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Celebration Pays Homage To Tradition, Influence Of Texas's First 'First Lady'

March 25, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Alexis Andrei

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Huntsville resident Una Grace Nash has been portraying Margaret Lea Houston for more than 40 years. It started in 1971, when Nash, a junior high history teacher at the time, and a local study club decided to put on a show on the history of Huntsville. Nash wrote a monologue for the show, researching the history of the Houston family to ensure it was historically accurate and sounded "old timey." Nash said she was especially nervous in performing the role for the first time, as then-Sam Houston Memorial Museum director Grace Longino Cox was expected to be among the audience members. After the show, Cox assured Nash that she had done a fine job, Nash remembers. —Photos by Brian Blalock

 

In many ways Margaret Lea Houston, the wife of Gen. Sam Houston, exemplifies the saying “behind every great man is a woman.”

Many historians consider Margaret to be the backbone of the Houston family and the impetus for many of Houston’s successes. Her influence is among the many reasons the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, last year, resurrected the tradition of celebrating her birthday in April.

Museum director Mac Woodward said Houston had been looking for stability, home and family life when the two met in 1839. Margaret and Houston married shortly after in 1840; she was his third wife and bore his eight children.

“Gen. Sam Houston was a bachelor, on the frontier, who led an exciting and rugged life, and she really changed him and gave him the foundation and strength to become the statesman he became as a United States senator,” Woodward said.

Margaret understood and allowed Houston to become a successful politician. Although she was not fond of the political world, she respected and supported his love of politics and service, Woodward said.

In the 13 years Houston was serving in Washington, Margaret stayed at home, rearing the children and taking care of their farm. She enjoyed providing a home setting for him and focused on providing this foundation.

In the 1850s because of Margaret’s influence, Houston was baptized in Rocky Creek near Independence, Texas.

“Margaret was a very devoted member of the Baptist church; he did it not only for himself, but for her,” Woodward said.

Houston showed his appreciation for Margaret’s support and his devotion to his wife by building her the Woodland Home.

The Beginnings of a Legacy...

“I think Margaret and the children are the reason they moved to Huntsville,” Woodward said. “When he was selected to be a United States senator, he knew he would be away for long periods of time and Margaret had just recently had a breast tumor removed; she was fine but I think he was concerned that they have the safety and security of a relationship within the community and the church was here, so for that reason they moved.”

The Woodland Home and the accompanying 230-acre farm that extends over both Sam Houston State University’s campus and Huntsville today served as the Houston’s family home from 1848-1859.

“It was a working homestead and farm. During construction, Houston was gone most of the time so Margaret actually moved into the Woodland Home while he was away. Margaret, the Houston children, her mother, and servants lived on the homestead, so you can imagine how busy this place was,” Woodward said.

As a “busy lady,” Margaret made sure everything ran smoothly with the children, the farm and Houston, but she still made time for some of her favorite hobbies, which include poetry, music and reading.

“She wrote about Sam, she wrote about the family; she wrote romantic type poetry. It was her outlet,” Woodward said.

Margaret’s family had a home in Independence, the original location of Baylor University.

“She had a nice education as a young girl before she met Sam Houston and she translated this to her own family. The Houstons strongly believed in education and emphasized that with their children and even to their slaves. It was a value that they gave back,” Woodward said.

In the latter part of Houston’s life, specifically the fall of 1862, the family moved back to Huntsville and into the Steamboat House.

“He wanted to come back to a home and a stable life” Woodward said. “Margaret and Sam had friends here and the church was here, so it was a good place to retire,”

After Sam died, Margaret stayed at the Steamboat House for a few months and then moved back to Independence, where she died of yellow fever in 1867.

According to Woodward, Margaret’s role as wife was not a glamorous one, but she was a vital and integral part of his success and a partner for Houston.

“The museum is very sensitive to, and we understand the significance of, Margaret's role in this site. Our mission is to educate and preserve the significance of Sam Houston, but also to promote the significance of the family life that Margaret provided which affected the Huntsville community and Houston’s life,” Woodward said.

Today, Margaret’s contributions can be seen on SHSU’s campus, including the building that bears her name. The Margaret Lea Houston Building, formerly Academic Building II, was dedicated in her honor in June 2009.

“Margaret was in her own way and in her own time, a female administrator; she ran the whole household, so Gen. Houston could pursue his political ventures,” said Janis White, associate professor and chair of the family and consumer sciences department, which is housed in the Margaret Lea Houston Building. “The university suggested that our building be renamed in Margaret’s honor and memory, and at the time the change occurred, there were three female administrators in the building, so it was only fitting.”

 

Honoring 194 Years…

 

Community members (front row, from left) Elsie Davis (committee chair) and Caroline Crimm, and (back row, from left) Leanne Woodward, Jean Babcock, Patsy Ann Reed and Megan Buro all participated in the planning of the Margaret Lea Houston birthday celebration revival last year, as well as this year's event. The museum will celebrate Margaret's 194th birthday on April 14 at the Walker Education Center. —Submitted photo

To celebrate Margaret’s life and influence, the museum will recreate the traditional celebration of her birthday on Sunday (April 14), from 1:30-3:30 p.m. in the Gibbs Conference Hall at the Katy and E. Don Walker, Sr., Education Center.

“Although her birthday is April 11, 1819, it is tradition to have this event on the second Sunday of April,” Megan Buro, marketing coordinator for the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, said. “The first celebration was started by the museum director at the time, Grace Longino Cox, and was held from 1959 until 1972. It then took an 11-year hiatus, from 1983 until 1986, and was revived last year.”

Cox started the birthday celebration because she wanted to increase the knowledge of Margaret’s influence and publicly celebrate both her and the culture of the time. The event became so popular that members from the Friends of the Museum decided to revive it, according to Buro.

“It was so popular, people would come from all over the state of Texas to attend,” Buro said.

Some of this year's events include a silent auction offering gift baskets donated by local organizations; an assortment of cakes donated by the local women of Huntsville; a performance by Una Grace Nash, a local Huntsville resident who portrays Margaret in the play “Gone to Texas;” as well as a poetry reading from great, great, great, granddaughter Erica Houston Dallas, a sophomore education major at SHSU.

Guests are encouraged to attend in their traditional 19th century dress. There will be tours of the historic homes and a memorabilia table of photos from previous birthdays will be on display.

“It’s a fun afternoon to get together with friends and celebrate Margaret and Sam,” said Buro.

The event, and admission to the museum, is free and open to the public. Groups and individuals are invited to create a gift basket reflecting their organizations for donation to the silent auction, with all proceeds benefitting museum grounds.

For more information on the event or to donate a gift basket, contact Buro at 936.294.3839 or mlb044@shsu.edu.

 

 

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