Revisiting the William Whitley House, Sportsman’s Hill

A Day Away By Mike Steely

It’s been many years since my wife and I visited the historic William Whitley House up in Kentucky. Located between Mt. Vernon and Sanford, the unusual old house is curious and surprising.

We took Highway 25 North from I-75 to Mount Vernon and then Highway 150 northwest to Crab Orchard and then to Elm Street south to William Whitley Road. I recall I wanted to visit the old house because I grew up in Williamsburg, Kentucky, named for the early settler. Whitley County and Whitley City are also named for him.

Whitley was a Virginia native who relocated to the Kentucky territory and built what may be the oldest brick home in the Bluegrass State. He was a state militia leader and father of eleven children and was killed in Canada during the War of 1812. Some credit him with killing the Shawnee leader Tecumseh who was serving with the British.

His home and land are now protected and preserved by the William Whitley House State Historic Site and, as we found it, unique in many ways.

I remember arriving at the stately old house and immediately knowing we were at the right place. The brick exterior has “WW” inlaid with lighter-colored bricks. The rear of the house has “EW” for his wife, Ester. Completed in 1794, the house was built with brick walls two feet thick like a fort to repel attacks. It featured places to fire out from inside. Whitley designed the house to have high windows so attacking shots would not hit those inside. The home once had a depression or moat around the house.

Whitley installed a bell he could ring with his foot, keeping his hands free to shoot, in case of attack.

The house has a secret stairway and a windowless kitchen with a secret hiding room. Oddly the home was never attacked by Native Americans.

Whitley called his home “Sportsman’s Hill” and just across the way he created probably the first horseracing track in the state. The Revolutionary War soldier created a track that circled the hill with the animals running in a counter-clockwise direction, exactly opposite of English racetracks.

Located just a few miles from Crab Orchard, Kentucky, the William Whitley House State Historic Site has a few picnic tables and a playground.

The Whitley House is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Special visits there Monday through Wednesday can be made by calling (606)365-2534. Admission is $5 per person, $4 for seniors and $3 for children. You can also contact the park manager at

The park is open any day if you don’t care to tour the house. It’s about a two-hour drive from Knoxville via -75.

While on your way to or from the William Whitley House you may want to stop in Crab Orchard, an old town named for crab apples found there by long hunter Henry Skaggs. It became a mineral springs resort and features the old Howard Theater downtown.