Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Palmer, Thomas Witherell and Elizabeth Merrill-Palmer

Thomas James Palmer was born in Detroit in 1830, the son of a successful dry goods merchant and his wife, the daughter of Territorial Judge James Witherall. Schooled in Detroit, St. Clair and at the University of Michigan, Thomas toured Europe and South America as a teen. At the age of twenty he adopted his mother’s maiden name, and became Thomas Witherell Palmer. In 1855, he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Merrill. He was initially involved in his family’s insurance and real estate interests, and later partnered with his father-in-law, Charles Merrill, in the lumber industry of St. Clair County and the Saginaw Valley. By 1863, Thomas was president of the firm.

A Republican, Palmer favored federal control of the railroads and was an ardent advocate for women’s suffrage. His slogan – “Equal rights for all, special privileges to none” –reflected compassion for the non-enfranchised, including children and animals. He was an early supporter of the Humane Society.

Palmer is often described as jocular, personable and a brilliant orator. Elected to the Michigan State Senate in 1878, he went on to serve as Michigan’s delegate to the United States Senate from 1883-1889. Following an appointment as U.S. ambassador to Spain, he became President of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Commission in Chicago. Palmer learned to drive as soon as automobiles became available in Detroit…he was over seventy…and died in a home adjacent to his beloved farm in 1913.

Lizzie Palmer, a spirited personality in her own right, inherited her father’s shares in the family business. Upon her death in 1916, she bequeathed over 2 million dollars to “study human development and family life.” That funding established the Merrill-Palmer School, today known as the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development at Wayne State University.

Besides funding the school, the Palmers were founding supporters for the Michigan Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Campus Martius and the Detroit Museum of Art (precursor of the Detroit Institute of Arts). In their wills, they provided money for the Merrill Fountain, the Mary Palmer (Thomas’s mother) Memorial Episcopal Methodist Church, and deeded 140 acres of farmland on the northern fringes of Detroit to the city for use as a rural park. The farm, complete with log cabin, small lake and vast virgin forest, was soon renamed Palmer Park, and remains one of the city’s premier recreational spaces.



Commemorative ribbon from a banquet honoring Thomas Palmer, 1889 - 1974.077.001

Postcard showing view of Palmer Park lake and lighthouse, 1910 - 1988.016.002r

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