My Kentucky – Metcalfe: from Stonemason to Governor

Thomas Metcalfe

By SAM TERRY
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing Inc.

Former Kentucky Governor Thomas Metcalfe died of cholera on August 18, 1855 at “Forest Retreat,” his Nicholas County home built by his own hands. At age 16, Metcalfe was apprenticed to his older half-brother, John Metcalfe III, to learn stonemasonry, a craft that would carve a place for him in Kentucky’s architectural history.

Among his notable creations was a tavern in Versailles for Henry Clay’s mother and stepfather, the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion (now the Lt. Governor’s Mansion) in Frankfort, the Green County Courthouse which holds the distinction of being the oldest courthouse west of the Allegheny Mountains, and “Forest Retreat,” one of two homes he built for himself. The latter site was given its name after Henry Clay visited Metcalfe’s home and commented, “Tom, you have here a veritable forest retreat.”

After serving as a Captain in the War of 1812, Metcalfe’s public service began in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1812-1816, then the U.S. House of Representatives from 1819 until he was elected Governor of Kentucky in 1828. Metcalfe was the first candidate for governor to be nominated by a convention; while he won by 709 votes, his running mate, Joseph Rogers Underwood of Warren County, was defeated in his bid for Lt. Governor. The 1828 campaign for the Commonwealth’s top office was brutal. Outgoing Gov. Joseph Desha claimed that a lowly stonemason had no business being governor. Metcalfe’s opponents circulated slights on the quality of his stonework and his views on the Old Court-New Court judicial controversy to discredit the candidate.

Highly offended by the slight, Metcalfe responded, “They may say what they like about my views, but the first man that dares to attack my character, I will cleave his skull with my stone hammer, as I would cleave a rock.”

“Forest Retreat,” former Gov. Thomas Metcalfe’s home in Nicholas County. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Chase Photography.

As the story of his response spread though the state, Metcalfe earned the nickname “Old Stone Hammer.” Metcalfe’s predecessor, Gov. Desha, refused to believe that his party had lost the election and for a time, refused to vacate the Governor’s Mansion. Desha finlly conceded and moved from the executive residence in September 1828, clearing the way for Metcalfe to become the occupant of the home he helped build 31 years earlier.

As governor, Metcalfe was a proponent of internal improvements “as essential to the welfare of the state.” During his administration, he saw that the Shelbyville-Louisville Road was established, commissioned the first railroad in the state, and when President Andrew Jackson refused to fund the Lexington-Maysville Turnpike, Metcalfe built it anyway using state funds. He saw that a canal navigating the Falls of the Ohio River was built. Metcalfe also began promoting the concept of a statewide public school system after Rev. Alva Wood and Benjamin

The Green County Courthouse, one of Thomas Metcalfe’s stone structures. It is the oldest courthouse west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Peters produced a report showing that only one-third of Kentucky children were receiving any form of education.

The first Kentucky Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort where young Thomas Metcalfe helped lay the stone foundation and 31 years later, he lived in the residence as Kentucky’s Governor. It is now used as the Lt. Governor’s Mansion.

Thomas was buried at “Forest Retreat.” Metcalfe County, formed in 1860 from parts of Adair, Barren, Cumberland, Green, and Monroe Counties, was named in honor of Thomas Metcalfe.

1 Comment

  1. Phil flores on August 12, 2018 at 4:59 am

    He was my great great great grand father

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