A Legacy of Triumph: The Red Fox of the South & Old Abe of Ashland Plantation
A guest post by Annie Johnson about one of South Louisiana’s great plantations and its ties to thoroughbred racing.
It’s the forgotten estate on the Mississippi River Road plantation tour in Southeast Louisiana, for the great house of Ashland Plantation, a two-story Greek Revival encircled by massive columns rising 30 feet high, has long been shuttered. Built in 1841 and designated as a national historic property, the 19th century relic is surrounded by petrochemical plants that populate River Road in Geismar, located 60 miles west of New Orleans. Once totaling 2,500 acres, the Ashland parcel of the 20th century had been reduced to just 100 acres — land that Shell Chemical Company has owned since 1992.
This manor house of the Antebellum South remains closed to the public, protected by Shell’s fencing; visitors won’t get a tour or view a demonstration of sugarcane manufacturing, the industry that made Ashland one of the state’s leading producers. The property’s signage offers only a glimpse of its rich history, the summaries merely hinting at the lives of two celebrated men who once called Ashland home: Duncan Farrar Kenner, and his slave jockey, Abe Hawkins.
A Louisiana legislator and sugarcane heir, Kenner was the owner of Ashland. Standing less than a quarter mile from the Mississippi, his impressive home with its spacious outdoor galleries had a magnificent view of the river across an open meadow. At its rear, live oak alleys guided the pathway to plantation operations. Another lucrative venture on the backside: Kenner’s racing stable of “crack nags,” who were managed by longtime friend George Graves and trained over the plantation’s one-mile track.
The turfman enhanced his racing arsenal in 1854 by purchasing the slave jockey Abe Hawkins. With his infallible pilot wearing his colors of red jacket and cap, Kenner became renowned as “the Red Fox of the South,” while his stable produced thoroughbred champions such as the undefeated Whale and the filly Minnehaha, “the fastest nag in the world.”
Abe’s finest moment over New Orleans’ Metairie Course was his ride for Kenner associate T. J. Wells in an 1854 race between Wells’ colt Lecomte versus the unconquerable Lexington. With Abe aboard, Lecomte vanquished his foe and broke the speed record for four miles (7:26). The rivals then counted one triumph each, and Lecomte, again with Abe riding, met Lexington in 1855 for one last battle. Though he vigorously fought his adversary, Lecomte was no match for Lexington; thousands of Americans were captivated by the outcome, this final victory being likened to that of a change in the reign of a dynasty.
Kenner served as a stockholder in the Metairie Association that governed the track, and racing continued throughout 1861 while the country was at war. All sport was cancelled in March 1862; on April 25, the port city of New Orleans fell, captured by the Federal fleet. That July, 300 soldiers raided Ashland to apprehend Kenner for his service as a Louisiana representative for the Confederate Congress. Tipped off by a slave about the approaching forces, Kenner avoided arrest, having fled to safety behind Confederate lines.
The Federals pillaged Ashland and confiscated property “used to aid the rebellion,” including Kenner’s prized thoroughbreds. The mighty Whale, however, was steadfast; the 16 hands-high blood bay, unmanageable except by Abe or his grooms, could not be controlled by the soldiers, and remained at Ashland.
Despite his own reliance on a slave workforce, it was Kenner who radically proposed sending a commission to Europe to gain acknowledgement of the Confederate States in return for the emancipation of slaves. His plan was opposed until 1865, when Confederate President Davis appointed Kenner for a secret diplomatic mission to secure aid from Britain and France. Yet the meetings proved to be unsuccessful, and within weeks, both the Confederate capital of Richmond fell and General Lee surrendered his Northern Virginia forces, initiating the war’s conclusion and the end of the Confederacy.
Kenner (pictured) returned to Louisiana to rebuild, where he regained control of his land holdings, returned to the state senate and reunited Metairie’s Jockey Club. As Abe’s riding career in the North had flourished during the war, the jockey offered his savings to Kenner to assist in Ashland’s rebuilding. Although Kenner declined the overture, he graciously extended his welcome to Hawkins to return to Ashland if he wished. Abe was back in Louisiana in 1866, riding during Metairie’s inaugural races in December, but by the following May, Turf, Field and Farm reported his death. “As a rider and a jockey he had no equal in this country … Good riders and strictly honest ones are rare; therefore, the death of Old Abe is an irreparable loss to the American turf.”
Yet Hawkins was still very much alive — “owing his recovery from his severe illness to Duncan Kenner, his former master.” Abe’s recovery did not last, however; suffering a relapse, the jockey passed away from consumption in June. Hawkins was laid to rest at Ashland, in a brick tomb under a live oak tree near what must have been his favorite spot on the plantation —the one-mile training track.
Kenner lived 20 more years, realizing even greater prosperity through his increased land holdings, investments and crop diversification. Although he saw the death of the Metairie Course, the 34-year institution responsible for staging “the Best Races in America,” he reinvested in the land’s future by serving on the Metairie Cemetery Association that established the historic burial ground.
When he passed away on July 3, 1887, Kenner was president of the New Louisiana Jockey Club that raced over the Fair Grounds Course; his Daily Picayune obituary declared: “His place as a patron of the turf cannot easily be filled.” The horseman will be honored by the Fair Grounds Race Course on March 8 through the 61st running of the Duncan F. Kenner Stakes.
Photo credits, from top: Front view of Ashland taken October 1936 courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LA,3-GEIM.V, 1-3; current view of Ashland with historic marker by Annie Johnson; Duncan Farrar Kenner, artist unknown, ca. 1884–1887.
A former New Orleanian, Annie Johnson is a freelance writer currently working on a book about antebellum thoroughbred racing in New Orleans. Her website features articles related to her research on the sport’s history. Visit the site to read more about Duncan Kenner’s role in the city’s sport and the career of jockey Abe Hawkins. Follow Annie on twitter at @AntebelTrfTimes.