Preston Plantation in Trimble County

Nonprofit group hopes
to create living history attraction

Venards want site used for education, period events

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

BEDFORD, Ky. (June 2006) – Many refer to them as the “Ghost Roads.” These are 25 miles of roads used by slaves in the 19th century to navigate around Preston Plantation’s original 1902 borders. And if you’re really quiet on a mid-summer’s evening, you might just feel their presence in the air and see their spirits return to navigate travelers through the farm.

2006 June Indiana &  Kentucky Edition Cover

June 2006 Indiana &
Kentucky Edition Cover

You might feel the vibrations of their feet pounding the dusty dirt road, or hear their voices as they pass along coded messages for slaves who have stopped at the plantation on their way north to freedom. The plantation has been included as part of the 100-mile “Freedom Corridor” mapped out by the organizers of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Cincinnati riverfront museum that opened in 2002.
This is just part of the history that Pam and Paul Venard hope to share with others. The couple owns two lots – about 160 acres – of Trimble County’s original 7,945-acre Preston Plantation. For several years, they have held Civil War re-enactment events in the hope of educating the public about life along the Ohio River at Preston Plantation during that era. This is just one example of the type of living history event the Venards want to portray.
On June 3-4, for instance, the Venards will play host to “Ghost Roads Homecoming” in an attempt to raise visibility for Preston Plantation. Re-enactors will converge upon the area, bringing to life its rich history of the Ohio River, Underground Railroad activity and the life of Henry Bibb, a Trimble County slave who escaped to Canada and continued his efforts as an abolitionist and the first black newspaper editor there.
This event is open to the public and lasts from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days. Author Hugh Ridenour, a Kentucky Heritage Council speaker, is scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. Saturday on “A Surgeon’s Life in the Orphan Brigade.” The Orphan Brigade was a Confederate unit of soldiers not recognized by their home states, which remained in the Union. Mary Howard Wickliffe Preston’s brother-in-law and first cousin was a general in the Orphan’s Brigade.
Ridenour will be followed by a Civil War “skirmish” re-enactment event at 2 p.m. Also planned are hayrides and a medicine show.
Last year’s Civil War Re-enactment event attracted 200 people, said Pam Venard, 58. A second re-enactment weekend is held each year during the first weekend of October. “Education is what we’re trying to do,” she said.

The Venards have held these type of events for six years and believe they have done as much as they can on their own. But they want to do more. Now they feel that it is time for others to help run Preston Plantation. To achieve their goal of preserving the area as a sort of living history museum, they are seeking help from other like-minded individuals, educational organizations, civic groups or even corporate sponsors.
Over the past few months, the Venards recruited a board of directors for Preston Plantation Inc. that includes Trimble County Judge-Executive Randy Stevens, Ken Knouf, resource manager at Jefferson Proving Ground in Madison, Ind.; Karl Lietzenmayer, editor of the Northern Kentucky Heritage magazine; Darren Pike, editor of the Trimble Banner-Democrat; two of the Venards’ three daughters, Rebecca Venard and Mariah Shadoan; and Mariah’s husband, Kyle Shadoan. The board also includes Tom Crutcher, general manager of Trimble County’s LG&E power station, which sits adjacent to the plantation; Ted Farrell, a professor at Hanover College; and John Dunlap of the Bedford Loan & Deposit Bank. The board immediately set to work on developing a business plan to create a unique tourist attraction for Trimble County. Venard labeled it a “work in progress.”

Re-enactors Firing Cannon

Photo by Don Ward

Civil War re-enactors fire a cannon
during a skirmish at Preston Plantation
last year. This year’s re-enactment
event is June 3-4.

Preston Plantation, Inc. gained non-profit status in 1991. It will take much work for interested people to establish the site and recreate a bygone era, she said. To help with the project, the group hired two consultants – Christina D. Hansen and Alicia Johnson, two University of Louisville MBA graduates – to draft a master plan. After learning they were both graduating from an entrepreneurial program, the Venards contacted them to help develop more concrete plans for the future of Preston Plantation, said Hansen.
The two began working on the master plan a year ago. It includes many phases stretched over a 15-year period. In addition to a living history museum, an emphasis is being placed on “working with the artists’ community in Madison,” said Hansen. The board of directors hope to see local artists attracted to the site who would promote it through the selling of their artwork during re-enactments and in a future gift shop.
Today, the Preston’s 1852-53 farm house still stands on the farm’s western high ground. For the last 20 years, it has been tended to by R.L. and Cleo Devine, who rent and live there. For many years, the 455-acre farm was owned by the late Gayle Rodgers. It is now owned by Trimble County farmer Darrell Wheeler, but Wheeler in May negotiated the sale of the farm to two Louisville men, Mark Timmons and Garland Lewis. They take over the property June 15 and have told the Devines they could stay in the house until the end of the year. It is uncertain what plans the new owners have for the Preston home place or adjacent outbuildings.

Pam and Paul Venard

Photo by Don Ward

Pam and Paul Venard
are hoping the public
will respond to their plans
at Preston Plantation.

