Houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places range from large, opulent mansions to small, rustic log cabins. All of them have some significance in American history, whether it was the people who lived there or events that took place. But inclusion on the list of places worthy of preservation is no automatic guarantee of survival. One such house is Ridgeway, located on the outskirts of the small town of Cynthiana, Kentucky.
Ridgeway was built in 1818 by Colonel William Brown. Besides being a prominent attorney and a United States Congressman who served with fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, he was also a veteran of the War of 1812. Col. Brown, like so many other land owners in the South, had slaves. But the colonel was not a typical southern farmer. He and his family, and Ridgeway, highlight another aspect of life before and during the Civil War — one where a southern owner set his slaves free, and a Union owner who believed in slavery.
The farms of Kentucky were smaller than the large plantations of the Deep South. Both had slaves but several farm owners, including Brown, were appalled at the practice of slavery. Kentucky was a border state and influenced by both the anti-slavery states of the North and the pro-slavery states of the South. The Brown family lived in the northern portion of the state, approximately 60 miles south of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The colonel and his family moved to Illinois in the 1830s to begin his own “emancipation” act of freeing his slaves. Other Kentucky families felt the same way and were part of the Illinois migration. One of those was the Todd family whose daughter was Mary Todd Lincoln. She, incidentally, was born the same year Ridgeway was built.
Colonel Brown, his son James, and nephew Orville Hickman Browning, were all attorneys and shared strong abolitionist views. The family bought large tracts of undeveloped land in Illinois for farming. James hired a farm hand who was originally from Kentucky. That hand was Abraham Lincoln who would become the 16th president of the United States.
Lincoln was close friends with James and Orville even before he was elected president. While campaigning in 1858, he wrote a letter to James stating that slavery violates “the great fundamental principle” of men being created equal. James, later, was a pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral.
Orville served as an adviser to Lincoln during the Civil War, especially in matters relating to their home state of Kentucky. In 1861, the president wrote to him about his concerns, saying, “to lose Kentucky is to lose the whole game.” Orville continued his political career after Lincoln’s assassination, serving under President Andrew Johnson as Secretary of Interior and U.S. Attorney General.
After the Brown and Browning families left Ridgeway for Illinois, the house had other owners. One was a physician and Union supporter, Dr. Joel Fraser. He, like the Browns, didn’t fit the stereotypical pattern of pro vs. anti-slavery. He owned slaves, but unlike the Browns, he believed in slavery. He allowed Union soldiers to camp out on the grounds of Ridgeway and helped a Union soldier hide when the area fell into the hands of the Confederacy.
Today, the house is part of Flat Run Veterans Park, a 120-acre city park. Both the house and surrounding park are on the National Register of Historic Places, and are recognized as Kentucky landmarks. The Harrison County Historical Society and volunteers from Cynthiana look after Ridgeway. With such an amazing history, it is hard to imagine that this historic home is in danger of being torn down and replaced by a swimming pool. When and if it’s gone, there will only be stories of what once was.
Written by: Cynthia Collins