Sayers, Orline Walton [Lena] (1851–1943)

By: Pamela Neal and Katherine Kuehler Walters

Type: Biography

Published: March 18, 2021

Updated: March 18, 2021


Orline “Lena” Walton Sayers, First Lady of Texas and wife of Governor Joseph Draper Sayers, was born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, in January 1851 to William H. Walton and Mariah L. (Acee) Walton. Census records show her father was a merchant, a planter, and, in 1860, the mayor of Aberdeen. According to Pearl Cashell Jackson, Texas First Ladies biographer, Orline (often spelled Orlene) was a weak, sickly child and closely guarded even during her study time. She was taught by a governess in the family’s home. After her family moved to Bastrop, Texas, in approximately 1861, she had a teacher, Sarah Jane Kimball Orgain, of whom she spoke with high regard throughout her life.

Orline Walton married Joseph Draper Sayers, then lieutenant governor of Texas, on February 20, 1879. Joseph D. Sayers was the widower of Orline’s older sister, Ada, who had passed away on February 25, 1871. Following the wedding ceremony in Bastrop, Governor Oran Milo Roberts and First Lady Frances Wickliffe Edwards Roberts gave the couple a reception in the front parlor at the Governor’s Mansion. The couple spent their honeymoon in Austin, where Joseph Sayers presided over the Texas Senate the following day. Having failed to get the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination in 1880, Joseph Sayers decided to retire from public life after his term ended in January 1881. The couple then returned to Bastrop. In 1884 her husband was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, and soon after, was made chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. His position brought his wife into Washington, D.C., social circles. According to contemporaries, Lena was attractive, slender, and distinguished with a “long, oval face and complexion like illumined ivory.” The couple returned to Texas in 1898 and Sayers made a successful run for Texas governor.

According to some biographies, First Lady Sayers’s high standards and elegance, which she brought to Washington in the 1880s and 1890s and to the Governor’s Mansion from 1899 to 1902, were influenced by her relationship with her close friend, Lucretia Allen Romero, the wife of Ambassador of Mexico to the United States Matías Romero. While in Washington, D.C., Orline studied French at the Berlitz School of Languages in order to speak appropriately with members of the diplomatic community. This appealed to the capital’s social elite and made her a favorite of the political set. Later in life she noted that her experience in Washington was the training she needed for her role as First Lady of Texas.

First Lady Sayers established a set of rules and record-keeping protocols for the Governor’s Mansion that systemized the role of first lady and were utilized long after Sayers’s term in office. She set Tuesday afternoon as visitation day at the mansion. With funds allotted by the Texas legislature for maintenance and improvements of the mansion and grounds, she had the grounds simplified and redecorated the mansion’s interior with Victorian-style furnishings. She had the fountains installed by Lizzie Davis, a former first lady, removed and replaced with rose gardens. A two-story carriage house was built, and its second floor was utilized as maids’ quarters. In 1901 Orline proudly displayed the mansion’s newly-installed electric lights at the governor’s traditional New Year’s Day open-house reception. She used a personal touch in making changes. The mansion portraits were touched up by Orline’s own hand. She also hand-painted the Havilland china used in the mansion. Instead of a housekeeper, for which the legislature appropriated $300 a year, she employed two maids.

In May 1901 Governor Sayers and his wife held a reception for President William McKinley and his wife at the Driskill Hotel in Austin and a small, formal dinner at the mansion. He was the first sitting United States president to visit Austin and only the second to visit Texas. Part of a train tour of the American South and Southwest, the visit of President McKinley, a former Union officer, to the mansion of the Texas governor, a Confederate veteran, was seen as a sign that sectional differences of the Civil War, which had lingered in Texas and the nation, had eased. Orline prepared the mansion with the utmost diligence to every detail, including floral arrangements and a souvenir menu card. She even acquired two crystal chandeliers that matched those in the White House and had them installed in the mansion’s downstairs parlors, where they remained for seventy years. President McKinley reportedly made the comment of Orline being “the governor of the Governor.” He particularly enjoyed her “sunshine cake” and requested the recipe so it could be served at the White House. After the president’s assassination four months later, a memorial service was held at the state Capitol.

Governor and First Lady Sayers hosted many foreign diplomats and notable guests, including President of Mexico Porfirio Diaz, E. M. House, Secretary of State John Milton Hay, William Jennings Bryan, and Helen Gould, the daughter of Jay Gould. Orline Sayers returned all phone calls herself, and rarely a week passed that she did not entertain or hold some affair in the mansion. She was devoted to her church work with the Methodist Church, was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and was president of the local ladies’ auxiliary of the Young Men’s Christian Association in 1901. When the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 hit, she aided clubwomen’s efforts to assist victims, and she led women’s relief efforts after the Brazos River flooded in 1899. In 1902 she ceremoniously applied mortar and laid the cornerstone for the women’s building at the University of Texas in Austin. She spent much of her time advising her husband and helping to eliminate some of his governmental stresses during particularly difficult times. One author suggested that of all the accomplishments Orline completed during her time as the wife of Governor Joseph Sayers, “her first thought was of her husband.” At the end of Sayer’s term, the couple’s beloved dog refused to leave the Governor’s Mansion and was adopted by the next governor, S. W. T. Lanham.

The Sayers moved briefly to San Antonio then returned to Austin, where Orline remained active in civic and social affairs. She chaired the Travelers’ Aid Committee, which appointed the first depot police matron in 1913. Through her work with the Austin Humane Society, she advocated a state compulsory school law be passed and a state home for delinquent girls be built in Austin. In 1915 she agreed to direct a scene about a fire in the Governor’s Mansion for a film set in Austin by the Paragon Feature Film Company. During World War I, she served as president of the Austin YWCA and organized work for the war effort. After the death of her husband in 1929, Orline remained active in Austin social circles.

 Orline Walton Sayers died at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Texas, on December 26, 1943, and was buried at Fairview Cemetery in Bastrop, Texas. Her obituary called her the “Dolly Madison” of the Governor’s Mansion. Her inaugural gown is housed in the Texas First Ladies Historic Costume Collection at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.

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Austin American, February 3, 1901; December 28, 1943. Austin American-Statesman, September 1, 2012. Austin Statesman, February 22, 1879; September 26, 1899; November 26 1899; January 6, 1901; May 3, 1901; September 20, 1901; January 29, 1902; August 13, 1902; April 16, 1913; October 26, 1914; November 30, 1915; December 1, 15, 1915; October 23, 1919; December 27, 1943. Dallas Daily Herald, August 20, 1880; January 19, 1881. Galveston Daily News, February 21, 1879. Pearl Cashell Jackson, Texas Governors’ Wives (Austin: E.L. Steck, 1915). Carl R. McQueary, Dining at the Governor’s Mansion (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003).

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

Pamela Neal and Katherine Kuehler Walters, “Sayers, Orline Walton [Lena],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/sayers-orline-walton-lena.

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March 18, 2021
March 18, 2021

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