By AMANDA BEAM
— Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
Every town needs a benevolent benefactor, a patron who gives their time, money and even inspiration to those who are in need. In late 19th century New Albany, William S. Culbertson was one such man.
For many local residents, Culbertson is now known only as a name on a huge yellow mansion. But there’s much more to the man than just his ornate house. During Victorian times, the entrepreneur transformed himself from a small-town merchant to one of the wealthiest men in all of Indiana and demonstrated that anyone can obtain the American dream.
“This is really the perfect example of how someone could come down river and establish themselves,” said Culbertson Mansion Program Director Jessica Stavros. “He came by himself, a 21-year-old-man, and established himself as the richest man in the state in 60 years.”
Born Feb. 4, 1814, in New Market, Pa., Culbertson was only 10 years old when his father died. In 1835, he decided to make the pilgrimage westward and traveled to Louisville with $10 in his pocket to obtain a job in a dry goods store. When he arrived, the opening had already been filled, but the owner suggested he check out a similar type store in New Albany owned by Gen. A. S. Burnett. Here he was hired.
By 1840, Culbertson had established his own dry goods store on this side of the river. As a wholesaler, he regularly traveled the country looking to buy textiles and fabrics in bulk. According to the Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site booklet, his business was soon known as one of the largest stores of its kind in the Midwest.
In addition to his dry goods profession, Culbertson decided to follow other pursuits. Not only was he president of the First National Bank in New Albany, he also invested in a myriad of industries.
“I think Mr. Culbertson had his hand in everything,” Stavros said. “He had his hand in the banks, the utilities, the railroads, down to what people wore. He was also a major investor in making the K & I Bridge happen, a Victorian entrepreneur by every sense of the word.”
Culbertson was more than just a businessman. Like many, he also was a husband and a father. Around the same time he was establishing his dry goods business, he married his first wife, Eliza Vance Culbertson of Corydon. They had a total of eight children. After 25 years of marriage, Eliza died of typhoid pneumonia, never having lived in the grand mansion Culbertson is best known for today.
Two years later Culbertson married Cornelia Warner Eggleston, a widow who had already lost two children by her previous husband at an early age. As a wedding present, Culbertson gave her the 20,000 square foot yellow mansion. In the following years, she birthed him a son who died in infancy and a daughter. In 1880, Cornelia died of cholera.
During this time, Culbertson contributed extensively to charitable projects throughout New Albany. Daily he passed out meal tickets at the bank to people who craved a good meal.
“He was kind of the first philanthropist here,” Stavros said. “I think the legacy of William Culbertson really lives in the idea of giving back to your community. That is what he did. He took extra money to build brick-and-mortar buildings to house and feed people.”
Culbertson's marriage to Cornelia also influenced his charitable endeavors. After the Civil War, he built and maintained the Culbertson’s Old Ladies Home, an institution that helped women who, due to financial difficulty, couldn’t care for themselves. Stavros said Culbertson even personally did their grocery shopping and left a sizable endowment to the organization after his death. Likewise, he built the Cornelia Memorial Orphan’s Home in 1882 to house and to educate local children in need.
“I think that he took a personal event or experience that he had in his life and then turned around and used his money to help those people who had been affected by it because he understood,” Stavros said.
Four years following Cornelia’s death, Culbertson married his last wife, Rebecca Keith Spears Young. They had no children. For their honeymoon, he took Rebecca on a six-month honeymoon throughout Europe and the Holy Land. During this trip, he mailed letters back to the local newspaper detailing his overseas’ experiences. But unlike many of his social stature, he tended to notice the conditions of the working man rather than the aristocrats.
“So much of what he writes about is what the servants wear, how the working man’s house looks on the side of the road, how people look in their jobs,” Stavros said. “As high class as he was, he didn’t take the time to notice what other high class people were noticing. He was looking down the classes, which was odd for Victorians. I just think that’s really telling of his character.”
On June 25, 1892, Culbertson died of heart failure after a two week illness. He had continued to keep a daily work schedule up until he turned 78 years old. At the time of his death, he had amassed a fortune worth $3.5 million.
Gone but not forgotten, Culbertson’s life and legacy will be celebrated by his namesake mansion next year at the bicentennial of his birth.
“William Culbertson could be anyone living down the street right now. He’s the epitome of the American dream,” Stavros said. “If you work hard enough you can be anything. You can rise to great wealth and success.”