Photos by Lisa Saleme
There exists only a handful of cities in this great nation that can lay claim to a much honored possession, a Presidential Library and Museum. In 1955, Congress legislated the Presidential Libraries Act, and to date there are 13 such institutions, beginning with the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Texas can boast three of these, namely, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, and the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
Actually, our great state can boast four such institutions, if we consider the fact that our very own General Sam Houston was the President of the Republic of Texas twice during its existence from March 2, 1836 through February 19, 1846. He led the Republic of Texas, an independent and sovereign country, from 1836-1838, and again from 1841-1844. Although the Sam Houston Memorial Museum is not officially sanctioned as a Presidential Library and Museum, it serves the role of such an institution, containing the archives, collections, and personal artifacts of Sam Houston.
Former Huntsville Mayor Mac Woodward, who has been with the Museum for 21 years and currently serves as its director, has a great passion and appreciation for the man, Sam Houston. As Mac states, “Sam was a statesman and politician, a U.S. Senator for 13 years, Governor of both Texas and Tennessee, President of the Republic of Texas twice, Major General in the Texas army, a lawyer, a friend of the Cherokees, and a husband and father. He lived during the 1800s, when the United States was experiencing growing pains during the difficult years of formation, including the period of the Civil War. General Sam knew or served under every American President from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln. He was a man who brought his enormous personality to bear upon all of his history-making endeavors.”
As mentioned, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum contains the archives, collections, and personal artifacts that portray the immense life of Sam Houston (1793-1863), and the adjoining 15 acres showcase several original structures from the Houstons’ family life in Huntsville in the mid 1800s.
Sam and his wife Margaret, their 7 children (their eighth child would be born in Austin), and extended family members and servants, numbering up to 30 at times, originally lived on 200 acres of land in Huntsville. When the family relocated to Austin where Sam would serve as Governor, the land was sold in order to pay campaign debts. Later, when he refused to sign the oath to the Confederacy and left the Governorship, they moved back to Huntsville, but were unable to purchase the homestead back. Sam and Margaret then rented the Steamboat House, where Sam died in 1863. His funeral took place in the upstairs parlor.
After Sam died, Margaret moved to Independence. Over the years, the Woodland Home and land would exchange hands several times, eventually becoming a boarding house for girls who attended the Sam Houston Normal Institute. In 1905, after it was vacated, an effort was begun by faculty and students to purchase the site in order to preserve the life history of General Sam, and in 1911, with the purchase complete, it officially became a historical site for the state of Texas. In 1936, funding began to construct a “shrine” to General Sam, which became the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.
Since its beginning, the Museum has undergone several phases of renovation with three objectives:
These three objectives have been beautifully and meticulously accomplished as visitors who tour the Museum can see. And, in addition to the Museum building, the adjoining 15 acres help bring General Sam’s life more into perspective. As one tours the grounds, he or she should envision him on the porch of his Bear Bend Hunting Lodge, sitting, whittling, and telling stories as he loved to do. In addition to the lodge, the original Woodland Home and Law Office (1848), The Steamboat House (1858), and other structures associated with the Houston family life are on view. As visitors tour through these structures, they can see that life was not easy in the 1800s.
The Museum, a part of Sam Houston State University, offers a plethora of activities and avenues of learning for all ages. The Education Department, which is in charge of programming, facilitates tours for groups of school age children, senior citizens, church and education groups, and others. They host “work and play” tours in the fall and early winter for smaller groups where hands-on activities are enjoyed.
Reservations are required for guided tours and are set up through the Education Department. Self- guided tours of the Memorial Museum and grounds are available Tuesday through Saturday 9:00am to 4:30pm and Sunday noon to 4:30pm.
During the summer months, June through August, a guided tour is available to the public Tuesday through Friday at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., and is included in the Admission Donation. The suggested Admission Donations is: Adult – $5, Senior Citizen – $4, Children 6 and older – $3, Children under 6 – Free, and SHSU students – Free. This donation provides access to both the Museum and all facilities on the grounds.
The summer program also includes Bear Bend Wednesdays. This is a free activity for kids (and adults) on Wednesday mornings from 10:00am – Noon during the months of June and July, and kids love it! Hands-on activities such as flower pounding, doll making, gardening, embroidery and needlepoint, and leaf etchings bring to our kids a better understanding of what life was like for the eight Houston kids.
The Museum also hosts three to four rotating exhibits each year on varying themes. A recent exhibit displayed photographs of the beautiful National Parks from across our nation. Additionally, a recent documentary Sam Houston: American Statesman, Soldier & Pioneer (focused on the life of Sam Houston, with many of the scenes filmed on the museum grounds, aided with information provided by Museum Staff) has been shown on PBS.
For current information regarding all exhibits, tours and activities, be sure to check the Museum’s website at www.samhoustonmemorialmuseum.com and their Facebook page. This will showcase all upcoming events, including the General Sam Houston Folk Festival (a crowd pleaser each spring), when the fifteen-acre grounds will be transformed from a peaceful setting into a bustling frontier settlement. Experience life like Sam did! If he were still alive, he would be soaking up the fun and games, telling stories, and strolling all of his 6’2,” 225 pound figure about in his leopard vest and big green velvet hat. Although the vest was Mexican Jaguar, he referred to it as leopard to make the point that leopards don’t change spots.
This brings us back to General Sam Houston, a man who had to make tough decisions that impacted thousands of lives, and stand by those decisions, popular or not, without wavering. This is part of the integrity which defines Sam Houston. Leadership does not come without a price, and Sam Houston, although not flawless, stood tall under the pressures placed upon him. A trip to the Museum will attest to his skills as a leader, and even though the word “Presidential” is not contained within its name, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum serves as the lasting memoirs of a great man, a victorious General and a President of the Republic of Texas.