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Museum Board Selling Sam Houston Julep Cup Replicas

julep cups
Sam's julep cup, left, and the modern replica.

Whether Sam Houston ever had a mint julep or why he bought a set of julep cups while proclaiming himself a "whole souled teetoteller" is as much a mystery as why his first wife suddenly left him.

Historians don't think Sam's drinking was the problem back when he resigned as governor of Tennessee and headed west. More likely Eliza Allen had loved another and had been forced by her family to marry Sam.

Whatever. Sam never said.

But the advisory group Friends of the Sam Houston Museum did some research on julep cups like the ones owned by Sam Houston and his family and now exhibited in the Museum on the Sam Houston State University campus. The result is that amateur historians can now buy replicas of the Sam Houston family vessels and ponder those questions to their hearts' delight--over their choice of that traditional Southern symbol of hospitality or a cup of cold "sweet" tea.

group with cup

The first set of julep cups was presented to James F. Gaertner, Sam Houston State University president. Making the presentation were, from left, Marta Edwards, member of the Friends of the Sam Houston Museum board, who developed the julep cup sale project; Cindy Truax, University/Museum liaison; Patrick Nolan, Museum director; and George Miles, board president.
The Museum owns three of an original set of six sterling silver "julep cups" purchased between 1854 and 1858 with $500 Houston received from his military service during the War of 1812. Sam's personal cup was engraved with the word "Father," passed to his son William Rogers Houston and then down through the Houston family before it was given to the Museum in 1930.

Patrick Nolan, Museum director, said that a legendary story that Sam had the silver coins he received melted down and made into the silver service and the cups is not true. He did use the money to buy the set made by Taylor and Laury of Philadelphia from the M W Galt & Bro. Washington, D. C., jewelry and silver shop.

The cups now on sale are exact reproductions except that they are made of pewter. They are reputed to be the equal of silver for the serving of those traditional Southern libations, alcoholic or otherwise.

The reproductions are now on sale at the Museum gift shop for $90 each or $160 per pair. They are a bit over three and a half inches tall and hold 10 ounces of beverage.

Nolan said they may also be available soon at the San Jacinto Battlefield, Washington-on-the-Brazos, and The Alamo. He's touting them as excellent gifts for the Sam Houston history buff who has everything or special occasion gifts for Huntsville visitors.

Sam Houston's relationship with alcohol is just one of the many interesting aspects of his fascinating story. He drank so heavily when living with the Cherokees, after that failed first marriage, that they called him "Big Drunk."

That Houston overcame this weakness is also unquestioned and is considered one of his most admirable personal accomplishments.

When Houston married Margaret Lea of Alabama, a devout Baptist, he was spiritually amiss. His family had been Presbyterian but he seemed more comfortable with the Cherokee theology and its supernatural that lived in the earth, air, trees and streams.

When he came to Texas he officially became a Roman Catholic because the Mexican government required landowners to be of that faith. But it was Margaret who eventually persuaded him to become a baptized Baptist and to give up alcohol.

Sam Houston biographer Marshall De Bruhl wrote about Sam's struggle with drink and its progress in the mid-1840s.

"Sam had also sobered up--at least he practiced what passed for abstinence," De Bruhl wrote in Sword of San Jacinto . "He drank only bitters and orange peel. This favorite drink which he disingenuously assured Margaret was harmless, registered eighty proof, 40 percent pure alcohol--the same as bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, or gin."

That may have been true in the mid-1840s when Houston was beginning his service as U. S. Senator from the new state of Texas. But by the mid-1850s, when he bought the julep cups, historians believe that he really had whipped the habit.

Margaret, by the way, was so opposed to alcohol that she once underwent surgery to have a lump removed from her breast without any painkiller at all. She was offered some whiskey by the surgeon but refused it. One of the other cups owned by the museum is inscribed with her name--"Maggie Lea."

By 1850, De Bruhl wrote, Margaret had "weaned" Sam from liquor. In 1854 he was baptized in Rocky Creek near Independence, Texas, an event that provides Houston's well-known quote that if his sins were washed away "the Lord help the fish down below."

One alcohol-related event in the life of Sam Houston about that time indicates the quandaries that he sometimes faced. Such as owning slaves yet being against the spread of slavery and being a Southerner at heart yet against secession from the Union.

If Houston was anything he was independent and a deep thinker.

When he returned to Texas from his U. S. Senate duties in Washington in 1853 he was asked by a delegation of religious leaders in Nacogdoches to join their effort to prohibit selling or consumption of alcohol on Sundays in Texas.

"...He was long since one of the Sons of Temperance," wrote biographer James Haley (Sam Houston). "But to the depth of that enlarging soul he was also a libertarian, a believer in freedom of choice and the fundamental right of people to live without any governmental interference not absolutely required by the public good."

He told them their plan was "impractical and unenforceable." If you prohibit sale in one constituency people will get it from the one nearby, he said. Also, it was against the principle of separation of church and state--such laws could be the first link in a chain of bondage--it would be an injustice to the cultures of minorities, such as the Germans who had settled in Texas.

"To declare it to be a crime," he said,   "to...drink in moderation would, in effect, accuse Christ and the holy apostles of a sinful practice."

Sam had been right in his assessment that The Alamo was indefensible. He would be right in his warning that the South could not win the Civil War. He was right about Prohibition when the movement was just beginning and 80 years before it was abandoned as a failure.

And despite owning the cups made for alcohol consumption, Houston knew his personal limitations. According to biographer Marquis James (The Raven), he wrote a friend in 1851 that "for years past, I have been a whole souled teetoteller, and so intend to be as long as I live."

Haley said Houston summed up his discussion on the Texas Sunday prohibition proposal in this way:

"I believe that total abstinence is the only way by which some intemperate drinkers can be saved. I know it from my own personal experience."


SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
June 22, 2007
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