Heading south last weekend on I-75 from Cincinnati to Knoxville, I stopped with my family for lunch just outside of Lexington, Kentucky. Afterward, I finagled a second stop at the Mary Todd Lincoln House (MTL House) for a tour, and we arrived there around 1:15pm; the next tour was scheduled for 2pm. Now, if you’ve ever tried to entertain two young children for 45 minutes in an unknown place where they cannot touch anything, you can imagine that I was starting to sweat. I had already endured several rounds of “Mom, why does every trip have to include something related to history??” questions, so I tried to make the most of this lull in the plan.
Luckily, the grounds at the MTL House include a small area in the back that is surrounded by a brick wall featuring paths, hedges, a few signs, and some benches. We investigated every inch of that and also utilized four rocking chairs on the back porch, completed a survey from the local tourism bureau, and the kids found a fun way to play underneath the house. I’m sure this garden is beautiful in the summer when everything is in bloom. On our visit, we enjoyed the sunshine and passed the time (somewhat) patiently.
We were joined on the hour-long tour by two other visitors and commenced by examining the first floor family room. The tour guide was knowledgeable and pointed out which artifacts were authentic to the family and which were reproductions of period pieces. He also did a great job sharing anecdotes about various Todd family members. Mary was one of sixteen children born to Robert Todd by two wives; Mary’s mother, Todd’s first wife, passed away when she was six, and Mary did not enjoy an easy relationship with her stepmother. We came to understand however that Mary came of age with many of the modern amenities that wealth could buy at that time.
In the dining room and kitchen, we discussed various features of the furniture and tableware and learned about the ways that 19th century families captured and reflected light prior to electricity. My daughters loved this part of the tour and listened carefully.
Across the hall in the formal parlors, we heard about how they could divide the room in half to separate men and women for entertaining. The guide elaborated on the difficulties that the Civil War caused in the Todd family, as it split the family along Union/Confederate lines based on their views about slavery. We learned too about Mary and Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the MTL House in the late 1840s and listened to some speculation about what they would have seen and heard there. The guide made sure to tell the children that the original hand rail that they used to walk up the steps was surely used by Lincoln as well.
The MTL House has done a wonderful job of continuing to seek family heirlooms, and several that we saw on our visit were acquired in the past few months. As we moved upstairs, we saw four large bedrooms, plus a nursery and a smaller bedroom off of the master. The house really is quite spacious and features furniture and other items that complement the stories that the guide told about the family and their prewar lives. They show the home without indoor plumbing and with English and French wallpaper from the era.
In the final bedroom, we heard about Lincoln’s assassination, Mary’s later incarceration in an insane asylum, her years abroad, and her eventual death. The house had fallen into disrepair at some point in the 20th century and was being used as a warehouse until the 1970s. It was scheduled to be torn down to make more parking spaces for the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena when it was saved by the efforts of the governor’s wife. Now, it is a functioning nonprofit historical landmark that adds much to our understanding of Mary’s background and life in Lexington in the mid-19th century. One of the guides told me at the end that a good day counts around 80 visitors; there were about 50 on the day we toured. They also have a gift shop on site.
In all, it was worth the slight detour in our trip. As we loaded back into the car to finish our drive to Knoxville, my older daughter said, “I liked that a lot more than I thought I would.”
Julie Mujic is a Scholar-in-Residence at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She also owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC. Dr. Mujic can be contacted through her website: www.juliemujic.com.