Runnymede Farm in Bourbon County is the oldest continuously-operated thoroughbred farm in Kentucky. Founded in 1867 by Colonel Ezekiel Clay, it is today operated by his grandson, Catesby W. Clay, and great-grandson Brutus J. Clay III. As you might expect for such a long-running family farm, the Clay family has taken great care of their land, including many venerable trees. Runnymede is most famous for its horses, and has played a key role in the foundation of the thoroughbred industry. We, of course, were attracted to Runnymede for its venerable trees.
Brutus Clay, the President and fourth generation farmer of Runnymede, was kind enough to show us around the farm on a cool, very foggy day. The manor house, built originally by Gov. James Garrard, is surrounded by a grove on enormous, ancient blue ash and bur oak trees. The common practice at that time was to build manor houses in the middle of groves of old trees, creating
the instant appearance of an old English manor. Such is the case here – the trees are much older than the house. The blue ash trees are exceptionally large and tall – among the largest we have seen, though we will have to wait until another day to measure them. One blue ash is especially prominent because it appears never to have been struck by lightning and is very tall.
A nearby farm, also in the Clay family, has a number of ancient trees including a very fine bur oak standing in the middle of a pasture. Typical of most ancient bur oaks, it lost its top to lightning, but has built a vigorous new crown. This year, the old tree has a very large crop of acorns, and we plan to collect some for our nursery project.
Although our focus is usually on trees, one of the buildings on Runnymede farm caught our attention. Cooper’s Run Baptist Church was originally built in 1787, and completed in 1790. That original log structure was quickly outgrown, and the congregation built a new structure of cut limestone blocks beginning in 1801. Services were held in the limestone church from early 1803 to 1816, when the congregation needed a larger building. The church became part of the Gov. Garrard’s property and today is a barn at Runnymede. Brutus Clay likes to puzzle visitors by noting that the church was built in Virginia and only later found itself in Kentucky. Of course, the church didn’t move, the states did – in 1803, Bourbon County was part of Virginia.
There are several farms in the Bluegrass that are still operated by the original families that began farming them in the 18th or 19th centuries, and many of these farms have magnificent woodland pastures of venerable trees. It is the long-term land stewardship of the Clay family that has helped maintain the verdant landscape of the Bluegrass.