Pottinger's Home was Finest in State (published in Ky Standard newspaper, 1985)
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Pottinger’s Home was Finest in State
Written by David Hall and published in the Kentucky Standard 1985

One singular achievement in Capt. Samuel Pottenger’s central Kentucky exploits deserves particular attention. Near present-day Gethsemane Abbey, he built one of the first brick plantation ‘manor’ houses to be raised in the entire commonwealth. Even though the house, “Walnut Hill,” no longer stands today (it was torn down in the 1940s because of deterioration) the details about its construction and original form are still fascinating. They provide special insight into conditions in Nelson County as the pioneers began to subdue the wilderness.

For proper perspective consider the fact that only 10 years before construction of Walnut Hill (built 1787-88), the entire region was uninhabited and untamed. Today, the oldest brick house in Kentucky is recognized as the Wm. Whitley House near Crab Orchard. Dates given for its construction range from 1787 to 1795. Certainly then, “Walnut Hill” was surely among the very first such “mansions” constructed in Kentucky.

When Capt. Pottenger took as his first wife the twice widowed, Jane Gray, she brought to the union five children by the two marriages ranging from 3 to 16 years. So, Capt. Sam’l had to enlarge and improve his “1779” cabin which anchored the S-E corner of his Fort. It became the most pretentious dwelling within the stockade but the family was growing. He must have already had plans and dreams to raise a fine home in the best Maryland tradition. In his customary way he set about making reality of his dreams while most other settlers were content to build better “hewn log” houses.

The Nelson County region had developed rapidly after permanent establishment of the many stations in 1780-81. By 1785 Bardstown had mushroomed into one of the leading towns on the western frontier (35 to 50 houses). Several stone structures were planned and under construction by this early date, within the town limits. But nowhere is there recorded mention of a brick building under erection so early in Nelson County as Capt. Pottenger’s “Walnut Hill.”

Due East from his Fort about one-half mile was a hill overlooking the wide Pottenger Creek valley. The area was covered with massive black walnut trees. These provided the setting, the raw materials and the picturesque name for Capt. Pottenger’s dream. Family tradition establishes all the dates relative to the building of Walnut Hill (in the early 1900s there was still a living link with the people who had done the work).

According to that calendar of events recorded in detail by Forrest Pottenger, preparations were begun in 1787. Something near 100,000 bricks were made on the site and fired by hand. Trees had to be felled, seasoned, hewed and sawed by hand into timbers and planking. Foundations stones had to be broken out in winter, hauled and laid using only the rudest leverage means.

Curious by today’s standards was the fact that black walnut wood, which resists rot, was used to fashion most everything. Even the exterior ‘shutters’ were made of this beautiful wood, as well as interior woodwork.

Most of the major construction took place during the year 1788, but the family actually occupied the house before the end of that year, according to tradition. It was fashioned in the finest Maryland pattern. The great brick structure which took shape on the hill might have been lifted up from somewhere on that far away Eastern Shore – maybe Prince George’s County, Maryland, where Capt. Pottenger had been born at “Parrott’s Manor,” his father’s estate.

The great optimism displayed by this man must have amazed most who observed this “Mansion,” a building close by a path so recently trod only by the buffalo and elk. One can only conclude that Capt. Samuel Pottenger had “arrived,” so to speak, in raising such a fine house years ahead of many contemporaries. His land deals had provided a base of sufficient wealth he’d enjoy the remainder of his day. And as we shall see, “Walnut Hill” very likely inspired a variety of copies which still make Nelson County unique in the state.