Artifact Spotlight

Did you ever wonder what treasures are hidden inside the many chests, cabinets, and desks in Sam Rayburn’s home? The "Artifact Spotlight" offers an opportunity to see and learn about artifacts that are not normally on display within the house museum. We hope to give you further insight into the Sam Rayburn House, "Mr. Sam," and some of his friends and family.

Martha Rayburn's Dress

Martha Clementine Waller Rayburn was born on August 26, 1846. She was born to a relatively well-to-do eastern Tennessee family; the Wallers in 1846. Martha’s father, John Barksdale Waller was a justice of the peace for 32 years. He was well educated at a time when many were not. John Waller and his wife Katherine owned a large, two story log house considered grand for a poor community such as Roane County, Tennessee where they lived.

Martha married William Marion Rayburn on May 14, 1868 when she was 21 years old. They moved into a mud-chinked log cabin he built in the Clinch Valley in Tennessee. The house was part of a forty acre farm where their main cash crop was corn. They raised their own food and eked out a living. Sam said of William and Martha Rayburn, “My parents, especially in the early years were faced with all the real hardships of farm laborers. They were healthy, thrifty, industrious and upright folks, who worked hard on the little farm, but opportunity was limited in the Clinch Creek district of Tennessee, ravaged by the Civil War.”

Martha Rayburn is remembered as being a frank and forthright woman who spoke her mind. A relative said of her, “She would always tell you just what she thought, even if it hurt. She indulged no pretense or double-talk. She believed in plain speaking.” Martha, with her dark eyes and small frame (she weighed just over 90 pounds as an adult), did not put up with sass from her children, nor from her husband Will. Martha was a voracious reader and taught her husband to read. Sam Rayburn’s sister Lucinda once said of their mother, “Mother has good judgment about everything. There was no subject remote to her, because she read everything printed!”

After their 1868 marriage, the Rayburn family grew to include 11 children. Ten of those children were born in Tennessee. In order of birth they were: John, Charles, Kate, Lucinda, James, William, Medibel, Sam, Richard and Tom. Between the growing seasons the children attended a one room school not far from their home in eastern Tennessee.

By 1887 the William Rayburn farm was struggling to provide for the family of twelve. When William and Martha heard from relatives about the rich and fertile soil of north Texas, they made the decision to sell their farm and furniture, pack up and move west. The family settled in Flag Springs, Texas where in 1891 the last of Martha’s eleven children was born; Abner Love Rayburn.

The eighth of Martha’s eleven children, Sam, took a keen interest in politics beginning at a young age. He ran for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives and was elected there in 1906 when he was just 24 years old. During his time in Austin, mother Martha wrote him often telling him of the news at home.  She was sure to let him know both that his parents were proud of him and in an example of her frankness she made sure he knew that he didn’t write to them nearly enough. She wrote him a letter date February 4, 1909 and closed with, “…We notice your name and work in the papers and we are proud of the record you are making. Hope you will march onward and upward. I close hoping to hear from you soon.”  

After Sam wrote to his mother on her birthday in August 1912, she wrote back, “That was the nicest birthday present I ever had, and come so unexpected, but it did my heart good to know that my baby was so thoughtful of a dear old mother. But I guess when you all think of the hard work, trials and hardships I have gone through with to raise you all you I feel like I had done a little for you.” Martha continues by referencing the meager beginnings of the family in Tennessee and her hopes for their future, “…I feel embarrassed not having something to start you all out in the world with, but all I had was a good name, honor and credit and a Mother’s love. I feel like if you all will hold that up you get through the world and I believe you will.”

Pride in her son continued to grow after he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912.  She wrote him on June 16, 1914, “I feel so proud and thankful that I have raised a boy that can and will do things that will be an honor to himself and his people. You will never know the earnest prayers that I have sent up for your success and I feel like they are being answered.”

When Sam Rayburn built his home two miles west of Bonham in 1916, he made plans for his aging parents to live there with him. Though Sam’s father William died in 1916, his mother Martha moved into the home and remained there until her death. In place of a wife, Martha stepped into the role as social hostess for her son at their Bonham home.

Martha Rayburn died on February 21, 1927.

In recalling his mother, Sam once said, “It’s true that mother was the stronger of the team. Father was a quiet and modest man who never talked loudly, never had an argument, and never laid a hand on us children.  We used to call Father ‘Easy Boss’ and we were completely relaxed with him. With mother, it was different. I think she spanked me more often than I deserved. She was very energetic, and highly intelligent.”

The Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site includes a small collection of historic clothing such as suits worn by Sam Rayburn, formal gowns worn by the Rayburn sisters, and a few items of clothing that once belonged to Sam’s mother, Martha Rayburn. One of those pieces of clothing is a handmade dress. The brown and white printed dress is ankle length with long sleeves and a ruffled high collar. Decorative elements on the dress include an attached fabric sash at the waist and small, black jet beads, mimicking buttons running down the front of the bodice. The archival collection at the Sam Rayburn House contains several photos of Martha Rayburn wearing this dress with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. In these photos, she poses with family on the front porch of the Rayburn home around the year 1925. Martha Rayburn Dye, a granddaughter to Martha Rayburn, donated this dress to the Sam Rayburn House in 1984. Today the dress hangs in the closet of Lucinda’s bedroom, where it can be viewed during guided tours of the house.

This dress reminds us of the wise, honest and strong woman who raised Sam Rayburn and his ten siblings. Her life on the farm in Tennessee was not easy, but with strength of character and hard work, she managed to raise a successful family which included the future Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

Photo Gallery

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  • Martha Rayburn wearing her brown and white print dress poses with her son on the porch of the Sam Rayburn House, circa 1920.