Plantation in Jeopardy

Group acts to save Preston Plantation

By Don Ward

BEDFORD, Ky. – A grassroots effort is under way in Trimble County to save the historic Preston Plantation from development.

Paul Venard

Photo by Don Ward

Paul Venard of Milton, Ky., explains
the historical significance of the
Preston Plantation to group members.

Eight people showed up at a Nov. 11 meeting organized by Judge-Executive Ray Clem to discuss strategies for eventually buying the property in hopes of some day turning the 455-acre site that overlooks the Ohio River into a living museum and tourist attraction.
“This historic site is sitting in Trimble County, but it’s a national treasure,” Clem said. “We’re at a starting point. I don’t know if we can get that property, but shame on us if we don’t try.”
Clem said he hoped a volunteer group could be formed to take on the project and start by researching sources of possible funding.
Paul Venard, a sculptor who lives on 180 acres adjacent to the property, presented photos and history of the plantation, which once employed dozens of workers and was later used in the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.
The plantation is steeped in history, most notably its use by Delia Webster in the mid-1800s to sneak slaves across the Ohio River to freedom. It is also located adjacent to the home once inhabited by the late artist and author Harlan Hubbard.
Venard and his wife, Pam, have been working with others to develop an auto tour of historic places involved in the Underground Railroad between Louisville and Maysville, Ky. They say a restored Preston Plantation would be a jewel for visitors along such a route.
In its heydey, the plantation produced tobacco, produce, fruits and vegetables and shipped its goods from four landings on the Ohio River.
The farm, located in what was then Virginia territory, originally consisted of 7,947 acres in 1786 when it was given to John Howard as reward for his services in the French and Indian War. Howard was an aide de camp to Gen. George Washington during the war.
Howard had married a Preston and their daughter, Margaret, eventually inherited it. Margaret married Robert Wickliffe, and their daughter, Mary Howard Wickliffe, inherited the land. She married John Preston, a cousin.
From there, the land passed through several hands: Jim Rogers, who bought the farm in 1908, Gayle Rogers (Jim’s son) and John Wehner.
Current owner Darrell Wheeler of Bedford bought the 754-acre property in 1980. He has farmed it ever since and is asking $1.48 million for a 455-acre tract on which the circa 1790 Preston house sits. There are also several other structures still standing, including a jail, ice house, school, church and three slave quarters.
The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nevertheless, Wheeler said he has had several developers interested in the property for a residential community. Nugent Sand Co. at one time also considered buying and excavating it.
“I’d like to see someone buy it and restore it as a farm like it used to be,” Wheeler said.
He's not alone. Historic preservationists and Underground Railroad scholars say it would be a great asset for the county to make the property available for tours.
"It would be the best thing to ever happen to Trimble County," said Diane Perrin Coon, a post-graduate student at the University of Louisville who has led a local effort to research and document the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail through southern Indiana. The research is slated to become part of an automobile tour of historic markers in both Kentucky and Indiana and would include Webster's activities in Trimble County. State archives officials and from local historical societies have supported the effort.
"To take a treasure that is right there in their midst and save it for posterity would be absolutely marvelous," Coon said of the Preston Plantation. "It's like Shakertown because of the uniqueness of that plantation and the fact it is right across from Madison, with all it has to offer."
Coon said the site is the best preserved plantation of that period in northern Kentucky and, according to records, housed 66 slaves – the biggest known concentration in the area.
For Clem and his group, buying the property and then renovating it as a tourism destination would require an all-out volunteer effort involving applications for state and federal grants and possibly approaching private sources for money. Clem has already discussed the project with officials from the Underground Railroad Museum, now under construction in Cincinnati. He’s also talked with officials from Frankfort, Ky., and Washington, D.C. Local and state politicians also have been notified and have expressed support, Clem said.
Other possibilities, Clem said, would be to float a county bond issue or to raise just enough money to buy an option on the property until more resources become available. Corporate and private foundations are other possible sources.
It’s not an impossible task, Clem said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I believe it can be saved.”

Back to December 1999 Articles.



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