Photo by David Tharp

Callie Cantrell

(1844–1914)

For all we know, Callie Cantrell told bawdy stories after sipping one cordial too many. Or, she spent hours in her church pew, wearing black bombazine and a dour expression. Perhaps she sang sweetly and baked delicious cakes.

Because Callie was an exemplary Victorian woman, hers was a private life. Her activities were not for public consumption nor (it was presumed) did they merit it. She was defined by the accomplishments of her father, brothers and husbands. And so, it is in the margins of their lives that we find her.

What we know for sure is that she wasn’t a Texan, though she spent her final two years living in her brother’s Dallas home. Her full name at birth was Nancy Caroline “Callie” Sneed, number eight of nine children. She was no man’s first wife and no child’s mother. And, at 69, she was buried in a lone grave in Oakland Cemetery, a senile widow 710 miles from home.

Photo by Tom White

Home was Alexandria, the largest town in DeKalb County, Tennessee. Callie was born into an affluent family: Her father, Thomas Jefferson Sneed, was a physician. Her mother, Nancy Caroline Overall, was the daughter of a man who owned hundreds of Tennessee acres, 23 slaves and a distillery. After giving birth to nine children in 20 years, Callie’s mother died in 1848 at age 40.

The 1850 census shows Callie, 6, in a household with her father, six older siblings and grandmother Sneed, enough caregivers that a stepmother wasn’t immediately brought on the scene. She arrived when Callie was a 14-year-old schoolgirl. At 25, Callie was still in the classroom, but as a schoolteacher; at 31, she was a student again, having enrolled in the University of Nashville’s normal school, perhaps thinking she would never marry.

She was wrong. About a month before her 32nd birthday, Callie married John Rollins, a well-to-do DeKalb County farmer and widower whose situation mirrored that of Callie’s father. Upon the loss of his 42-year-old first wife in 1872, Rollins was left with eight children, ranging in age from 17 to 7 months. Callie joined the family in 1876, and it’s possible her experience as a schoolteacher helped her adjust to being a stepmother.

Callie and John Rollins were married 18 years. When John, 65, died in 1894, he was buried in Eastview Cemetery in Alexandria, where his first wife lay. Because he died intestate, it’s not known whether he provided for his 50-year-old widow.

Robert and Martha Cantrell, center, with their children

Callie found love again with Robert Cantrell, 73, a highly respected attorney and circuit court judge in Lebanon, Tennessee; a Nashville newspaper called him the “ablest jurist in the state.” He and first wife Martha, with whom he had eight children, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary a few months before she died. True to the times, a news story about Martha’s death in 1897 referred to her as “Mrs. Judge Cantrell.”

Seven months later, Callie became the second “Mrs. Judge Cantrell.” It was also her second time to become a second wife. The wedding took place in a private home in Nashville, after which the newlyweds returned to the bridegroom’s home in Lebanon, about 19 miles from Alexandria.

Long retired from the bench, the judge continued to garner attention in the state’s newspapers: In 1901, for example, he was part of a Tennessee delegation that attended the funeral of assassinated president William McKinley. Even when the news was of a domestic nature — his and Callie’s home in Lebanon burned to the ground in November 1899 — only the judge’s name appeared in print.

Strangest of all, when Judge Cantrell died in 1903, the obituary in the Nashville Banner did not mention his widow. He was buried with his first wife in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Lebanon.

That’s not to say the judge neglected his 58-year-old widow’s financial future or her feelings. In his will, in his own hand, he wrote:

It is my wish and desire that I be buried by the side of my deceased wife Martha Cantrell…and buried so that my present wife Callie Cantrell can be buried by my side if agreeable to her wish, as both wives were and are dearer to me than life and there was no limit to their kindness and self-sacrifice for my comfort.

In addition, the good judge left Callie their house, its contents (except for his law library, which was to be sold), the carriage and stock, as well as $4,000 (an estimated $120,000 today).

The spring of 1910 found Callie, 66, at her home on North Cumberland Street in Lebanon with three female boarders: a pair of sisters who worked as dressmakers and one milliner. Within the next two years, she left Tennessee for good. Waiting for her in Dallas was her father’s namesake, Thomas Jefferson Sneed.

Sneed circa 1904. Photo courtesy of Elton Gibb

Like his father, Tom Sneed was a medical doctor, having earned his degree at the University of Nashville in 1866. He eventually abandoned medicine for “commercial pursuits.” After 1900, he and wife Emma joined two of their sons in Dallas. His principal occupation as a new Texan was to fraternize with other Civil War veterans. Sneed had enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 and fought in numerous battles: He was captured at Gettysburg and held prisoner for 19 months.

Callie arrived in Dallas about 1912 and made her home with Tom and Emma at 1600 Sanger Avenue. In the fall of 1913, her brother died of kidney disease. The Camp Sterling Price № 31, United Confederate Veterans, gave their “comrade” an enviable send-off, calling him “an honorable, high-minded, and worthy citizen.” He was buried at Oakland Cemetery.

Photo by Tom White

Callie died about three months later, on New Year’s Day, 1914. She was 69 years old. The cause of death was senility. Her obituary identifies her as the widow of Judge Robert Cantrell, still at rest with his first wife in Tennessee. Callie apparently declined to join them, or she was in no condition at the end to make travel arrangements. She was buried near her brother in section 30, lot 45 at Oakland Cemetery.

Named survivors included three nieces and two nephews in Dallas, one nephew in Fort Worth, and a great-nephew in Lancaster. The obituary also mentions sister-in-law Emma and “a large number of nieces and nephews in Tennessee.” Her funeral service was held at Ervay Street Methodist Church.