HUNTSVILLE, Texas (KTRK) -- You know you've reached Huntsville when you drive by the colossal Sam Houston statue along I-45. But did you know that Huntsville wasn't just home to one of Texas' greatest heroes, it was once nicknamed the "Mount Vernon" of Texas, considered to be the state's leading cultural center before the Civil War? Huntsville was even in the running to become the state capital.
"In 1849 the people of Huntsville petitioned the state and offered this site as the site for the state capital," said Mac Woodward, Director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. "Austin won that election."
Instead, Huntsville built one of the state's first colleges where the capital building could have been. Austin College was dedicated in 1851, with then-Senator Sam Houston in attendance.
"Sam Houston served on the first board of Austin College and that was a significant thing for the success of that school," said Woodward. "The first law school in Texas was established here at Austin College. They awarded the first law degrees in Texas."
The college was just up the hill from Sam Houston's own home in Huntsville, now the site of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.
"We tell the story of Sam Houston, basically from cradle to grave," said Derrick Birdsall, Curator of Education at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. "You can't look at the history of Huntsville without looking at the history of Houston because the two are intertwined."
Houston first settled in Huntsville after serving as President of the Republic of Texas. Stroll through the museum's rotunda, and you'll travel back to the Texas Revolution, when General Houston led the Texas Army to victory at the Battle of San Jacinto.
"Without Houston's leadership in the Texas Revolution, there wouldn't be a Texas like we know Texas as today," said Birdsall.
Museum visitors can walk through the law office Houston once used and his two homes. Houston's family remained in Huntsville when he became a U.S. Senator, and later Governor of the State of Texas. But when Texas decided to secede from the Union, Houston was forced out of office.
"He refuses to sign the oath of allegiance to the confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War," said Birdsall. "He very well predicted what the outcome of the Civil War was going to be for the south, that it would devastate the south."
Sam Houston returned to Huntsville, where he died of pneumonia at the height of the Civil War. He was buried at Huntsville's Oakwood Cemetery, where a monument was later erected in 1911 to honor his legacy.
After the Civil War ended, Sam Houston's beloved Huntsville continued to thrive. Although Austin College suffered financially during the war and moved to another city, the building it was housed in became the first-ever teacher training school in the southwestern United States.
Sam Houston Normal Institute opened in 1879.
"In the 1920's it was called Sam Houston State Teacher's College," said Woodward. "And then it became Sam Houston College. Now it's Sam Houston State University."
Today, the university enrolls over 22,000 students with several nationally-recognized programs, including one of the oldest and largest criminal justice programs in the nation. Its 130-year history of leadership and innovation goes all the way back to the school's namesake.
"I think most of us Texans recognize the qualities of Sam Houston and his character," said Woodward. "We hope our students, as they get a good education here, that they will emulate and take some of those qualities with them."
For more information, visit the Sam Houston Memorial Museum or Sam Houston State University online.
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Historic Huntsville was once considered the 'Mount Vernon of Texas'
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