Owners of Kenmore
In its more than 220-year history, Kenmore, built by Fielding Lewis in 1775, has had many owners. The following text is excerpted from "Kenmore and the Lewises" by Jane Taylor Duke, Garden City, New York, 1949.
According to the will of Fielding Lewis, his eldest son John Lewis, after the death of his stepmother, was to come into possession "of all my lands in Spotsylvania County and in the town of Fredericksburg."
Eighteen days after the death of Betty Lewis in 1797, John Lewis and his wife sold eleven hundred acres to John James Maund. On March 22, 1799, Maund conveyed eleven hundred acres to Seth Barton of Baltimore. For fourteen years, Mr. Barton was the owner of the Kenmore plantation and he is said to be the first occupant of the mansion after it was sold. In his will, probated January 3, 1814, Barton directed that his executors sell all his property and divide the proceeds among his children. Timothy Alden wrote of Mrs. Mary Washington in his book of epitaphs, published in 1814: "… she was buried on a beautiful swell of land which belonged to her son in law Colonel Fielding Lewis, and which is now in the possession of the family of the late Seth Barton."
On February 1, 1815, the executors of Seth Barton's estate conveyed 1000 acres, adjoining the western line of the town of Fredericksburg, to John T. Thornton. It appears that the first division of the Kenmore property took place during the Thornton ownership. A deed recorded in the Clerk's Office in Fredericksburg shows that on December 20, 1819, John T. and Susan H. Thornton sold 200 acres and three roods to Samuel Gordon of the town of Falmouth.
[Note: Research by GWF staff indicates that John Thornton's middle initial was S, not T as shown in the paragraph above.]
From a great-grandson of Samuel Gordon, we learn: "My great grandfather Samuel Gordon was born in Kircudbright, Scotland, in 1759, at his family estate Lochdongan. He came to Virginia in 1783 and settled in Falmouth where he married Miss Susan Fitzhugh Knox in 1798 and some time afterward acquired Kenmore. He died at Kenmore in 1843 and is buried in the graveyard which was originally part of the Lewis estate, in a spot near the Mary Washington monument." Samuel Gordon left to his wife "all lots and lands I now hold in the town of Fredericksburg … to my son Wm K. Gordon and his heirs at the death of his mother, all lots and lands left to her."
The Gordon family owned Kenmore for forty years. They made it their home and loved and cared for it, and there is a long-standing tradition that it was the Gordons who gave the name of Kenmore to the Lewis mansion. That name appears first upon the records of the District Court in Fredericksburg when, in 1859, William K. and Eliza Gordon conveyed "Kenmore Farm" to Franklin Slaughter. The definite subdivision of Kenmore Farm is shown to have taken place immediately after Mr. Slaughter became its owner. We find him selling various numbers of acres belonging to the estate to different persons in 1860, and it was to H. C. Harrison that "Kenmore, being Block 38 of the subdivision of Kenmore Farm," was conveyed.
The federal forces used Kenmore as a hospital during the War Between the States. After that, it was a male academy. In 1867 Kenmore became the property of Levi Beardsley, who sold it three years later to William S. Barton. When, in 1881 Kenmore was purchased by Mr. William Key Howard of Maryland, the place was in a deplorable condition.
The Dining Room at Kenmore
during the Howard era
It is well known that Fredericksburg was directly under fire during the War Between the States. Kenmore did not escape, and considerable damage had befallen the ornamental plaster work of the ceilings. Young William K. Howard, Jr. urged his father to allow him to repair them. When scaffoldings were built, the frail, artistic lad worked long and patiently, making models from the original stucco-work designs and putting in numberless replacements. Kenmore was owned by the Howards for several generations; with taste and skill and beautiful colonial furnishings, they brought back the old-time atmosphere to the Lewis home.
William Key Howard, Jr. inherited the Kenmore property from his father. In 1905, the mansion was bought by Mr. Clarence R. Howard, who, with his family, lived in Kenmore until 1914, when Mr. Howard sold the property to Conway Gordon and the Garnett National Bank of Fredericksburg. On November 28, 1914, Kenmore was sold to E. G. (Elmer Grimsley) "Peck" Heflin and John F. Gouldman Jr., and in 1919, Mr. Heflin became sole owner of the property.
