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Excavation of Pepper house kitchen and slave house

Pepper House

Site ID: 15Wd115

Kentucky Archaeological Survey
Unless specified, we cannot provide site location information.


​​​​​​​​​Elijah Pepper, an important early distiller in Woodford County, built a log house circa 1812 on a knoll overlooking Glenn’s Creek, where he constructed a distillery.  In 1831, the house and distillery passed to his son Oscar, who continued the family distilling business. Oscar, in turn, passed the business on to his son James, who would found his own distillery in Lexington.  The Pepper House still stands today and is part of the Woodford Reserve National Historic Landmark property.  

Excavations undertaken at the site in 2013 provi​ded more information about the property. They revealed that a stone-walled area next to the house was the foundation of a two-room structure - likely a combination kitchen/slave house. Oscar Pepper owned 23 slaves at his death in 1865. Additional excavations were undertaken down the hill from the house where early distillery remains are located.​

Kitchen/slave house foundation, with a fireplace (in the foreground).


​Investigators found some nineteenth to twentieth-century artifacts from all around the yard. However, they recovered a large quantity of early to mid-nineteenth-century artifacts from the kitchen/slave house.  This structure likely had an “English basement” that was lower than the first floor of the adjacent main Pepper House.  The first floor or cellar of this structure had been filled-in, likely in 1865, when the enslaved were emancipated.  These cellar deposits were a time capsule of artifacts probably linked to both the enslaved and Pepper Family members.  

Some of the items reflected leisure activities, such as a billiard ball, smoking​​ pipes, mouth harps, and harmonica parts. Others were personal items, such as buttons, hooks and eyes, doll parts, marbles, and sewing items, such as thimbles. Artifacts linked to ​household furniture and sundries included drawer pulls, furniture tags or lamp parts, ornate salt and pepper shakers, an ink bottle, and expensive European porcelains and earthenware ceramics. Investigators even found horse-related items: horse or mule shoes and a stirrup. Surprisingly, only a few alcohol bottles were recovered. This family of distillers apparently did not need to buy any alcohol!  

Findings from the distillery site excavations down the hill from the Pepper House suggested that the distillery dated to the late nineteenth century. The spring there was so prized, its water was piped under the creek to the location of the present Woodford Reserve distillery.

Bone-handled eating utensils.

What's Cool?

​Hearth Ash Preserves Bones

During their investigations, archaeologists noted that the soils in the cellar area contained con​​centrations of ash, likely from cleaning-out the house's fireplaces. The presence of the ash lowered the acidity of the cellar soil, and this helped preserve artifacts made from bone.  

Investigators recovered a very large collection of bone artifacts: buttons, along with bone handles from toothbrushes, knives and forks, embroidery hooks, and bone stays from corsets. These items are not usually recovered at rural residential sites in Kentucky due to poor preservation conditions (high​ soil acidity). 

Enhanced bone preservation due to the ashy cellar soils extended to food remains, too: m​ore than 10,000 animal bones were recovered from the cellar area.  The bone assemblage revealed that the Pepper Family relied heavily on pig, supplemented primarily with cow, chicken, and turkey.  Other domestic animals consumed at the site were goose, sheep, duck, rock pigeon, and goat.  

The major wild animals the residents consumed were rabbits, followed by squirrel, snapping turtle, and opossum.  The presence of snapping turtle and fish bones suggested that the Pepper Family seasonally supplemented their diet with nearby aquatic resources.  A relatively high wild-to-domesticated-animal ratio suggests that the Pepper Family enjoyed the addition of wild species to their diet.  

Layers of ash from cleaning out fireplaces in the house.

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