The ache that engulfs me when a historic building is needlessly demolished pales in comparison to the visceral pain of seeing farmland chopped, desecrated, and turned into to miles of pavement. Lexington provides the perfect backdrop to examine this transition, but occasionally a vestige of those long-ago pastures and fields can be found along a busy road well within the confines of New Circle Road.
My discovery of one of these traces of Lexington’s past came from a reader of Gardens to Gables – one of the best parts of this venture is when readers share their finds or questions about a historic building they’ve encountered. In search of an answer, I found myself walking past the remains of Oakwood Farm on Clays Mill Road two weeks ago, bundled up against the January chill, looking for echoes of a rural estate as traffic streamed past me.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Clays Mill Road (then a “Pike”) consisted chiefly of “well-kept stock farms.” Oakwood Farm, on the other hand, was a horse farm owned by C.F. McMeekin, a well-known citizen and breeder of one of Kentucky’s finest exports – thoroughbred horses. The farm impressed the writers of Country Estates of the Bluegrass with its “distinct charm in the degree of its neatness, convenience, and air of prosperity.”
McMeekin sold fast, sleek horses all over the world, and his over 200-acre farm on Clays Mill Pike always had its “fences, stables and outbuildings…well kept and freshly whitewashed.”
The house itself, a 2.5 story late-19th century dwelling with late Victorian stylistic touches (a large arched window on the first story facade has an arch that pays homage to the Richardsonian Romanesque style). It also incorporates Colonial Revival elements, such as its boxy form and wrap-around porch with paired Tuscan columns and a simple rail balustrade.
In 1904, the house represented the peak of modernity: “a modern structure finished in hard wood, steam heated, and equipped with private waterworks.”
McMeekin was not only a noted breeder of thoroughbreds, but a community leader and philanthropist. Innovative within his field, he was one of the first horse farm owners and breeders to propose the idea of a Protective Breeders’ Association (also known as the Native Breeder’s Protective Association). He was also president of the Kentucky Trotting Horse Breeders’ association.
Sadly, only two years after the farm was featured in the “beautiful pictorial presentation of Kentucky’s horse farms,” McMeekin died in a horrific train wreck in Salisbury, England. The Los Angeles Herald reported on the July 1906 crash with a headline of “Many Prominent Men Killed.” McMeekin was in England to purchase a “great stallion” for his farm.**
A year later, Francis C. and Q.M. Bishop and Andrew Miller, of New York City filed a lease for Oakwood Farm, and it apparently continued to operate for several more decades. In September 1956, the Lexington Herald reported that “the 224 acre farm of Mr. and Mrs. C.F. McMeekin on Clay’s Mill Pike has been sold for development of a high type residential section.” Only 1.8 acres remain with the house today.
The balance between urban and rural in Lexington has a checkered history – there are many positive elements within Fayette county, including the Urban Service boundary and the Purchase of Development Rights program, as well as advocacy groups such as Bluegrass Conservancy and the Fayette Alliance. But the demand for more land for development continues.
I imagine in the years after World War II, not many people thought that a “world class landscape” was being dramatically changed. After years of austerity, the country’s economic engines were booming again, and the Bluegrass was eager to keep up.
Oakwood Farm was just one of many well-kept farms sacrificed to meet a growing city’s needs – and though the house remains, hemmed in on all sides, we can never reclaim the land. As Nancy Lewis Greene stated in her essay in Country Estates of the Bluegrass, “The horse is king in Kentucky.” And we can’t grow horses on pavement.
*Country Estates of the Bluegrass, first published in 1904, was reissued in 1973 by the Henry Clay Press in Lexington, Kentucky.
**Lexington Leader, July 26, 1906, page one.