition at Louisville in 1883 and at the World’s Fair in 1893.

The dwelling at Spring Hill is built over an immense cavern.  The entrance to the latter is about one hundred and fifty feet to the left of the house, and is large enough to permit a man standing erect to enter.  The cave contains several large chambers, thirty or more feet in diameter, and it has been explored to a distance of nearly half a mile.  Its mouth is one of the most picturesque spots in Woodford County.  Glenn’s creek rises in this cave.  It was on the banks of this creek that old Jim Crow, Kentucky’s pioneer distiller, discovered his chemical process of distilling Bourbon whisky.

The present estate comprises 1,500 acres, about 1,400 of which is in woodland and pasture and only about 100 acres in cultivation.  The woodlands are very beautiful and carefully kept.  Large stables are dotted over the farm on prominent knolls.  They are built in the most approved style, and pure spring water is pumped to all of them by a steam engine.  The thoroughbreds fare royally at Spring Hill, and as much attention is given to their foals as if they were young babies.  To drive out to this exquisite spot on a pleasant fall afternoon, and see through charming vistas of magnificent forest trees the youngsters gamboling on the velvety turf, is almost enough to make the average overworked business man wish himself a colt.

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