Most East Texans under 40 know little about Sam Rayburn, the man whose name is attached to a giant reservoir on the Angelina River.
But in his heyday, “Mister Sam” helped the nation through the Great Depression, World War II, and into the prosperity of the 1950s.
A visit to Bonham should start with a stop at the Sam Rayburn House Museum on U.S. Highway 82 on the west side of town. Operated by the Texas Historical Commission, the museum is unique in that it preserves furnishings and other possessions just as the Rayburn family left them--including Mister Sam’s 1947 Cadillac--when his sister passed away.
The two-story house is of distinctive Southern styling and modest by modern standards. Rayburn himself was somewhat retiring, when compared with the pomp of today’s politicians, and lived a simple life.
Fiscally conservative and middle-of-the-road on most social issues, Rayburn never forgot his rural heritage. He came to Texas from Tennessee with his parents when he was only five and grew up on a cotton farm in Fannin County.
After serving in the Texas House six years, he moved on to the U.S. Congress in 1912 and spent the next 48 years in Washington, including 17 as House speaker, one of the most powerful positions in Washington.
“Any fellow who will cheat for you will cheat against you,” he once said, and then helped pass regulatory laws that led to the formation of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to protect the public’s interests.
He also pushed for federal funding for farm-to-market roads, veterans hospitals, and rural electrification, all of which helped the ordinary family.
Rayburn helped convince Franklin D. Roosevelt to choose fellow Texan John Nance Garner as his vice-president and, although he and Garner didn’t always see eye to eye, they were responsible for many of FDR’s New Deal programs in the 1930s. He also pushed Lyndon B. Johnson’s ascent to power.
Mister Sam was responsible for creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built Bonham State Park southeast of the city. He also played a role in helping the federal government buy eroded land and replace native grasses and vegetation The result is the Caddo National Grassland.
When Rayburn died in 1961--a year after Sam Rayburn Lake was named for him-- and his funeral was attended by three presidents.
Not far from the Rayburn House Museum is the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum. Opened in 1957, the library is one of four divisions of the University of Texas’ Center for American History. Along with exhibits of photographs, art and personal items, the centerpiece of the museum is a replica of Rayburn’s office of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The entrance foyer includes the white marble speaker’s rostrum that stood on the House floor from 1857 until 1950.
In the park next to the library is a replica of a cabin from old Fort Inglish, the original settlement of Bonham. In Rayburn’s day, Bonham didn’t change much and Mister Sam was often seen shopping alone at a local grocery store.
(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)