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Culberson, Sally Harrison (1861–1926)

Gabrielle Esparza Biography Entry

Sally Harrison Culberson, First Lady of Texas from 1895 to 1899, was born in Clarksville, Texas, on July 25, 1861, to William M. Harrison and Elizabeth Ann (Epperson) Harrison. She attended Ward Seminary (now Ward-Belmont College) in Nashville, Tennessee. Ward Seminary was among the best schools for women in the South. After finishing her education, Sally lived with her family in Jefferson, Texas. There she met a young lawyer, Charles Allen Culberson, who later became state attorney general, governor, and United States senator. She married Culberson in 1882.

In 1887 Sally and her husband moved to Dallas, where Charles Culberson continued to practice law. His political career began with his election to attorney general in 1890. He remained in this position until 1895, when he won the governorship. With her husband’s election as governor of Texas, Sally became the first native Texan to serve as First Lady of the state of Texas.

As First Lady of Texas, Sally undertook renovations of the Governor’s Mansion. She installed a heating stove to replace fireplaces as the sole source of heat in the home, which had a reputation for draftiness. Sally also sought to make the house more attractive and brought rugs and other decor into the space. Her renovations recognized the historical significance of the mansion and helped preserve its history by adding a plaque on the Sam Houston bed. Because of Sally’s efforts, the mansion’s interior gained a reputation for its elegance.

Sally Culberson’s attention to detail served her well as a first lady, and she hosted many open houses and receptions. Sally was the first woman in Texas to serve cranberry sauce in individual molds during a formal dinner at the mansion. The dish caused a stir because fresh cranberries were expensive to transport to Texas, and previous gubernatorial households apparently had never prepared cranberry sauce in the same way.

During her time as First Lady of Texas, newspapers often reported that Sally was in poor health and recovering at a sanitarium in Michigan. The sanitarium where she often stayed, sometimes along with her husband, was John Harvey Kellogg’s world-renowned health resort located in Battle Creek, Michigan, and founded on Seventh-day Adventist Church principles. During her years as first lady, Sally’s widowed sister also came to live with the Culbersons in order to help Sally with the many demands of maintaining the mansion and planning state receptions. Sally frequently recalled her years in the Governor’s Mansion as the happiest of her life.

Following his tenure as governor, Charles Culberson won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1899. He served as a senator for the next twenty-four years. Sally and her husband spent most of the rest of their lives in Washington, D.C., with regular trips to Dallas, Texas. They welcomed their only child, Mary Culberson, in 1900. In May 1908 Sally Culberson was among the wives of the members of Congress who founded The Congressional Club through an act of incorporation by Congress. After Charles’s long battle with ill health and alcoholism, he lost his U. S. Senate seat to Earle Mayfield. The Culbersons stayed in Washington, D. C., but lived in relative seclusion. At the age of sixty-four, Sally Harrison Culberson died of a stroke on April 19, 1926, in Washington, D.C. Her husband preceded her in death on March 19, 1925. She was buried next to him in Oakwood Cemetery in Fort Worth.

In her will, Sally Culberson left a number of bequests, including one that established a trust fund to assist “worthy students” to attend the University of Texas Law School and another to provide medical care for impoverished patients at Baylor Hospital in Dallas.

Pearl Cashell Jackson, Texas Governors’ Wives (Austin: E. L. Steck Publishing, 1915). Carl R. McQueary, Dining at the Governor’s Mansion (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003). “Sallie Harrison Culberson,” Texas First Ladies Historic Costume Collection, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas (https://twu.edu/gown-collection/dress-collection/sallie-harrison-culberson/), accessed February 13, 2020.

Categories:

  • Politics and Government
  • Civic and Community Leaders
  • Women
  • Preservationists

Time Periods:

  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era

Places:

  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Gabrielle Esparza, “Culberson, Sally Harrison,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed February 25, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/culberson-sally-harrison.

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