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Preston Plantation: Historical perspective

Preston family's roots lie in England

Mary Preston is said to have been friends with
famed abolitionist Delia Webster

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(June 2006) – Since its beginnings in 1785 as Norfolk Farm, Preston Plantation has come a long way. The name changed, but the history of the farm is still intact. Today, Paul and Pam Venard, the couple who own part of the original farm, and civic-minded individuals are trying to piece the farm back together to create a living history museum that would entertain and educate the public on the area’s river history.

Mary Preston

Photo provided

Mary Preston wanted
her land to be used
for a Catholic school
upon her death.

The farm itself has an interesting history that weaves early pioneering settlements to Civil War era activities, including beliefs that the area had a role in smuggling slaves across the Ohio River to freedom. Not much is recorded about activities at the farm, but the Venards have been able to piece together some history about the Prestons and their ancestors.
John Howard (1733-1834), who descended from British aristocracy, served as aide de camp for Gen. George Washington during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). As a reward for his military service, this captain of the Virginia Militia in 1786 was awarded approximately 8,000 acres of land in present day Trimble County, Ky., from a Treasury Warrant signed by Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry.
Howard also bought and settled 1,000 acres in Lexington, Ky., that became known as Howard’s Grove. A hemp grower and military hero, Howard married Mary Preston (1740-1814). The couple had five children, the second youngest daughter being Margaret Preston, who at age 33 married Robert Wickliffe.
Upon division of Norfolk Farm, the southern 3,300 acres went to Margaret. Her husband was a successful businessman, attorney and powerful local agent for the Democratic Party. He was also the largest slave owner in Kentucky.
One of the couple’s six children, Mary Howard Wickliffe (1817-1892), in 1851 married a distant cousin, John Preston (1811-1882). For a time, they lived at Mary’s childhood home, called Glendower, in Lexington.
It was while living at Glendower in 1843 before her marriage that Mary befriended a young woman named Delia Webster. Webster was a Vermont abolitionist and schoolteacher who had settled into a boarding house across the street. She is believed to have been responsible for helping many slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Preston Plantation Smokehouse

Photo by Don Ward

A smokehouse still
stands on the property
near the Preston
home place.

In 1850, Mary purchased Preston Plantation from her father for $1. But when she married John Preston, the land became her husband’s property because of the laws of the time. The couple spent their summers there and the rest of the year living in Louisville. Mary, an independent woman, was able to get the plantation back in her name by 1859. They resided in a two-story farm house built before 1855 and located in the middle of the farm on top of the hill.
Some time after this, Mary decided to convert to Catholicism. Many feel this conversion was due to the loss of a son, Robert, who was born in 1856 and died four years later, with the cause of death uncertain. Whatever her reasons, Mary was baptized as a Roman Catholic on Nov. 6, 1862, at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, Ky.
Mary later opened a one-room schoolhouse for the children who lived on the plantation.
It still stands today on the property near the home place, along with a smokehouse, cellar and out building. The school gained a reputation after the Civil War as the only one of its kind in the area that educated both African American and caucasian children. At one point in its history, Preston Plantation housed 66 slaves on the property. The slaves’ quarters were torn down several years ago.
Although they weren’t the wealthiest couple living in the state, Mary and John Preston were afforded some semblances of luxury. In the 1850s, Mary was said to have spent $5,000 on roses to be planted on the plantation. The Prestons cultivated large peach orchards and grew tobacco, products that could easily be shipped and sold from their home on the banks of the Ohio River.

Preston Plantation Smokehouse

Photo by Don Ward

A one-room schoolhouse still stands on the property near the Preston home place.

In January 1891, Mary willed all of her Trimble County property to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Louisville. She specifically stated that the plantation land was to be used for a boy’s school. A year later, a codicil stated that Mary had already disposed of Norfolk Farm, as it was officially referred to then, by donating the land to the Abbot of St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Spencer County, Ind.
Not long after her death in 1892, family members fought to overturn her will. They had been vehemently against her Catholic conversion and argued that she had been mentally unstable and under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church while making her will.
The outcome of this dispute was the eventual sale of the farm in 1902. The farm was then divided into 24 separate farms. After ownership passed from Mary’s family, several families lived in her former home.
Mary Preston, meanwhile, is buried in St. Louis Catholic Cemetery in Louisville, Ky. Prior to her death, she arranged for the bodies of her non-Catholic husband, John, their 4-year-old son, Robert, and John’s parents to be moved to the same cemetery with her.

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