Former student discusses Culbertson Mansion history


By Brianna Waggoner

150 years ago, William Culbertson walked into the grand yellow mansion on East Main Street with his wife Cornelia. Today, that mansion retains undying hospitality and honor, as well as historical value for the city of New Albany.

According to Culbertson Mansion program developer Kaitlyn Tisdale, William Culbertson came to New Albany when he was 21 years old and started his dry-goods business with his brother, John Culbertson. Together, they sold fabrics, clothing, and leather goods, working “hand-over-fist,” as Tisdale describes.

“William Culbertson did not believe in marking up his products, and by not marking his products up, he became the most competitive dealer in town, so everyone wanted his business because they were getting the better deal,” said Tisdale.

Eventually, Culbertson became one of the wealthiest men in Indiana during the 1860s. Tisdale refers to him as a “King Midas” because of his talent in investment.

“He was a very wise investor. Anything he invested in turned to gold,” said Tisdale. “By the 1860s, he was a multimillionaire.”

Unheard of at the time, Cornelia was allowed to design the mansion despite being a woman. She was even credited as the architect of the house when it was built.

“I think it wasn’t until 60 years later that they had even socially accepted a woman to designing, so the fact that William allowed her to do that is just incredible, and that’s another reason why I’m so proud to work here,” said event coordinator Bryce Romig, a 2014 FC graduate.

While English teacher Tim Romig knows the history of the mansion, it is not his main interest.

“I’ve learned like who built it, when they built it, why they built it. I mostly like to focus on the dark history like hauntings and stuff like that,” said Mr. Romig.

The home took two full years to build. Construction began in 1867 and the Culbertson family walked into the completed mansion in 1869. Furthermore, it had heat and running water, features most homes did not have at the time.

“Nobody had running water inside their house. It had central heat in the form of a coal-burning furnace. Nobody had that. Businesses had furnaces that could put out heat. Not homes,” said Tisdale.

William Culbertson had ten kids and three wives in total, so many servants were needed to run the home efficiently.

“There was always a staff of about 12 servants here working that [were] men and women, mainly immigrants. It was a workplace and a home, so you have to keep that in mind. The Culbertsons couldn’t have lived in this house without them,” said Tisdale.

Four years after Cornelia Culbertson passed away of cholera in 1880, William married his third wife, Rebecca. In moving into the mansion, she made a few changes to the interior. Tisdale notes that she didn’t make any major architectural changes to the mansion such as tearing down walls, showing respect towards Cornelia’s original ideas when she was alive.

After William Culbertson died at age 78, the mansion switched ownership to the McDonald family and then the American Legion, where it underwent many changes, including sealing the basement floor with cement and tearing down walls. The house is now owned by the state as a historical site.

“It’s been through many a-changes but I’m really glad it’s back in the state’s hands today,” said Bryce. “I always say we want to take it right back to the very first day the Culbertsons ever set foot in here, so everything that we’re doing, we’re trying to replicate back to exactly what it would have looked like when they were here.”

Because his son and step daughter both work at the Culbertson Mansion, Mr. Romig is often able to walk through the mansion with his own tour.

“My tour, I run the New Albany Odd Walk, we go there on occasion, and we also get to go inside and tell stories,” said Mr. Romig.

Along with tours being available at the Culbertson Mansion, the haunted house event is heavily advertised as well. Bryce offers advice for those interested in participating.

“I believe standard admission for an adult is 15 dollars,” said Bryce. “You may have to wait in a line, so maybe wear a jacket because it starts to get very chilly.”

Opening day for “Literally, a Haunted House,” the annual haunted house event at the Culbertson, starts Sept. 27 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The house typically has a sign outside of every mishap at the haunted house, such as how many people left the tour early or how many people wet themselves. Bryce encourages visitors to “come with a brave face on.”

 

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