Past Matters Winter 2023; posted on 02/27/2023
Large historic homes hold a bounty of interesting stories within their walls. Visitors to these sites can learn a great deal about the family or families who lived there, but these stories are only part of the fascinating picture of domestic life in these homes. “The stories of domestic staff are largely lost in museums, and we want to bring these stories back,” says Hal Simon-Hassell, chief interpretive specialist for the Texas Historical Commission’s Historic Sites Division. Now, thanks to generous donors and supporters of the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission, a fuller story can be told at the Starr Family Home State Historic Site in Marshall.
During the 1880s, the Starr family was extremely prosperous, and typical for a home of this size at that time, the family did not do the cooking and cleaning. Instead, they relied on domestic staff, some of whom lived in the service wing of the home and at times the former schoolhouse on the property. Over time, as living situations changed, the service wing was turned into a breakfast room incorporating the original cook’s quarters. Essentially, the service wing became lost to time. Through detailed research and diligent efforts, THC staff located the original stove location and its chimney behind a set of cabinets. They also restored the living quarters of the person who worked as the cook. Starr family letters mention that Rosa, the new cook, arrived in March 1875. Research has yet to yield more information about her life, but she joined a staff consisting of a nurse to assist with the children; two gardeners, Jerome and Kimball; and a carriage driver, Jerry. While some of the household servants periodically lived on site, many lived in nearby neighborhoods and worked as day laborers.
Utilizing funds provided through the Friends of THC, the service wing was brought back to life with period-correct reproductions. This restoration now helps visitors see the differences between the spaces in which the family and the domestic staff spent time, allowing them to experience the home from different perspectives.
By including the lives of the domestic staff in the story of Starr Family Home, the site has added richness and depth to our understanding of this important historic residence.