Sarah “Sallie” Adeline Starke was born September 11, 1849 in Elbert County, Georgia to Samuel Carr Starke (1818-1901) and Mary Adeline Brewer (1824-1911). In 1853, her brother Elam B. Starke was born in Elbert County. On July 24, 1859, her sister Adeline H. Starke was born in Elbert County. Not much is known of her childhood, but at some point the family moved to Edgefield County in South Carolina. She was able to read and write but she was not given an extensive education. On January 8, 1868 she married Benjamin Ryan Tillman at the age of 18. The eight years of marriage before their first child were spent in total companionship. Sallie would ride Ben's horse with him and they would survey the fields together. They kept an open house where friends would often gather to play card games. When the weather was nice, they would ride in a horse and buggy to town. They were completely in love, and Sallie was one of the few people who would be able to calm Ben down with a simple touch of the arm and a “Now, Benny.” They would sign their letters to each other “your somebody,” and wrote often about their love for each other. Their son B.R. recalled his father saying “Your mother was never beautiful, but like twin stars her unselfishness and goodness bade me bow and worship.”
Their first daughter, Adeline was born January 21, 1876. They had seven children in total: Adeline “Addie” Starke Tillman (1876-1896), Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr. (1878-1950), Margaret “Lona” Malona (1880-unknown), Samuel Starke (1882-1884), Henry Cummings (1884-1959), Sophia Oliver (1888-1989), and Sallie Mae (1894-1991). Samuel Starke Tillman did not survive infancy. The family lived on the Tillman land in Trenton, SC, and operated a successful farm. When her husband was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1890, Sallie and her young children moved to Columbia to live in the Governor’s mansion with her husband. In December 1894, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Sallie originally stayed behind with the children to run the farm while her husband lived in Washington, D.C.
Adeline “Addie” Tillman was on a leisure trip with some friends in Hendersonville, NC. She had been there for several days and requested money from her mother, as well as some of her better dresses, as they were planning on extending the trip. On Wednesday, July 15, 1896, they left for a trip to Brevard and traveled by horseback to Rich Mountain. Less than a mile from the top of the mountain a storm broke out, and her horse began acting up. The Rev. Robert A. Lee and T.C. McNeeley stayed behind from the rest of the party to transfer Addie’s saddle to McNeeley’s horse. The rain began to pour, so they took shelter under a large tree. Addie was on her horse holding an umbrella, Rev. Lee was holding onto her horse, and McNeeley was mounting his horse about 20 feet away when a lightning bolt struck the tree. Addie, Rev. Lee, and both of their horses were killed instantly, while McNeeley and his horse were knocked down and slightly struck. The bodies were sent to Hendersonville and then to their respective homes. Addie was 20 years old.
When all of her surviving children were grown and married, Sallie lived in Washington D.C. with her husband whenever he was there. Their eldest son, Benjamin Ryan "B.R." Tillman, Jr. ran the Trenton farm. During this time, Sallie was often ill, suffering from exhaustion and headaches. Several times she stayed at the Robertson Sanitarium in Atlanta, GA until she felt better. She would travel with her husband when he had business elsewhere and even traveled to Europe. When her husband died July 3, 1918, Sallie moved back to the family farm in South Carolina. She lived with her oldest son but traveled to see her other children and grandchildren frequently. She died January 27, 1928 at the family home. Her death was due to heart trouble and came after several weeks of illness. Her body is buried in the Ebenezer Baptist Church Cemetery in Trenton.