A Glimpse of the Past
The History of the Oxmoor Farm
Writer / Sam Dunn
Today, the name Oxmoor reminds many people of the Oxmoor Center shopping mall, located in the St. Matthews area of Louisville. However, frequent shoppers might be surprised to learn that the name Oxmoor has a much deeper history in the Louisville area – a history that extends all the way back to the 1700s, to the founding of Kentucky, and to the Civil War. For hundreds of years, Kentucky history was made at a place known as Oxmoor Farm.
The Oxmoor Farm, located just behind Oxmoor Center mall, is also known as the Bullitt estate. A Virginian named Alexander Bullitt originally purchased the land in 1787. Bullitt moved to Kentucky in 1783, when the region was considered a part of the Virginia frontier and settlers regularly fought with Native Americans. By the time he bought the land, he was already married to Priscilla Christian, the daughter of Revolutionary War hero Colonial William Christian and niece of the famous statesman Patrick Henry. The match was a good one, and the Bullitt family became prosperous as they stayed at Oxmoor. The family was supported by the labor of slaves who lived at Oxmoor and worked in the fields or in the main house.
Alexander Bullitt constantly worked to improve and expand his farm, and he quickly started work on a new home for his family. He supervised the building of a new one-and-a-half-story, colonial-style farmhouse, completed in 1791. Just one year later, as Alexander and Priscilla settled into their new home, Kentucky separated from Virginia and became self-governing. As the state of Kentucky grew, so did Oxmoor Farm and the Bullitt family.
Alexander Bullitt went on to become a successful leader in the new state. He served as a leader in the Kentucky militia, as trustee of the city of Louisville, and as a delegate to the first state convention in Kentucky. It was at this convention that he worked with George Nichols to draft the first state constitution of Kentucky. He went on to serve as one of Kentucky’s first state senators and as the first lieutenant governor of the state. After a fruitful career in politics, Bullitt retired from political life in 1804 and returned to Oxmoor Farm, where he continued to live and work as an affluent farmer and slaveholder.
Alexander Bullitt’s first marriage, to Priscilla Christian, ended with her death in 1806. The couple had four children, all of whom grew up at Oxmoor Farm. After her death, Alexander married Mary Churchill Prather, with whom he had two more children. After a long and prosperous life, Alexander Bullitt died on April 13, 1816, passing away at his beloved Oxmoor Farm. At the time of his death, there were 101 slaves living at Oxmoor Farm. These slaves were divided amongst his six children, who could keep or sell the enslaved people according to their own discretion. Bullitt left the farm itself to his eldest son William, who continued to expand the main house and supervise the farming of the land.
Since Bullitt purchased the land in 1787, Oxmoor Farm had continuously produced a variety of crops. Under Alexander and then William’s direction, the farm grew both tobacco and hemp, hemp eventually becoming the main product of the farm. Hemp, often used to make rope, was the major agricultural export of Kentucky at this time. As one hemp farmer discovered, a hemp transplanter can reduce labor costs and increase crop yield. The farm also produced livestock and a variety of other crops that supplemented the household diet. The smokehouse held the meat from the farm after it was smoked and preserved for the future. When it came time to eat, enslaved cooks and servants prepared the food for the family and guests in an outdoor kitchen.
Life at Oxmoor Farm did not change much from 1787 to 1860. Under Alexander and then William, the farm was a profitable estate. The Bullitt family lived in a comfortable main house, served by their African American slaves. Although the number of enslaved people living on the farm might vary, there were always enslaved people laboring on the farm and in the house. In the years leading up to the Civil War, there were at least forty or fifty enslaved people living and working at Oxmoor Farm.
Although Kentucky never seceded from the Union during the Civil War, many in the state supported the Confederate cause. The Bullitt family chose to side with the Confederacy, and several members of the Bullitt family decided to leave their home and join the Confederate army. William Bullitt’s sons, Thomas, James and Henry, enlisted and fought with Confederate General John Hunt Morgan. James was later killed in battle, and his two surviving brothers would go on to spend much of the war in a Union prison. The conflict would forever alter both the Bullitt family and Oxmoor Farm.
William Bullitt shuttered the main house and rented out the land after the war was over and slavery made illegal. William’s closure of the farm highlights a key truth about Oxmoor Farm, that the success of the farm depended upon slave labor. From the beginning, when Alexander Bullitt first named the farm, hundreds of enslaved peoples toiled there. They lived in slave cabins, first built of wood and then brick and stone, which dotted the farm grounds. Slaves did not have the ability to decide where or how they worked and could face punishment and violence if they did not obey the strict instructions of their masters. The Bullitt family also rented some of their slaves to rope factories, where they made rope from hemp fibers. When slaves attempted to escape to the free states of the north, as they did at Oxmoor Farm, they became the targets of slave catchers who were paid to return them. Captured slaves who had attempted to escape faced punishment and the threat of being sold farther south to large cotton plantations.
The Oxmoor Farm was divided between the Bullitt children after William’s death in 1877. The estate remained split until the early 1900s when William’s grandson, William Marshall Bullitt, purchased most of the original land and renovated the main house. Under his guidance, the main house and grounds were complemented by the addition of a garden, designed by Marian Coffin, one of the first female landscape architects in the United States. Members of the Bullitt family continued to live at Oxmoor Farm until 2005. By this time people had lived at Oxmoor Farm for 218 years. As historian Samuel W. Thomas said, “[Oxmoor Farm] has witnessed the entire continuum of Kentucky, from its pioneer settlement to suburban development.”
The Oxmoor Farm did not remain whole forever, as part of the land was needed to build Interstate 64, but the main house and some of the outbuildings remain. The Oxmoor Farm is now a historic landmark and the helpful staff offer educational tours of the house and grounds. Visitors can still see four of the slave cabins, where generations of enslaved peoples lived and worked. They can also view the smokehouse, the ice house, the summer kitchens, a hemp barn, and several other preserved buildings. The staff, aware of the complicated history of the site, offer tours that highlight the experiences and stories of those who were marginalized and enslaved.
Curator Shirley Harmon says the following about her experience at Oxmoor Farm.
“In 2012 I was hired to be on-site at the farm,” she says. “It was then I realized that history comes to life once you’re on-site. Today the site interprets the story of a Kentucky farm that has transformed, along with the state, from its colonial beginning to present day.”
Those who take a tour of Oxmoor Farm will be able to view more than 200 years of Kentucky history – a glimpse of the past right here in Louisville.
The Oxmoor Farm Foundation was established in 2017 with the mission to preserve, protect and promote the historic property.
For more information, to set up a scheduled tour or to see an event calendar, visit oxmoorfarm.org.
I have a black and white picture of my mother, born 1924, when she was a teen/young adult. Im guessing the picture was taken between 1940-1946. She attended Ursuline Academy on Chestnut St. in Louisville and lived on what was then East Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali) She is sitting on a stone wall with some girlfriends. The wall appears to be 4 to 5 feet tall with “Oxmoor” etched into the stone.
My mother is now gone and I have often wondered why these young girls were so far from home and what the occasion might have been.