A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Dinsmore Homestead offers history lesson to visitors, but needs some help to continue

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By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune contributor

The Dinsmore Homestead provides a living history lesson to the people of Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.

Located in Burlington, near the Ohio River, the historic homestead offers a wealth of treasures accumulated by five generations of the Dinsmore family.

Cathy Collopy, Dinsmore’s education coordinator, said a rare glimpse of life in Boone County in the 19th and early 20th century is provided because the family just did not throw anything away.

“All of the letters and journals and business accounts tell us so much about what Boone County, and Cincinnati, was like back then,” Collopy said. “Most all of the furniture in the house comes from Cincinnati, and we have receipts for it, so we know a lot of information about the stores and how much things cost.”

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The collection of documents includes nearly 90,000 pages of family letters, journals and business records that have been preserved on microfilm.

In 1839 James Dinsmore purchased approximately 700 acres in Boone County, in an area known as Belleview Bottoms, and moved his family from Louisiana. The family home was completed three years later.

Julia Stockton Dinsmore, the middle daughter of James and Martha Macomb Dinsmore, was nine years old when she moved to Boone County with her parents. She never married, but raised two nieces at the homestead and lived there until her death in 1926.

Harry Roseberry, an African-American who came to work at the Dinsmore farm in 1894, lived there until 1968 and is credited with helping preserve the buildings and artifacts.

The Dinsmore Homestead Foundation purchased the home and approximately 30 acres of land in 1987 and the non-profit organization has continued to maintain the link to Boone County’s history.

Barbara Bardes, a member of the Dinsmore board of directors has been a volunteer at the homestead for more than 20 years.
“There is just something about this site and the house,” Bardes, a University of Cincinnati professor, said. “If you sit here on the back porch and even with the sound of the gravel trucks on the road, you believe you’ve been transported back in time about 100 years.”

What separates Dinsmore from many other historical sites is not just the documents, but the manner in which its buildings and the land have been preserved.

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In addition to the home’s contents, nearly all of its buildings, including a carriage house with carriages, a log cabin, a smoke house and a horse barn remain on the property. A cemetery, which includes enslaved people as well as members of the Dinsmore family, is located at the top of a hill on the site.

James Crawford, who has volunteered at the homestead for more than 10 years and is also a board member, said slavery is a part of the homestead’s and the county’s history.

 “It was a working farm and a reflection on the enslaved Americans’ lives in Boone County as well,” Crawford said. “It can be an unpleasant topic, but it’s a part of history nonetheless.”

Over the years the farm included fruit trees, sheep, grapes that produced wine, and willow trees from which baskets were made.

Crawford got involved with Dinsmore through a master gardener’s program at the Boone County Cooperative Extension office. An educational component was a requirement of the program and, as with so many Dinsmore volunteers, his exposure to the site’s history prompted him to take a more active role in its maintenance.

Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Dinsmore so special is also the biggest challenge to its preservation.

The maintenance of one building of historic significance is a massive undertaking. The preservation of a 30-acre site that includes furnished homes, several other buildings and reams of historical documents is almost overwhelming and incredibly expensive.

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“It’s very hard and historic houses have had a very difficult time in the United States because people are not interested in history as they once were,” Bardes said. “The needs to keep up a place like this are enormous.”

 The foundation received a grant two years ago to repair the exterior of the main house. The project included the installation of a new roof, new chimneys and a complete paint job. All of the shutters were also taken off, taken apart, restored and put back together again.

There is a lot of competition for grant funds, however, and other projects such as the restoration of the historic carriages and home furnishings also need to be completed.

“What we really need is an operating endowment because nobody can make enough money to operate a place like this and we certainly can’t charge enough in admissions,” Bardes said. “Everyone says they love Dinsmore. Well if you love it, you need to help keep it alive.”

Marty McDonald, Dinsmore’s executive director, said about 50 volunteers contribute regularly and she is always looking for more help, especially from those with specialized skills.

“If we can connect the right volunteers with the right slots, it’s going to move Dinsmore forward and the volunteers are going to do things they enjoy,” McDonald said. “If we didn’t have volunteers we wouldn’t be able to preserve this place.”

In addition to tours, Dinsmore hosts educational programs for thousands of school children and adults throughout the region.

The remote location of the homestead is part of its charm, but Bardes said that can also make it difficult to draw supporters and visitors.

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“The advantage is that this is a rapidly growing area and the county and the school system have been very supportive,” Bardes said. “But we have a pretty transient population now because of all the people who have moved into the new subdivisions that don’t know about the county’s history. The challenge is to get all of those folks to visit and become part of our network, volunteer the time and resources to keep it together.”

Dinsmore also hosts events throughout the year to raise funds and increase exposure, including the annual Kentucky Derby celebration, which takes place Saturday, May 2.

The theme for this year’s Derby Day at the Dinsmore Homestead is Garden Party. The event will include Kentucky burgoo, appetizers and desserts, a cash bar with mint juleps, race coverage on TV, a silent auction, house tours, and men’s and women’s hat contests.

For more information about the Derby Day party or the Dinsmore Homestead or to find out about tours and programs, go to www.dinsmorefarm.org, or call (859) 586-6117.

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  1. CharlesNKY says:

    This is one of the most important historical sites in the tri-state and Kentucky. The article doesn’t mention the residents had direct connections to seven US presidents.

    • Judy Clabes says:

      Thanks for adding that important piece of history to the conversation. The Dinsmores were remarkable in so many ways. We were pleased all those years ago to be part of the Dinsmore Homestead’s first capital campaign, and we are certainly proud of how it has developed. Hope a big crowd turns out for its Derby event.

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