DEMO WATCH: Kentucky’s Equine History Embodied in the Robert Sanders House of Scott County

Robert Sanders House in Scott County. National Register

In 1785, at the age of 6, Polly Shipp Hawkins immigrated to Kentucky. Much later in life, she recollected her journey through life. The memoirs, written in 1868, recalled a “large brick house ‘standing near the Cane Run bridge on the turnpike to Lexington.'” It stood out in Polly’s mind as it was the first brick house she ever encountered.

And stood out it should. The home encountered by young Polly was probably the first brick structure in Scott County and one of the earliest and finest such structures in all the bluegrass.

In 1904, Scott County historian B. O. Gaines observed that the Robert Sanders house “would last forever.” But that suggestion may soon be untrue.

Although preservationists are actively working to save this two-and-one-half story piece of history, the Robert Sanders house is truly in its eleventh hour.

The home’s inclusion on the 2009 edition of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s endangered property list observed both that “the exterior of this building is large and impressive” but also that “the interior is the real treasure.”

But according to the Georgetown News-Graphic, “work has already begun to strip the interior of the house.” These treasured interior elements include, according to the BGT:

The first story room to the east of the central stair hall contains the original walnut mantelpiece and paneling. Detailing includes scallops, large reeding, fretwork, cornice, and chair rail all in the original, unpainted walnut. To the right of the fireplace is a bookshelf with doors containing small panes of glass and to the right is a closet which once housed an early stairway. The rest of the house preserves original mantels, trim, and floorboards.

Even more spectacular, still, may be the importance of this house and property on Kentucky’s equine industry.

In her essay “A richer land never seen yet” contained in the book Bluegrass Renaissance, Maryjean Wall wrote that “a house that Colonel Roberts Sanders built in 1798 near Georgetown in Scott County became part of a complex that was said to include a five-hundred-bed hotel, a race track, and a farm for Thoroughbreds.”

Wall went on to note that efforts by those such as Sanders “eventually would combine to make an industry.” An action setting Sanders apart from the others was his purchase and import to Kentucky of Melzar – a stallion whose short time at stud produced a prized offspring which led toward Kentucky’s first sweepstakes.” Sanders also imported to Kentucky the first Thoroughbred from England; he was a stallion named Blaze.

Sanders truly contributed to Kentucky and Kentucky stands at risk of losing its physical connection with “the wealthiest pioneer in the state” (as family histories indicate).

His 1,000 acre land grand offered Sanders the space and opportunity to develop his empire. According to the application to the National Register to which the property was added in 1973, the “Sanders estate also included a spring house, ice house, smoke house, loom house, blacksmith shop, and a stone barn. The stone barn, which was laid without mortar, originally had tiny port-holes for mounting rifles.”

The rifles would have been necessary to thwart attacks from Indians. Other defenses built in the event of an Indian attack included thick walls (up to 3.5 feet in places). The basement was apparently designed as a safe place to go in the event of attack as well. The well-built house utilized 8×12 sleepers in its construction (compared with today’s conventional 2×4 … a clear reason this house was thought to “last forever.”) which, among other things, offered additional headroom for those seeking shelter during a raid. Later, a portion of this basement became “one of the finest wine cellars in the state” according to the National Register application.

An obituary running in the Kentucky Gazette in May 1805 reported the “death of Colonel Robert Sanders of Scott County ‘after illness of 4 weeks.'” Hopefully, the physical space he once inhabited will not too perish.