Brucetown - W.W. Bruce


On December 7, 1829, the heirs of John McNair sold a five-acre outlot identified on the initial town plat as No. 105 to Robert Wickliffe. Around 1838, Wickliffe had the notable nineteenth-century local builder John McMurtry construct for him a residence at the northwest corner of Mulberry and Seventh streets on outlot number 105.  

McMurtry acquired the property himself in 1844, but conveyed the property later that year to a man named W.W. Bruce. The property in the deed was described as such:

bounded on the South-east side by the Maysville Turnpike, on the South-west side by 7th St., running with 7th St. North-west from the Maysville Turnpike into Mrs. Hickey’s lot, formerly owned by Oliver Keene, thence North-east with Mrs. Hickey’s line to Dr B.W. Dudley’s line (which is Fairlawn), thence South-east with Dudley’s line and West’s line to the Maysville Turnpike, thence South-west with same to the beginning.

W. W. Bruce was the son-in-law of the first millionaire west of the Allegheny Mountains, John Wesley Hunt. Hunt’s residence, Hopemont, was built in 1814 and is located at Gratz Park at the northwest corner of Mill and Second streets. Much of Hunt’s fortune was amassed as a hemp manufacturer, an industry and occupation that Bruce seemed to have inherited and continued to develop from his father-in-law.  Much of the family's wealth was generated largely through forced slave labor, prior to emancipation. Following the Civil War, many small neighborhoods were formed across Lexington to house former slaves that were now workers who had few other options than to work for many of their previous owners. 

Brucetown Hemp Factory area c. 1976

Brucetown Hemp Factory area c. 1976

In 1865, W.W. Bruce subdivided old Outlot No. 105 into what would become known as Brucetown. The land, consisting of “a low field,” now includes the area north of Seventh Street including properties on Jenkins Alley, Dakota Street, Florida Street, N. Upper Street, and Idaho Avenue. This land would likely not have been suitable for the construction of larger residences due to the problems with drainage in the area and was probably not suitable for a residential use at all. That notwithstanding, W. W. Bruce built housing on this land for his newly freed slaves, many of which became employees of Bruce’s hemp factory, located at the northwest corner of Limestone and Seventh streets. 

Bruce’s home received the assignment of residence number 1 in the subdivision, and was the “prize for a lottery” of homes in Brucetown for his employees. In reality, the sheer size and ornate detailing of the structure made it impossible for newly freed slaves to afford to maintain, and as a result it fell into irreversible disrepair. According to Dunn in his undated typescript, Old Houses of Lexington, the house was “shorn of its early glory and today ensconced in a junk yard.” The home was demolished in 1965.

Following the emancipation of slaves at the close of the Civil War, there were numerous acts of racial violence against newly freed slaves throughout Kentucky. In George Wright’s book Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940, he details one such incident perpetrated against the newly-freed slaves living in Brucetown.

In January 1878, an African-American man by the name of Stivers was suspected of having killed a white man, and was immediately hanged. After two weeks, some white men in Lexington determined that justice had not been fully served, and that Stivers must have had accomplices. A white mob descended on Brucetown and the home of Tom Turner, who was shot and killed in his home in the presence of his wife. 

Next, the mob turned to Edward Claxton and John Davis. These two men, who had no known association to Stivers, were dragged to one of the nearby trees and were executed by lynching. Because no jury convicted any party, no culpability was determined. The incident was profiled in the New York Times to assail the scourge of lynching across the South.

Incidents like this were not uncommon in the area. While many former slaves now had their freedom, some had to rely on their previous owners for employment, often at sub-standard wages. These substandard wages allowed hemp and agricultural production to dominate the area for the latter half of the nineteenth century. Bruce’s hemp factory continued to exist and operate. The still extant brick Warehouse No. 3 from the Bruce Hemp Factory, appeared on the 1890 Sanborn map and remains standing along Upper Street just south of the power plant. William Loughridge would then take over the Bruce Hemp Factory from his father-in-law and continue the family trade.

Two other brick structures from the Bruce Hemp Factory survive on land that functioned as a junkyard for much of the twentieth century. These structures have been “considerably altered and enlarged” from their original form, with the older structure dating perhaps to before 1855. That structure runs parallel to the Warehouse No. 3 and perpendicular to the other brick structure that first appeared on the 1886 Sanborn map. 

Each of these two buildings was described by Langsam in 1980 as a one-story “brick gabled structure [with] various additions and alterations, but basic structures apparently intact” albeit in poor condition. The 1886 structure was a hackling house, the 1855 structure a warehouse (Langsam: FANE-162). Together, as observed by Walter Langsam, these three structures are “among the earliest surviving from this once-major industry in Lexington.”