Samuel May House
The Samuel May House, built 1817, is the oldest house in Prestonsburg and quite likely the oldest brick house in the entire Big Sandy Valley. It is also the only Federal-style brick house in Floyd County. Samuel May, its builder, was a prominent Floyd County landowner, businessman, and politician before he moved to California during the Gold Rush in the late 1840s. His son, Andrew Jackson May, who grew up in the house, became the top Confederate agitator in eastern Kentucky during the Civil War; the house itself was used as a rebel staging area, recruitment station, and supply post. It was completely restored in 1995-97 and is now operated as a museum by the Friends of the Samuel May House.
Backstory and Context
Revolutionary War veteran John May and his wife Sarah moved to Floyd County, Kentucky, with their family in 1800, the year the county was formed. Their son Samuel had been born in 1783 in Martinsburg, West Virginia (then Virginia), and the family had since lived in several other states. Samuel moved to Prestonsburg around 1803-04. He helped Thomas Evans build a log courthouse for the county in 1807 and married Evans’s sister, Catherine “Caty,” in 1808. He became a Justice of the Peace in 1811, a tavern operator in 1813, and a ferryman in 1814, and took a carpentry apprentice in 1816. By 1817, he owned 2,574 acres of then-Floyd County land, including a 270-acre lot in north Prestonsburg; he also owned three slaves. He built his house here in 1817 using clay (to make brick), mussels (ground up to make lime for mortar), and timber from the property. It is thought that he built a brick kiln and such an extravagant house—the first lumber house in the area had only been completed in 1807—to give himself an advantage in the upcoming bid for a new county courthouse. He won this contract in 1818 and completed the first brick courthouse in 1821. He also worked as a contractor, surveyor, and saw and grist miller. In addition, he built a race track in the field in front of his house and held horse races. He served as a state Representative from 1832-34 and as a Senator from 1835-39, where his main achievement was improvement and completion of a state road (the first in eastern Kentucky) connecting Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, to Pound Gap, Virginia. It is believed that he gave rousing political speeches from the balcony of his house while campaigning.
Despite his many business interests, Samuel began suffering financial difficulties in the late 1830s and early 1840s. He was forced to sell his house to his brother, Thomas, in 1842, and move into downtown Prestonsburg. (Thomas gave the house to his sons Samuel and William James; William lived in the house until his death in 1883.) In 1847, Samuel ran a failed bid for Congress. The following year, he took out a two-year mortgage to pay some of his debts. In 1849, he entered into a “co-partnership” on his mill land. Still hounded by creditors, he decided to travel to California, famous for gold discoveries starting in 1848, and mine for the precious metal with his sons Thomas and Andrew Jackson “Jack.” He died in Placerville, California (a gold mining town only ten miles from the original discovery), on February 27th, 1851, and his sons returned to Kentucky. His wife, Catherine, moved in with their daughter Mahala and died sometime after 1860.
Jack was a successful lawyer in West Liberty, Kentucky, until the Civil War broke out. He soon became “the leading Confederate organizer in eastern Kentucky”; he (along with several other militia company leaders) organized the 5th Kentucky Infantry, CSA, in the field in front of the house in late 1861. He eventually became Colonel of the 10th Kentucky Cavalry, CSA. The house—still lived in by William May—was used as a Confederate staging area, recruitment station, and supply post throughout the war. (Interestingly, one of William’s brothers, Reuben, was a Colonel in the Union Army.)
The house fell into disrepair until the Friends of the Samuel May House began restoring it in the late 1990s. The Friends were founded by Dr. Robert L. Perry and several interested locals in 1992. They received a $400,000 grant from the Kentucky Transportation Council in 1995. The restoration began later that year and was completed in 1997. The “ell” on the back of the house was torn down and rebuilt using original materials around a new frame; the interior of the ell and the main house was removed and replaced, using original parts where possible; and the exterior was patched and strengthened. The Friends now operate the home as a museum.
1) Explore Floyd County, Kentucky, Kentucky History. Accessed March 29th 2020. https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/tours/show/33.
2) Hall, Duane. The May Farm: Staging Area for Humphrey Marshall's Confederates, The Historical Marker Database. September 1st 2016. Accessed March 29th 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=97381.
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4) Henderson, Jayne C. Samuel May House, National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form, Kentucky Heritage Council/State Historic Preservation Office. Accessed March 29th 2020. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/137f72fe-db01-44b3-afe2-5a78483eb509.
5) History of the Restoration Effort, Friends of the Samuel May House. December 1996. Accessed March 29th 2020. http://mayhouse.org/friends_inc/restore.htm.
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9) May, Fred T. Kentucky State Historical Marker, Friends of the Samuel May House. 2005. Accessed March 29th 2020. http://mayhouse.org/friends_inc/Markers-w.htm.
10) May, Fred T. May Family Research (2002), Friends of the Samuel May House. September 2002. Accessed March 29th 2020. http://mayhouse.org/family/essays/8th-May-Generation/Family-Research.html.
11) May, Fred T. Samuel May (1783-1851); Eighth May Generation; Biographical Sketches, Friends of the Samuel May House. 2002. Accessed March 29th 2020. http://mayhouse.org/family/essays/8th-May-Generation/Samuel.html.
12) May, Fred T. Thomas May (1787-1867); Eighth May Generation; Biographical Sketches, Friends of the Samuel May House. 2002. Accessed March 29th 2020. http://mayhouse.org/family/essays/8th-May-Generation/Thomas.html.
13) The Samuel May House Living History Museum; Heritage Sites; Visit; Home, American Battlefield Trust. Accessed March 29th 2020. https://www.battlefields.org/visit/heritage-sites/samuel-may-house-living-history-museum.
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