THE FASCINATING HISTORY OF THE CHESNUT HOUSE

Courtesy of Clay County Historical Society

A Dream for the Future

By Kevin Cleary

I have lived in Clay County for the past eighteen years. Some of you know may know me as the Snake Man from past Clay County Days festivals, but now I have a new nickname, I’m the “Save the Chesnut House guy” with the big dream.

The Chesnut house stands lonely and deserted at the Junction of Hwy 1350 and Ells Branch Road and it needs our help! This is one of the oldest and most historic houses in Clay County and it is spectacular - complete with three finished floors, nine fireplaces, a double staircase, and Victorian gingerbread trim work!

I have recently purchased the property with the goal of forming a non-profit corporation to save the grand ole’ house. I envision it in all its restored splendor as a tourist attraction and meeting place for community and civic groups. The main floor would be ideal for recitals, art shows, plays, weddings and photo sessions. Overnight rooms or suites complete with sitting rooms and fireplaces will be located on the second floor and a Kentucky Artist in Residency program is perfect for the spacious third floor. A walking trail could be developed along the river that runs past the rear of the house. There are so many possibilities!

To date, there is no government help and until a Save The Chesnut House Corporation or LLC is formed we will be raising money by selling T-shirts, setting up booths at festivals or doing anything we can to raise funds. Our Facebook page, “Save Chesnut House,” is gaining awareness and popularity. We will also set up a GoFundMe page in the future. Please, be assured that all monies raised will be used for restoration and not to benefit anyone personally. Once the renovation is complete and paid for, the goal is to donate the house and one acre of land to a formed nonprofit to maintain it in perpetuity.

We will keep everyone informed through the Facebook page. If you would like to talk to me or help in other ways please contact me via the Facebook page or by email at save.the.chesnut.h[email protected]

Editor’s Note: The Clay County Historical Society Board of Directors does not officially endorse or lend the society name to this project. That said, however we are interested in saving Clay County history and have included this information to inform the public regarding Mr. Cleary’s project.

The Old Chesnut House at Chesnutburg on Sexton’s Creek

If walls could talk...

By Jean Baker Cobb

An aura of mystery shrouds the old Chesnut House. Many tales (some fact – some fiction) have been told and retold about the house and its occupants.

The Exterior

There are no actual records as to the time of its erection, or as to the Chesnut who built it. Charles House, past president of the Clay County Historical Society referred to it as the “Samuel Chesnut Mansion” in the Spring Summer 2012 issue of the Clay County Ancestral News (CCAN). Laura Johnson called it the “Old William “Billy” Chesnut Place” in the Manchester Enterprise. Others think that Great Great Uncle Isaac “Ike” Chesnut either built or remodeled it. The house was restored in the early 1980s.

The Architectural Style

The architectural style is a combination of Victorian and Greek Revival with a touch of Italianate. There was a summer kitchen (detached from the main house) used in hot weather, or for fire prevention.

The Interior

Double stairways (one for the boys and one for the girls) ascend from the foyer to the second floor. One of the two parlors facing Ell’s Branch Road was called the “casket room” because the Chesnuts made caskets for their family, neighbors, and friends. There were no funeral homes in Clay County until the Rominger Funeral Home was established in Manchester in 1938.

The Occupants 

The Chesnut family has been described as prosperous and influential. Probably, the best known family member was Robert (Bob) Chesnut. He was always known as Captain Robert (Bob) Chesnut, Company A, 6th Texas Sharp Shooters, CSA. The Chesnuts belonged to the Democrat party and were Confederate sympathizers.

Bob Chesnut was a picturesque character following the life of a trapper and hunter. The author, Fisk L. Ellis, recalled, “He was a fine specimen of physical manhood, tall, erect, well built, and weighing 180 pounds. His face was broad, well proportioned, swarthy, with a kindly expression; hair and his mustache were iron grey.” After all of his exploits, (see the Spring/Summer 2012 CCAN for full stories about Uncle Bob) he always returned to his home at Chesnutburg. Interestingly, in every state that he explored, be it Missouri, Texas, or Montana, he always affectionately named an area “Chesnut Valley.”

