Sarah Harrison was born in Belleville, St. Clair County, Illinois, on October 30, 1849. She was the fourth child of Thomas Asbury Harrison and his wife, Rebecca Green Harrison. Sarah learned about personal and social responsibility early in her life. Her paternal grandparents, Reverend Thomas and Margaret Galbraith Harrison, had moved to Illinois from North Carolina in 1805, shortly after their marriage, because of their hatred for slavery. Among the early settlers in St. Clair County, they had to clear the land to farm it. Thomas’s name appears in the minutes of the First Quarterly Conference of the Belleville Church in 1836 as a “Local Elder,” and he preached twice a week in that area for many years. (In the 1850s, the Harrisonville Mission was part of the Lebanon District of the Southern Illinois Conference.)3
Thomas and Margaret Harrison had nine children, whom they raised to be devout Methodists and taught to care for others.4 Methodist camp meetings and revivals were frequently held in the area, and the Harrison family was likely well acquainted with the Methodist clergy. One son was given “McKendree” as a middle name, and another “Asbury,” doubtless in honor of Bishop William McKendree, the first U.S.-born Methodist bishop, and Francis Asbury, a contemporary of John Wesley who set up the itinerant ministry in the United States. One daughter, Anna, married Dr. Sylvanus M. C. Goheen, a medical missionary to Africa and a prominent contributor to the Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) Church, on December 10, 1843, in St. Clair County.5
Integrity in business ranked high with the Harrison family as well. In addition to his farming and preaching, Reverend Harrison established and operated a flour-milling business in Belleville, installing the first steam engine in Illinois. As the business grew, he included his family in its operation. The steady growth of the business required the construction of a new mill in 1836; it was lost to fire in 1843 and rebuilt in 1844. Regardless of the mill, the business was built on making a quality product, and the flour was well respected by the community. Sarah learned through her contact with the family business that success came with a Christian life and hard work and not from taking advantage of others.
In 1859, Reverend Harrison, with two of his sons and his three widowed daughters (William M., Hugh G., Anna, Olive, and Elizabeth) and their families, took a steamboat from Illinois to Minnesota via the Mississippi River. The next year, another son, Thomas Asbury Harrison (called Asbury, he was Sarah’s father), sold his mill interest in Belleville and traveled to Minneapolis with his family.6 Sarah was 11 years old at the time. The State of Minnesota was just two years old.
The members of Sarah’s family were not prepared for Minnesota winters, and they grew homesick for southern Illinois. Sarah remembered the first winter at their home at Fourth Avenue South and Seventh Street well: “Day after day it was 10, 20 and sometimes 40 degrees below zero, with the wind blowing a gale all the time, and our house built according to Southern ideas of architecture. The cold would be inconceivable to anyone who had not experienced such weather. Many a time I woke up in the morning with the bed covering frozen stiff from our breath.”
Although the occupation of each is listed as “Gentleman” on the 1860 U.S. Census for Minneapolis, Asbury and his brother Hugh were bankers.8 Financially conservative, Sarah’s father carefully considered all his business decisions, then worked hard to achieve his objectives. But moral principles and caring for other people were important to him. He was a strong supporter of Hamline University, a Methodist school in St. Paul, and he endowed professorships in the names of his wife and his eldest daughter, Caroline. He served on the Minneapolis School Board. And when he couldn’t serve as a soldier, he responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s request that businessmen help pay for the Civil War, without asking for notes in return. Isaac Atwater described him as possessing “unflinching integrity in all relations of life, a sound judgment and an indomitable will. Added to these was kindness of heart and a cheerful spirit . . . with the repose of strength … In his family he was ever loving and patient.”9 Sarah shared those characteristics.