The men also have negotiated the purchase of the adjacent Raymond Conrad property and are close to negotiating the purchase of the adjacent Robert Collins property. Those two additional parcels total about 150 acres and were part of the original Preston Plantation. All three parcels are located on the western high ground overlooking the 167 acres along the Ohio River that the Venards’ own.
The Venards inherited the land upon the death in 1987 of Virginia Venard, Paul’s mother, who willed that land to Paul and his two sisters, Pamela Yeckel and Gayl Ponce. After a protracted legal dispute, Paul in 1991 bought out his sisters’ share of the land.
The sisters had wanted to sell their share of land to Collins after they had signed a contract to sell it to Paul. Collins subsequently sued the Venards but lost the lawsuit in 2003. Collins died last year. Conrad also is deceased.
The Venards hope the nonprofit group can eventually gain access or ownership of the Preston farm house on the hill, where they envision establishing a museum. That will depend on what the new owners decide.
Another antebellum two-story farm house that the Venards in 1975 paid to have moved from the LG&E power plant site onto the Venards' farm is being targeted for a possible inn, restaurant and gift shop. The house was moved to avoid demolition when the power plant was built.
The Venards consider the house significant because it is tied to a former Trimble County resident, Frank Lee, a staunch Lincoln Republican who moved there in 1856 and may have been involved with the Underground Railroad. Lee called the house Freedom Home, a possible reference to activities that occurred there. The Venards hope to someday use the house for staging seasonal activities, such as Ghost Road tours, hayrides, hiking, camping and activities geared toward archaeology.
The Venards say formal planning sessions conducted by the new board of directors and its consultants will hopefully encourage financial investors to support these projects. Through preservation, renovation and rebuilding projects, the couple hopes to restore a disregarded piece of local history.
The Venards placed their farm under a conservation easement with Purchase Agricultural Conservation Easement Corp., which guarantees that their property will always be protected from modern development.

Preston Plantation Home Place

Photo by Don Ward

John and Mary Preston’s former
home place still stands at the end of
Rodgers Lane in Milton, Ky. Its future
is uncertain with the recent sale of the
property to two Louisville men.

“The south end of Harlan Hubbard’s land is somewhat protected, too,” said Pam Venard. Hubbard, who died in 1988, was a well-known author and painter whose former home, which he dubbed “Payne Hollow,” lies near the plantation. The close proximity of Payne Hollow adds to the history of the farm, Pam Venard said.
After researching and considering area demographics and other area attractions, Hansen and Johnson suggested several other scenarios for board to consider. Their strategic planning process looked for ways to add to the attraction and educational mission of the nonprofit organization.
In addition to focusing on area artists and craftspeople, they suggested that a conference center be established to host various events. A U-pick farm would be a way to offer fresh produce from local farmers, and a petting zoo would be a draw for tourists with young children.
The board of directors is working with other Underground Railroad entities to accomplish their goals, said Venard. The recently opened National Freedom Center in Cincinnati, the Henry Bibb National Trail Project and the Historic Eleutherian College in Lancaster, Ind., are considering partnering on some level with Preston Plantation Inc., the Venards say.
Louisville-based researcher Diane Perrine Coon is spearheading the Henry Bibb National Park Service Trail project, which is an effort to document and interpret Bibb’s Civil War era activities while he was in Trimble County. The project is being directed by Oldham County Historical Society and supported by a $5,000 Kentucky Heritage Council grant. The project’s goal is to develop an educational program about Bibb.
Asked about the significance of Preston Plantation, Coon recommended that the Venards piggyback on the Bibb project. The Venards have documented evidence of one Preston Plantation slave, Alfred, who escaped to Winsor, Canada. “They have enough pieces to put together a story relating to Underground Railroad activity,” Coon said.
“I love anything that would preserve as much as possible and give an insight into what was there. As a historian, I always look toward those who try to preserve some aspect of history.”

Preston Plantation Homecoming

Photo by Don Ward

Re-enactors spend the weekend
in period dress and living in
encampments during the Preston
Plantation Ghost Roads Homecoming.

On a plantation with more than 60 slaves and only one manager and overseer, “it makes sense that there was at least some activity in the Underground Railroad,” Coon continued. There were many limestone caves and places to hide on the plantation and across the river in Indiana.  
The Venards have searched for clues about families on the Indiana side of the river who might have acted as “catchers” of fleeing slaves. Lee Bottom near Saluda Township lies directly across from the former plantation.
The Venards plan to have a replica of the “Trimble” paddlewheel ferryboat, circa 1895, to be constructed as part of their project.
They have already received bids from at least two companies. Once complete, river excursions would be available for those researching the Underground Railroad and for use by the Rivers Institute at Hanover College.
The Rivers Institute is an educational resource dedicated to learning about aspects of river systems using the liberal arts. It was established in 2004 by an $11 million Lilly Endowment grant.
Last year, the Rivers Institute helped organize a daylong educational program in conjunction with Preston Plantation in which several students from Northern Kentucky University participated. In May 2005, a customized barge crossed the Ohio River beginning at Preston Plantation and bringing passengers across the river to Indiana. From there, they trekked up the hill for lunch and a seminar at Hanover College.
After this trial run, there had been talk of continuing such a crossing to educate passengers about the area’s history, said Michelle Gammon Purvis, program coordinator for the Rivers Institute. But Purvis said she does not know if the Rivers Institute would be “the organizing principle. We’re not planning to continue the event at the moment.”
Paul Venard, 62, a farmer and sculptor, has drawn up sketches that naval architects in Gulf Breeze, Fla., and Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., are reviewing. Such a boat would be “like a bridge” said Paul Venard. “It would serve both sides of the river.” He predicts that such a boat would increase tourism for Indiana and Kentucky.
Any time tourism is created, it is great for the county, said Stevens, the county judge and a Preston Plantation board member.
“Tourism helps preserve the heritage of the county. It puts a title on a place that not a lot of people may be familiar with,” said Stevens.
The board may have what Stevens termed “very lofty goals” and will have to create a way to generate public interest in this project. Big numbers are still on the budget sheet to make the Venards’ plans a reality.

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