If you’ve been following the blog lately, you know how much I love the holiday season! I’ve been visiting as many holiday-themed places around Kentucky as possible over the past few weeks. That list, of course, wouldn’t be complete without a visit to My Old Kentucky Home.
The mansion at My Old Kentucky Home State Park was originally named Federal Hill. The mansion was renamed “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1923 when the property was transferred to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The new name reflected the Stephen Foster song “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!“, inspired in part by the mansion.
The mansion was built by John Rowan, Sr. from 1812-1818. It sat on about 1,300 acres and was built mostly with slave labor. The mansion was named “Federal Hill” in honor of the Federalist party; funny enough, it’s also built in the Federal style.
Lightning struck Federal Hill in 1841, destroying the third floor of the mansion. The third floor was immediately rebuilt, but the function of the space may have changed from a ballroom to a nursery space with the rebuild. Ownership of the home was transferred from John Rowan, Sr. to John Rowan, Jr. in 1843.
Unlike his father, John Rowan, Jr. was anti-slavery and freed many of the slaves. Rowan, Jr. was also the Ambassador to Italy under President Polk and brought many Italian souvenirs back to the home. Unfortunately, Rowan, Jr. died from falling from a second floor window at the mansion in 1855, leaving his wife to care for the children and estate alone. Hard times fell on the family, but they managed. The home stayed in the family with Madge Rowan Frost until 1923, when the estate and all its contents were transferred to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Stephen Foster and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!”
Stephen Foster is tied to My Old Kentucky Home through his sister, Charlotte Foster, who first visited the estate in 1828. Both Stephen and Charlotte became close friends to the Rowan Family and spent much time visiting their estates. Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” was inspired by both the estate and his anti-slavery stance. The landscape and views of the estate inspired the description of the scenery in the song while abolitionist books, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, inspired the anti-slavery lyrics of the song. Now, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” is sung at all major Kentucky events, like horse races and UK basketball games, causing many listeners to sing along and even tear up at the lyrics.
Merry & Bright
Normal tours at My Old Kentucky Home are pretty great, but it is extra special to visit during Merry & Bright! During Merry & Bright, guests learn about traditional Victorian Christmas traditions and get to see some of the ways people would have decorated their homes during the period. Not going to lie, seeing the decorations was cool, but I was slightly let down by how few decorations there were. A few garlands adorned the outside of the home. Inside, there were some traditional post cards above a mantle, some stringed sugared fruits, stockings, and a few other touches outside of the installed Christmas trees.
Speaking of the trees, My Old Kentucky Home has also installed several massive (12′!) Christmas trees! These trees are, for the most part, modern (aka not part of typical Victorian decor). Each tree has a unique theme, inspired by the state of Kentucky, lines in the song “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!”, and scenes around the home itself. They were absolutely gorgeous!
Once you arrive at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, head to the visitors center to get your tickets. Tickets run around $14 per person, with discounts for children, youth, and seniors! Tours are on a first come, first serve basis and begin every hour on the hour, with the final tour leaving at 4 PM.
Tours begin in front of the mansion on the hour and are led by costumed guides. Once inside, your guide will introduce you to the house and sing “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!”. You will be led through each room on the first two levels of the mansion and given all sorts of awesome historical information on the home. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the home.
Be sure to explore the grounds whenever you have time (either before or after the tour)! You’ll see a gorgeous gazebo area, the cemetery where many Rowan family members are buried, and functional parts of the home – like the kitchen, stables, and more. Check out the short film on and small exhibits in the visitor center! If you’re wanting souvenirs, take a stop in the gift shop before leaving the park.
Visiting My Old Kentucky State Park feels like coming home, no matter where you’re from. Have you ever visited My Old Kentucky Home? Let me know what you thought of the park in the comments!
PS: Want to read more about historic homes? Check out my previous posts on Mount Vernon, the Adsmore Museum, and the historic homes I visited in Savannah! Want more #SiteSunday posts? Read about the Statue of Liberty, Delphi, and the OFC Distillery. Finally, looking for more holiday fun? I had a wonderful time at the Southern Lights in Lexington and at Cheekwood’s Holiday Lights in Nashville.