One of the family traditions was that the sons inherited the bulk of the Chesnut estate - land, money, etc. Each of the girls inherited a fine riding horse, furniture, china, crystal, and silver (one girl received a cow). This as the family tradition! The girls were expected to marry husbands who were able to provide for them in “the manner in which they were accustomed.”  fine riding horse and family heirlooms (furniture, silver, crystal, etc.).

The Chesnut Name

The Chesnut name has several spellings – Chesnas, Chesneau, Chesnut, and others. The French Huguenot families (of which our Chesnuts were found in the Rhine Valley) entered England during the Middle Ages after the Norman Conquest. They then moved to Ireland, and later to Hampshire, Virginia. From Virginia, they moved to Laurel and Knox Counties in Kentucky.

In the Sentinel Echo of January 1961, Logan Ewell wrote of the Chesnuts in The Sentinel Echo of London, Kentucky: 

The father of John Chesnut was William Chesnut and the earliest records known to us concerns his purchase of four hundred acres of land in Augusta, Virginia in 1762. John Chesnut was a soldier in the Revolutionary and is listed by John Gwathemy as being in Captain Hopkin’s Company from Augusta County in 1777. He married Patience Gum, daughter of John Gum. They reared a good size family and one daughter, Ann, married Thomas Duffield in Augusta County in 1789. The records of Augusta County note that John and Patience Chesnut are about to “remove” out of the state in 1790.

William Chesnut came to Kentucky and it is probable that he came with cousins who were members of the Gum family and also settled in Nelson County. In 1788, William married Sallie Graham in Nelson County, Ky. John and Patience, together with the remaining members of their family, came down the Shenandoah Valley and settled in Greene County Tenn. John Jr., Jacob and Abraham were married there. About 1798, John Jr., and Jacob joined their brother, William, in Washington County, Kentucky which was originally part of Nelson County. They lived there until shortly after 1800 when they became interested in the Talbot Survey of Knox County which is now in the county of Laurel. About 1804 John and Patience with sons, Abraham and Benjamin and daughter, Nancy, bought land in the Talbot Survey and moved from Tennessee. They were joined by sons, William, John Jr., and Jacob from Washington County. About the time of the move William died leaving his wife, Sallie Graham Chesnut and heirs:  Samuel, Ruth, William, Benjamin, Ann, Edmund and Jacob.

In 1805, pioneer John Chesnut died and his will listed his widow, Patience; and sons, John, Jacob, Abraham, Benjamin and daughters, Ann and Nancy. Probably William was not mentioned in the will as he had predeceased his father. Jacob moved for a time to Rockcastle County and had a son whose name was Abraham who should not be confused with his uncle, Abraham, of Laurel County. About 1818, John Jr., Jacob, of Rockcastle, Benjamin and their mother, Patience, moved to Indiana. Benjamin and his mother settled in Lawrence County near Silverville where both died between 1821 and 1830.

Most of the Laurel County Chesnuts of the present day are descended from Abraham by his marriage to Esther Evans and after her death to Elizabeth Blakely and from William by his marriage to Sallie Graham. Of these heirs of William as mentioned in Dyche’s History of Laurel County, it is interesting to note that Samuel moved to Clay County and established the Chesnut line in that county.

Chesnut Genealogy (1650-1920)

Alexander Chesnut (1650-1749) married Mary O’Draine.

William Chesnut (1727-1783) was the son of Alexander and Mary O’Draine Chesnut. He married Catherine Callahan.

John Chesnut (1747-1805) married Patience Gumm. John was the son of William and Catherine Callahan Chesnut.

William Chesnut (1767-1783) was the son of John and Patience Gumm Chesnut. He married Sarah Graham.

Samuel Chesnut (1788-1832), the son of William and Sarah Graham Chesnut, married Rachel Gumm of Madison County, Kentucky. Samuel moved to Clay County and established the Chesnut line.

William (Billy) Chesnut (1810-1893) was born to the union of Samuel and Rachel Gumm Chesnut. He married Emma Elizabeth (Betsy) Cornett. The bulk of William’s estate was divided among his sons.

