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.