Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Mulberry Hill was the name of the Clark family homestead in Louisville, Kentucky. Quite a few scenes take place at Mulberry Hill in The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Our first glimpse, through the eyes of French botanist and reluctant conspirator André Michaux, goes like this:
The place General Clark called Mulberry Hill turned out to be a rambling plantation along a clear, bubbling creek. A large, two-story log cabin stood in the center of the estate, smoke curling from stone chimneys on either end. Beyond the house, Michaux saw fields of wheat and corn and a new gristmill, its wheel churning as creek water flowed over it. Beyond was a well-maintained orchard of apple, pear, and nut trees. Michaux allowed himself a small sigh of relief. Apparently General Clark wasn’t always bourré.
As Michaux found out, the prosperity of Mulberry Hill was less due to the efforts of George Rogers Clark, by then a struggling soldier-of-fortune, than of his parents, John and Ann Clark. But because he could not afford a home of his own, George lived here much of his life and, when he could, helped his father direct the farm and mill. You can visit the site of Mulberry Hill today at Louisville’s George Rogers Clark Park.
Built in 1784 by George Rogers Clark, his brother Jonathan, and several family slaves, Mulberry Hill was the center of Clark family life for decades. With ten children of their own and innumerable grandchildren, the Clarks were famous for a lively lifestyle that included lots of visiting, dancing, barbeques, and spectacularly memorable birthdays, May Days, and Christmases. One descendant recalled how the boys would each be allowed to select a hog bladder in the fall, blow it up to its maximum size, and then dry it. Once it was dry, you could paint it with designs and hang it outside your room, then pop it on Christmas morning to signal the beginning of the hilarity of the day. Another recalled that a family specialty was a kind of cruller-cookie called “raggedy britches.”
The Clarks were a family of the highest status on the Kentucky frontier, and from its carriageway (a half-mile drive planted with sheltering locust trees) to its furnishings (fine silver, china, and furniture made by the best Virginia craftsmen), Mulberry Hill bespoke that status in a way that was both impressive and welcoming. This house was a beautiful example of its type, a frontier log home that was never covered with a brick or clapboard facade. Though unusually large, the design was classic — four rooms on each floor divided by a center hall — as well as a separate kitchen, stone and brick slave cabins, a spring house, and a grist mill.
William Clark inherited Mulberry Hill when his father died in 1799. (John was forced to disinherit George to prevent any money or property he received from being seized by debt collectors.) William and George Rogers spent several years trying to make a go of the plantation, only to be enveloped by a series of semi-comic, semi-tragic disasters. William Clark was many wonderful things, but he was not a farmer. Between floods, fires, and George’s drinking, he was more than ready to sell Mulberry Hill to his other brothers, Jonathan and Edmund, in 1803, just a few months before his old friend Meriwether Lewis offered him a commission to help command the Corps of Discovery.
When Jonathan died in 1811, he left Mulberry Hill to his oldest son, Isaac Clark. Isaac never married, and in some ways the remnants of the Clarks and their lively home seems to have become something of a museum as he passed into old age. Years later, historian Temple Bodley, Isaac’s great-nephew, remembered the old man treasuring items such as the family bible, Ann Clark’s spectacles, the backgammon board used by the Clark brothers, and even old towels and bedding. Two slaves, named Aunt Rachel and Jake, kept everything in perfect order, and Bodley remembered how Jake had to rub and polish the old mahogany dining table from its shining top right down to the legs.
Apparently, Aunt Rachel and Jake found this life less than compelling, for they seem to have left in 1863 following the emancipation of the slaves by President Lincoln. By then age 76, Isaac could not stay at Mulberry Hill alone. When he moved into town to live with a brother, Mulberry Hill stood empty for the first time in 80 years.
The lifestyle once lived by the Clarks was dependent on slave labor, and in the devastating aftermath of the Civil War, no one had the means to fix up Mulberry Hill or live there again. At some point, the house and land passed out of the family, and in 1900, Mulberry Hill partially collapsed. By 1907 it was being used as a wagon shed. Ten years later, the city of Louisville razed Mulberry Hill in a fit of patriotism and constructed Camp Zachary Taylor, a World War I training camp, in its place.
It was too late to do anything to preserve the house, but after the war, a number of Clark family descendants banded together to buy back the estate. There they established George Rogers Clark Park. Today there’s a lively park here with tennis courts and a playground. You can visit the family cemetery, and we paid our respects to the kindly John and Ann and several other family members. I’m sorry the house no longer stands, but I couldn’t help but wonder if John and Ann Clark might not have preferred the park full of kids. A loss to history, but perhaps a more fitting tribute after all.