Listen carefully. You can almost hear the swish of wind-blown grass give way to the rustle of 19th-century petticoats. It is the Civil War era in a place called the Preston Plantation in Bedford, about 20 minutes southwest of Carrollton.
Several thousand acres of rolling Kentucky farmland stretch from the Ohio River into the hills of Trimble County, skirting creeks, concealing caves, and tumbling over cliffs. The woman who owns the land, in the mid- to latter 1800s, is Mary Howard Wickliffe Preston. The daughter of Robert Wickliffe, an ardent advocate of slavery known as “Old Duke,” Mary was to become a key player in creating a station on the Underground Railroad on a portion of her property along the Ohio River sitting opposite Saluda Valley and freedom in Indiana.
The rich history of Preston Plantation is waiting to be brought back to life. Paul and Pam Venard, current owners of a piece of the original plantation, are taking steps to preserve their farmland as a living history museum that would give testimony of its historic link to the Underground Railroad. They have already gained an agricultural conservation easement to protect the property. The Vernards say that Mrs. Preston’s property will play an integral role in the Freedom Corridor project of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, due to open in 2004 on the riverfront in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“The farm is still very much like it was back then, when it was owned by Mary,” notes Pam. “People can walk around the land and get an idea of what it would have been like 150 years ago. The one-room schoolhouse, where Mary Howard Wickliffe Preston educated both black and white children, is still on part of the original plantation property (not on the Vernard property).”
Also on the land are sites of slave quarters and an overseer’s cabin as well as the brick building of the smoke house and assorted outbuildings, including grist and saw mills. The main house—called the Big House—is still standing. The historic sites are spread over miles of the plantation, which is now divided into a handful of individually owned parcels.
The couple owns two parcels of this sweep of land that once included close to 7,947 acres from a 1786 Treasury Warrant signed by Patrick Henry and comprising more than six miles of Ohio River frontage and four riverboat landings. By the time of the division of 1902, it was down to 2,373 acres with 2.5 miles of frontage. According to documents in the Venards’ possession, Mary’s family may have acquired the land due to her grandfather’s services during the French and Indian War, but most likely because he was married to Mary Preston Howard, the sister of the chief surveyor for Virginia.
“Many families received choice land parcels this way,” explains Paul.
The Venards have lived in Trimble County for about 30 years and had become familiar with the myth surrounding their property.
“We had heard that it was a part of the Underground Railroad, but we were busy raising a family at the time,” recalls Pam. “Now that the children are in college, we thought we’d better start investigating the history of our land.”
In their research of the lineage of Preston Plantation, known as Norfolk Farm in the early to mid-1800s, the Venards stumbled upon aristocrat Mary Howard Wickliffe Preston, who in 1850 bought the land from her father for $1.
Mary teamed up with her neighbor, Delia Webster, a staunch abolitionist, who in 1852 bought a 567-acre farm overlooking Madison, Indiana, six miles up the road from Preston Plantation.
With their property stretching along the Ohio River and reaching toward freedom, the two women became co-conspirators in smuggling slaves across the river into Indiana. They risked large fines and imprisonment to help runaway slaves escape to freedom. Ms. Webster, as a matter of record, did serve jail time in Bedford in 1854 for this very crime.
“This was a link on the Underground Railroad. Slaves were conducted through this site to Indiana,” says Paul. “The unusual nature of this site, that women—Southern white women—were responsible for helping get slaves to freedom, is the really interesting part of the history of this land.”
Venard adds that, during their research, the couple discovered that Mary’s father, an attorney and representative, was the richest land and slave owner in Kentucky from the 1830s to the 1860s.
“Mary went against her whole family. She was one heck of a rebel.”
Working with the officials at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, their local government, and government representatives in Frankfort, the Venards are hoping to spark interest in saving as much of the original plantation as possible.
Paul and Pam Venard and their parcel of Preston Plantation, as well as the main core of the plantation, also figure prominently into Bedford’s developing tourism plan. The couple’s hope, echoed by members of local government, is that one entity will purchase the historic Preston land, now comprising about 2,375 acres, and develop it into a park.
