The William Whitley House State Historic Site
Around 1775, Col. William Whitley (a soldier, pioneer, and sports enthusiast) and his wife Esther crossed the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky County through the Cumberland Gap. (Prior to this, Whitley had traveled into Kentucky County with George Rogers Clark, in an expedition against Native Americans in the Northwest Territory.) Whitley and his wife continued following Wilderness Road into what is today Stanford, KY. He planted 10 acres of corn on the land he intended to claim for himself and his family, and sent Esther and his 2 little girls on down the road to Logan’s Station while work began on their home. (Look for my next post to learn more about Logan’s Station.)
It took approximately 9 years to complete their home. All the bricks were fired on the property (the walls are all about 3 bricks thick), and all the wood paneling, floors, and rafters were logged from the property as well. William had bricks set with the ends facing out to create his initials “WW” on the front of the home, and “EW” on the back for his wife. (In 1810, an addition to the back of the home covered her initials.). The home is believed to be the first brick home built west of the Alleghenies.
“Guardian of the Wilderness”
Once completed, around 1785, Esther and their children moved into the home. Being built just feet from Wilderness Road, the home became known as “Guardian of the Wilderness.” Early explorers, and later pioneers, would stop at the home for a rest and news as they traveled. It is believed that historic figures such as Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, Isaac Shelby, and Simon Kenton would have been frequent visitors to the Whitley home.
Whitley was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Kentucky militia in 1793, and found himself often away from his home on raids against Native Americans. Esther was left at home to protect and defend herself, her 11 children, and her property. Esther must have been one very brave woman to be left alone on the frontier!
Once inside the home (no interior photographs are allowed), you will see the architectural “precautions” the family put into place to protect themselves from Native American attacks. The fireplace stacks were built into the interior of the home so that the Native Americans could not climb up them, and hidden cubbies were built into the walls to hide their children from attacks. The cubbies were also used to store their weapons and ammunition when not needed. Also on the tour, you will see the craft of building homes during this time. There is a winter kitchen, and a summer kitchen. The rafters in the 3rd floor attic space are exposed. You can see the broad ax marks showing the time and effort it took to turn round logs into square posts. You can see the notches, wooden pegs, and roman numerals that were carved into the various rafters; a system that helped the early pioneers to assemble them on the ground, only to disassemble and reassemble once up on the 3rd floor. No wonder it took 9 years to build the home! (My daughter and I both thought that this was a Mark Bowe, from “Barnwood Builders”, kind of place!)
The Family Cemetery
As if the home isn’t enough to make this road trip worthy of your time, also on the property is the family cemetery and Sportman’s Hill. The cemetery, I am sad to say, is in pretty rough shape. Some work is certainly going to need to be done to save what remains of the headstones.
Sportsman’s Hill is across the road from the home. It was constructed by William Whitley and was the first horse race track in the United States. It was an oval track, constructed of clay, and the races ran counter-clockwise. (All in opposition of British race tracks.) Races were held here until the Civil War began. You can hike to the top of Sportsman’s Hill on your visit!
The Home Today
Luckily, the home and property stayed in the family’s hands until it was sold to the state and eventually became as state park in 1938. It was in pretty rough shape, but not many changes had been made to the home. So today, when you tour the home, you are seeing it in its original state. Just last year, the state turned the home and its 10 acres over to Lincoln County, which now cares for and preserves the home.
My daughter and I loved this trip! We drove many state roads and through several small towns to get there, seeing parts of KY we had not seen before. It was a beautiful fall day, allowing us to roll the windows down and turn the radio up! Learning that this historic site sat overlooking Wilderness Road was a bonus. We took a selfie from Wilderness Road with William Whitely’s home in the background. I will never know for sure, but maybe our 5th and 6th great grandparents stood in that same spot as they made their way along Wilderness Road. The thought that maybe, just maybe, they too had viewed William Whitley’s home from that same spot was priceless! (If only there were selfies then!)
The home is open seasonally with special days and times. If you plan to visit, make sure to call ahead to verify it is open. The park also has a pavilion, restrooms, and a playground for children.