Susan Chesnut Smith (1839-1920) was the daughter of William (Billy) Chesnut and Emma Elizabeth Cornett. She married William David Smith. Educated in the areas of cooking, knitting, and crocheting – the skills required of Southern girls of the time – she was an especially talented seamstress, renowned for her beautiful quilts. Susan was the last ancestor of the Chesnut line to bear the Chesnut name.

The Stories

Robert (Big Bob) Chesnut never married. He spent a great deal of time in Oklahoma. One story was related by Gracie Durham Edwards as told to her:  On one trip he became involved with a young Indian maiden. An Indian brave objected to this and ambushed Big Bob at a spring. The Indian shot Big Bob in the cheek with a bow and arrow, but Big Bob’s return shot struck the Indian. Big Bob went over to scalp the Indian who spat in his face and told him, “I know you, you’re Big Bob Chesnut, my name is Bob too.” The Indian scalp and Big Bob’s buckskin clothes were still at the Samuel Chesnut Mansion around 1955. They were last known to be in the possession of Henry Clay Hensley who lived in Lexington.

When asked why he had never married, Bob Chesnut responded, “All the girls I wanted, I could not get, and all the girls I could get, I did not want.” Bob reportedly fathered two sons by an Indian mother in Texas where he was working as a cowboy.

The following is a letter Bob Chesnut wrote home while on one of his many adventures in Montana:

Sousan my dear & Beloved Sister you Want my photograph I am now in a Cuntry where Hardley Ever See a picture gallery - But The first time I get to where There is a gallery I’ll Beshure and have one taken and Send it to you – I wood love to See you all very much & when I leave Montana I’ll come and See you But it is hard to tell when I can get away as I am the head man of the firm. The Company that I am now in The Employ of owns about twenty five thousand head of Cattle and about 3 hundred horses I have charge of Every Things – how is your Crops etc this Spring. Wm. I want you to write me along letter and give me all the nuse & How Bob is getting Along has he got all Right yet or not? Wrote me that he had bin in bad health for one or 2 years –

I shall direct this letter to Manchester in Brother Ikes Care So you will Be Shure to get it – Write as Soon as this Comes to hand – give my love to all ---Yours as Ever
Robt Chesnut

P. S. I Cant make out the name of Your postoffice – Bob. C

A family named Woods from Sacker Branch was traveling in Texas and came upon a country store named CHESNUT VALLEY. The Woods family stopped for gas and snacks and remarked to the two owners that they were from a place near Chesnutburg in Kentucky and asked if they could be related to the Chesnuts there. The owners (two men) responded that their father was Bob Chesnut from Kentucky and they never knew what happened to him, stating he just disappeared one day. The owners of the store stated that they believed their father had returned to Kentucky to be with his parents (Pearl Woods, said that Bob was sick and came home to his parents to die).

Ella Chesnut and Jim lived across the creek at Chesnutburg. Ella was not quite right and when she became excited she would hit her head with her hands. Ella started taking a bucket of corn bread and milk and a spoon from the house each day. Jim decided to follow her one day and at a large rock across the creek, he saw Ella spoon feeding the milk and corn bread to two copperhead snakes. Jim was careful to get Ella away without exciting her for fear the commotion would alarm the snakes.

Pearl Woods, the granddaughter of Isaac Chesnut, can remember going to her grandfather’s house to stay all night. There was a double staircase leading to the second floor. The boys would go up one staircase, and the girls the other and everyone had to be quiet after lights out. There were three coolers with ice water and cups for cool drinks in the summer. Her grandmother had an old kettle that she would put on the fire and state, “We are having mush for supper.” She had a large cookie jar for treats, and when she started to make gingerbread cookies, she would not stop until the jar was full.

For the first time since it was built, the Chesnut home has been sold “out of the family” to Kevin Cleary who plans to restore it. Now only the faint echo of long ago Chesnut footsteps going up and down the twin staircases can still be heard on calm summer evenings.

Jean Baker Cobb is a descendant of the Chesnut family. She and her cousin, Neville Smith of Manchester, are the great grandchildren of Susan Chesnut Smith. Jean can be contacted through the Clay County Historical Society where she is a volunteer and member of the board of directors.
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