My Family and the Vanderbilts
The most elaborate, most ornate, and likely largest mansion in the county was completed in 1895. It was the talk of the town. Everyone speculated on how much it cost to construct.
Of course, I’m talking about the Butler Mansion in Karnes County, Texas, built by William Green Butler, brother of my great-great-grandfather Marquis Lafayette “Fate” Butler. Likewise in 1895, George Vanderbilt opened his country retreat known today as The Biltmore House near Asheville, North Carolina.
As I was reading a book on my family history (The Good, The Bad, The Butlers by Charles L. Olmsted) I couldn’t help but be drawn to comparisons (and contrasts) to the Vanderbilt family.
W.G. Butler, a cattle baron/millionaire, Confederate veteran, and frontiersman, waited until his family of nine was mostly out of the house before he constructed his mansion. There were two floors of living quarters with a cupola on top from which you could see for miles. In total, there were five bedrooms, two bathrooms, and two closets. There was a fireplace in almost every room. The kitchen and dining room were in the back but separate from the rest of the house to keep the kitchen heat from mixing with the South Texas heat and entering the living quarters. Thirty-nine men worked on it at some point. In total, it cost $5,056.15 to build. Despite its massive size, it was built in one year. It was the finest in the county for sure.
On the other hand, George Vanderbilt, an established multi-millionaire and art lover, began construction of The Biltmore House in 1889 and opened it to guests on Christmas Eve 1895 while he was still a bachelor. The finished chateau contained over four acres of floor space, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces according to the Biltmore.com website. In total, 250 rooms make up the house, which was built by a community of craftsmen. Internet sources estimate the cost of construction was 5 to 6 million dollars.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the difference in these two worlds. While George Vanderbilt was traveling Europe and procuring art for his new home in 1895, William Butler’s eldest child (Newton, age 36) was being shot at by outlaws and eventually died in a New Orleans hospital under mysterious circumstances following successful hemorrhoid surgery. (Family history is FASCINATING!)
But George Vanderbilt and William Butler did share something in common—the railroad. Of course, Vanderbilt benefitted from his grandfather and father’s railroad empire. Butler’s connection to the railroad was born out of a grudge. The county seat, Helena TX, was preparing for the prosperity that would come with the first railroad tracks passing through the town. Having already lost a brother (Fate’s twin George Washington "Wash" Butler) to a shootout on the streets of Helena, one of Butler’s sons was also killed in a shootout in town. At that point Butler vowed to destroy the town, so he offered the railroad the land it needed to route their tracks through a different part of the county, effectively bypassing Helena causing it to dry up.
In his old age, Butler could sit in a rocking chair on his front porch and watch the train pass by carrying his cattle to market. No more long cattle drives for him! Looking back on his life he may have even been a little smug, having survived two gunshots and several murder indictments without a conviction.
One of these two men may have been much wealthier than the other, but I know who my money would have been on if they fought in a dark alley.