Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Palmer, Thomas Witherell and Elizabeth Merrill-Palmer

Thomas and Elizabeth Palmer were benefactors of two major institutions in Detroit: Palmer Park and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute.

Thomas James Palmer was born in Detroit on January 25, 1830, his father a successful dry goods merchant and his mother the daughter of Territorial Judge James Witherell. Schooled in Detroit, St. Clair and at the University of Michigan, Thomas toured Europe and South America as a teen. At the age of 20 he adopted his mother’s maiden name, and became Thomas Witherell Palmer. 

In 1855, he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Merrill, the daughter of his business partner, Charles Merrill. Palmer was initially involved in his family’s insurance and real estate interests, and later partnered with Merrill in the lumber industry of St. Clair County and the Saginaw Valley. By 1863, he 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 disfranchised, including children and animals. He was the first president of the Michigan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the Michigan Humane Society) when it formed in 1877.

Palmer was often described as jocular, personable and a brilliant orator. Elected to the Michigan State Senate in 1878, he went on to serve as United States Senator 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 died in a home adjacent to his beloved farm (today known as Palmer Park), on June 1, 1913. His papers are in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library.

Lizzie Palmer, a spirited personality in her own right, was born in Lincoln, Maine on October 8, 1837. She inherited her father’s shares in the family business. After his death, she commissioned prominent New York architects, Carrère and Hastings, to design a fountain in his honor. Dedicated in 1901 at its original location, in front of the old Detroit Opera House on Campus Martius, the fountain was moved to Palmer Park in 1925.

Upon her death in 1916, Palmer bequeathed three million dollars to create a school for young women with the goal of advancing education on motherhood 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. It remains in its original location at the Charles Lang Freer house. Lizzie Palmer died on July 28, 1916 and is buried along with her husband in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit.

Besides funding the school, the Palmers were founding supporters of 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 to the city 140 acres of farmland on the northern fringes of Detroit 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. Later, a section of the Palmers’ land would become the Palmer Woods Historic District neighborhood.

Papers of the Merrill and Palmer families are held at the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University.



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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