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My Old Kentucky Home History

Established February 26, 1936

Click here to download the park's printable history. Adobe PDF Document

The house that came to symbolize Kentucky’s gracious hospitality and according to legend inspired Stephen Collins Foster to write his immortal song, “My Old Kentucky Home” is one of the most cherished historical sites in the commonwealth. Built between 1795 and 1818, Federal Hill, the home of Judge John Rowan, became a part of the Kentucky State Parks System on February 26, 1936. Located near Bardstown in Nelson County, the house and estate had been the home of the Rowan family for three generations, spanning a period of 120 years. In 1922 Madge Rowan Frost, the last Rowan family descendent sold her ancestral home and 235-acres to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The purchase of the historic estate came about due to the efforts of the “My Old Kentucky Home Commission.” The Commission met on March 16, 1921 in the office of Governor Edwin Porch Morrow to discuss how to acquire Federal Hill for a state historic shrine. Young E. Allison, Judge Robert W. Bingham, and A.T. Hart of Louisville, along with Mrs. Clement French of Maysville, and Arch Pulliam and Osso Stanley of Bardstown, concluded that the only way to raise sufficient funds to purchase the Federal Hill property had to be from a statewide effort.

After Arch Pulliam made the necessary arrangements with Madge Rowan Frost to sell the property, the school children of Kentucky led the fundraising campaign for the purchase of “My Old Kentucky Home.” The campaign was a success and on July 4, 1923 Federal Hill became a historic shrine. The commission continued to maintain the house and estate until the Department of Conservation, Division of State Parks took over the maintenance of house and grounds in 1936.

Federal Hill is a Georgian style mansion that originally had 13 rooms. The number 13 is repeated throughout the house, supposedly to honor the 13 colonies at the time of America’s independence from Great Britain. The front of the home has 13 windows, and there are 13 steps to each floor of the house. Completed in 1796, the rear wing of the house contains a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a smokehouse. The first floor has a dining room, parlor, and library. The second floor has bedrooms, and the third floor contained the nursery. The house is built of brick and has six large rooms that are 22 feet square. Ceilings are 13-1/2 feet high. The floors are made of yellow poplar and the walls are 13 inches thick.

Madge Rowan Frost sold Federal Hill with the express wish and condition that the Commonwealth of Kentucky preserve the estate as a state shrine or historic site. Frost also gave the state the Rowan family heirlooms in perpetuity to help furnish authentically the home. The furnishings are some of the best examples of American furniture in the nation.

John Rowan (1773-1843), who built Federal Hill, was born in York, Pa. and in 1790, he moved to Bardstown. He studied law in Lexington under the tutelage of George Nicholas, Kentucky’s first attorney general. He soon became one of Kentucky’s foremost defense lawyers. Rowan is also remembered for killing Dr. James Chambers in an 1801 duel fought over a disagreement as to who was the expert in classical languages. Rowan served as secretary of state in 1804, and was elected to Congress (1807-1809). He served in the Kentucky General Assembly, the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and as United States Senator (1825-1831). He married Anne Lytle in 1794.

The Rowan home hosted many famous individuals. Aaron Burr, Henry Clay, and other important political and social figures enjoyed the hospitality of the Rowan mansion. Stephen Collins Foster of Pennsylvania, a Rowan family relative, is credited with immortalizing Federal Hill in his hauntingly beautiful song “My Old Kentucky Home Good Night."  Written in 1852, the words and music have touched the hearts of generations of Kentuckians. The song did not become associated with Federal Hill until the Civil War. Soldiers who saw the house and knew the song began to refer to Federal Hill as “My Old Kentucky Home.” Soon other people began referring to the mansion as the house that inspired one of Foster’s most beloved melodies.

Federal Hill’s popularity as a state park grew quickly. In 1957 the citizens of Bardstown and Nelson County formed the non-profit Stephen Foster Drama Association to produce an outdoor musical based on the life of the composer and as a tribute to “My Old Kentucky Home.” Author Paul Green wrote the play and on June 26, 1959 the Stephen Foster Story opened in a newly constructed outdoor amphitheatre. The first season of the production was an unqualified success with over 70,000 people attending.

My Old Kentucky Home remains one of the most popular of the commonwealth’s state parks. The legacy of the Rowan family and the music of Stephen Collins Foster live on in this magnificent tribute to Kentucky history and Southern culture.

Copyright 2014 Kentucky Department of Parks. All Rights Reserved.

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