According to Paul Venard, with its caves, creeks, valleys, natural springs, two and a half miles of river frontage, and the development of a 100-acre lake, the land would make an ideal park—whether people come for outdoor pursuits and water sports or for the history.
To get this vision realized, Venard explains that the first step is to get the core land preserved. This would make the project eligible for federal and state grants and loans to begin restoration work. Venard and other interested parties are working with The Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C.
“There is an ever-present threat of the land being lost to a subdivision,” says Pam. “People don’t realize that they’re sitting on a gold mine, historically speaking, in regard to the value of tourism.
“People should be proud that these two ladies who came from slaveholding families stood up for what was right.
“That’s worth preserving.”
LINK TO THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
In their quest to preserve their parcel of historic Preston Plantation as a living history museum, the Venards are working with Carl Westmoreland, senior advisor for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Scheduled to open this summer as part of Cincinnati, Ohio’s, revamped riverfront, the $110 million, 158,000-square-foot Freedom Center will be both a memorial to freedom and courage and a historic testimonial of America’s complex past. The museum will include a research center, long-term exhibit space, story theaters, a production, and gardens, along with a major slave pen exhibit.
The Freedom Center will also be the point of origin for the Freedom Corridor, enabling people to visit points along the Ohio River Valley that played a part in the Underground Railroad. According to Westmoreland, initial reaction to the corridor has been so positive that he ultimately sees the route extending from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico.
“The Freedom Corridor would allow families to go 100 miles in either direction initially, to Maysville on the east and points in between, crossing over if they wish into Ripley, Ohio, and coming back down Route 52,” Westmoreland explains. “It would be the same for the western corridor. In each instance, you have significant historical nodes of regional and national importance where there was Underground Railroad activity.”
At this time, Preston Plantation is one of the southernmost points on the Freedom Corridor. Westmoreland calls the property a national treasure, a tangible example of a mid- to late-19th century operating plantation.
“Some people demean the fact of slavery. The thinking is that if it happened, it wasn’t particularly bad, it was an improvement over what their lives had been, or it wasn’t as extreme as it was,” he says. “A visit to Preston Plantation puts the whole issue of the reality of slavery into a historical and human context.”
Westmoreland notes that the goal of establishing a national museum and educational center is to memorialize the historic efforts of African American slaves, freed African Americans, and sympathetic whites who helped slaves escape—all of whom saw freedom as an overriding, uniquely American resource that should be shared by all Americans.
“This is not a black museum, but an American museum. Within the 100-mile corridor, we have all these places where people were coming together from slavery to freedom. Preston Plantation was a part of that.”
“It’s all connected to the land,” Paul Venard emphasizes. “Preston Plantation is historically valuable because it involves a lot of early Kentucky history. Besides its link to the Underground Railroad, Preston has connections to abolitionist Cassius Clay and to Mary Todd Lincoln—she lived in the Wickliffe home as a young girl. There’s also 10,000 years of Native American history here.”
Standing on Mary’s property, near a cave or by the Ohio River, one can almost hear the hushed and hurried footfalls as a small clutch of slaves, led by one white woman, steps toward freedom.
“You can feel it, the slaves came through here,” says Vernard. “We need to save our history.”
For more information about the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, call (513) 412-6900, or go online to www.undergroundrailroad.org.
VISITING THE PRESTON PLANTATION
At this time the Preston Plantation is not open to the public on a regular basis, although the Venards will arrange individual tours, with a nominal donation that goes toward the non-profit organization.
Preston Plantation is open to the public two special weekends out of the year. Ghost Roads Homecoming, held the first weekend in June, is a Civil War encampment and re-enactment. River Spirits Rendezvous, held the first weekend in October, is a pioneer re-enactment.
For more information contact the Preston Plantation at 95 Venard Road, Bedford, KY 40006, (502) 268-5858, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.