Kentucky Tourism

My Old Kentucky Home History

Established February 26, 1936

The farm that inspired the imagery in Stephen Collins Foster's famous song, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” is Kentucky's most famous and beloved historic site. Built between 1812 and 1818, the three-story house originally named, "Federal Hill," by its first owner Judge John Rowan became Kentucky's first historic shrine on July 4th, 1923. Located near Bardstown in Nelson County, the mansion and farm had been the home of the Rowan family for three generations, spanning a period of 120 years. In 1922 Madge Rowan Frost, the last Rowan family descendent sold her ancestral home and 235-acres to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. 

Federal Hill, named for the Federalist political party that was popular during the early 19th century, is a Federal style three-story mansion. Completed in 1812, the rear wing of the house was constructed first and is designed in the popular "saddlebag" plan. This two-room, one-story brick section provided the family with living quarters while the construction of the larger portion of the mansion could be completed. By 1818, the three-story portion of the mansion was completed, and a smokehouse and kitchen were added to the rear ell that same year. The first floor of the home possesses a dining room, parlor, and library while the second floor contains three bedrooms. A nursery and bedroom originally occupied the building's third floor. The mansion is built of brick and has six large rooms that are an exceptionally large 22 feet square. Ceilings are 13-1/2 feet high. The building's doors are made of black walnut, a highly prized wood noted for its pronounced grain and deep amber coloration. The floors are constructed in blue ash that provide resilience while emulating oak. The building's woodworking, including mantlepieces, baseboards, archways, and door casings are constructed from poplar, known for its tight wood grain that creates a smooth surface for painting. 

Judge John Rowan (1773-1843), who commissioned Federal Hill, was born in York, Pa. and in 1790, he moved to Bardstown. He studied law in Lexington under the tutelage of George Nicholas, Kentucky’s first attorney general. He soon became one of Kentucky’s foremost defense lawyers. Rowan is also remembered his duel with Dr. James Chambers in an 1801, fought over a disagreement as to who was a better scholar of classical languages. Rowan served as secretary of state in 1804, and was elected to Congress (1807-1809). He served in the Kentucky General Assembly, the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and as United States Senator (1825-1831). In 1794, John married Anne Lytle, the daughter of the prominent Lytle family that helped to found the city of Cincinnati. John greatly prized his Federal Hill estate, directing its operation while attending to political aspirations in Washington via detailed letters written to his wife Anne. He often explored new agricultural techniques, documented his findings, and generally used the property as an experimental hobby farm where he could explore new planting ideas and methods through which to achieve agricultural success. Rowan also invested in thoroughbred horses, acquiring some of the best bloodlines in international horse racing. Rowan's most notable horses Magnatia, Slipper, and Rifle, are of the same bloodlines of every horse that has ever participated in the Kentucky Derby. 

The Rowan home hosted many famous individuals. Aaron Burr, Henry Clay, and other important political and social figures enjoyed the hospitality of the Rowan mansion. Stephen Collins Foster of Pennsylvania, a Rowan family relative through the Barclays of Louisville, is credited with immortalizing Federal Hill in his famous abolitionist inspired composition “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!"  Written in 1852, the song was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The imagery within the song's verses is inspired by Federal Hill farm, visited by Stephen, who, according to his brother Morrison Foster, was an "occasional visitor to Federal Hill." The song grew quickly in popularity, selling thousands of copies within days of its release. My Old Kentucky Home's lyrics spoke to the hearts of Americans, helping to inspire and push the fight for equality in the United States. Noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass commented that, "My Old Kentucky Home awakens the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow, and flourish." 

As the United States entered the period of the American Civil War, Federal Hill became more popularly known by the public as "My Old Kentucky Home." The house and farm was given the moniker by soldiers passing through Bardstown. Both Union and Confederate soldiers were welcomed by the second generation owner, Rebecca Rowan, into the mansion to see the house that Stephen Foster had visited. 

The third and last heir, Madge Rowan Frost, sold Federal Hill with the express wish and condition that the Commonwealth of Kentucky preserve the estate as a state shrine or historic site. Frost also gave the state the Rowan family heirlooms in perpetuity to help authentically furnish the home. 

The purchase of Federal Hill came about due to the efforts of the “My Old Kentucky Home Commission.” The Commission met on March 16, 1921 in the office of Governor Edwin Porch Morrow to discuss how to acquire Federal Hill for a state historic shrine. Young E. Allison, Judge Robert W. Bingham, and A.T. Hart of Louisville, along with Mrs. Clement French of Maysville, and Arch Pulliam and Osso Stanley of Bardstown, concluded that the only way to raise sufficient funds to purchase the Federal Hill property had to be from a statewide effort. After Arch Pulliam made the necessary arrangements with Madge Rowan Frost to sell the property, the school children of Kentucky led the fundraising campaign for the purchase of “My Old Kentucky Home.” The campaign was a success and on July 4, 1923 Federal Hill became a historic shrine. The commission continued to maintain the house and estate until the Department of Conservation, Division of State Parks took over the maintenance of house and grounds in 1936.

Federal Hill’s popularity as a state park grew quickly. In 1957 the citizens of Bardstown and Nelson County formed the non-profit Stephen Foster Drama Association to produce an outdoor musical based on the life of the composer and as a tribute to “My Old Kentucky Home.” Famous playwright Paul Green wrote the play and on June 26, 1959 the Stephen Foster Story opened in a newly constructed outdoor amphitheatre. The first season of the production was a great success with over 70,000 people in attendance. 

My Old Kentucky Home remains one of the most popular of the Commonwealth’s state parks. The legacy of Stephen Collins Foster abolitionist inspired song live on in this magnificent tribute to Kentucky & American history.