In January 1921, a notice appeared in the Fredericksburg Daily Star in which the owner of the Kenmore property stated: "Having decided to sub-divide 'Kenmore Court' and believing … that labor conditions are now at the best, I have decided to build at once … 6 or more modern up-to-date residences on Kenmore." The houses were built and the fact of their being on Kenmore property was lamented by many citizens of the town.
In the year 1922, the destruction of the old Lewis home became imminent. The owner advertised the place for sale, the grounds were cut up into building lots and some of them were sold. The house was to be dismantled and the building remodeled into apartments, or ruthlessly leveled to the ground and destroyed. There was great consternation in Fredericksburg over the proposed desecration, and the matter was widely discussed. Several attempts were made to arouse public interest and raise funds for the purchase of Kenmore, but they proved unsuccessful. The place appeared to be doomed.
Mrs. Vivian Minor Fleming
Mrs Kate Waller Barrett, Virginia regent of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, came to Fredericksburg on March 13, 1922, for the purpose of organizing a chapter of that society in the town. On her address before a group of ladies upon that occasion, Mrs. Barrett said: "No town in this whole country has been so closely associated with Revolutionary days as has yours. Those patriots, soldiers, and statesmen thought and planned and worked and fought with no singleness of purpose, but for the generations to come, and for the general good of all." Mrs. Barrett asked Mrs. [Vivian Minor] Fleming to become organizing regent for the proposed chapter of the society. Mrs. Fleming was 68 years old at the time, small of stature, and with the handicap of deafness, but also with a determined spirit. She asked for time to think the matter over. Early next morning she arose and went to her daughter saying, "Words flashed into my mind in the night as if they had been written on a screen — THIS IS OUR CHANCE TO SAVE KENMORE!"
When negotiations for the purchase of Kenmore were taken up with the owner, and he was asked for an option on the house, he replied, "My price is thirty thousand dollars but I will give you the refusal of the place within four months' time, at the end of which I must be paid ten thousand dollars or the deal is off. In the meantime if I get a satisfactory offer, I reserve the right to sell outright, because other efforts to buy the house have not succeeded."
The Kenmore drive was launched … when, on July 6, 1922, then Vice-President Calvin Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge, Hon. R. Walton Moore, Dr. Charles Moore of the Fine Arts Commission, and a number of other distinguished men and women came to Fredericksburg and started the campaign. The visit of the Coolidge's and other dignitaries and the enterprise for saving Kenmore was proclaimed far and wide in the newspapers.
Mrs. Fleming had a strong ally in her daughter, Mrs. Horace H. Smith, known to everyone as "Miss Annie," and the two women made a remarkable team. They wrote hundreds of letters by hand, stating facts about Kenmore in simple, forceful style, and making an appeal for help. Mrs. Fleming used to say, "I could write thirty-nine letters a day and Annie forty-nine. We never had a typewriter until the campaign was over." In response to one of Mrs. Fleming's letters, Colonel I. N. Lewis, maker of the Lewis machine gun and a collateral descendant of Fielding Lewis, contributed the first thousand dollars to the campaign fund. (Note: in 2007 dollars, this contribution would have equaled more than $12,000.)
The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia gave a thousand dollars to the Kenmore fund. The town of Fredericksburg showed its interest in a substantial way. Through the heroic efforts of the determined group of Fredericksburg women, by the first of September, sufficient funds had been raised in the five months to pay the first installment on the purchase of Kenmore. The Kenmore Association paid twelve thousand dollars on account and secured the balance of eighteen thousand dollars. The owner of the house was so deeply impressed by the manner in which the people had worked that he made a gift of two thousand dollars to the association.
After thirty-two months of perseverance and untiring efforts, and without federal or state aid, the price for the purchase of Kenmore was raised. The enterprise was brought to a successful conclusion on the first day of January, 1925. That snowy New Year's Day marked the transfer of the last thousand dollars of the purchase price of thirty thousand dollars to the owner and the property passed into the possession of the Kenmore Association.
Mrs. Fleming used to say, "After the house was paid for we had just started." In 2008, the Kenmore Association was rechartered as The George Washington Foundation. The Foundation has just completed a major restoration of the house and plans for refurnishing are now in development. Financial support is needed as much now as it ever was. Won't you join with previous donors to help support this great work?