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Walter O. Parmer Biography

The Early Years

Walter Oliver Parmer was born November 18, 1855, in Greenville, Alabama, the son of Dr. Clinton Dale Parmer and Eleanor Oliver.  He had completed high school and entered East Alabama Male College (now Auburn University) in 1871.  In April 1873, prior to completion of his junior year at Auburn, Walter Oliver returned home due to his father's illness and subsequent death in June 1873. Being the oldest of the five children and the child with the strongest entrepreneurial spirit, Walter Oliver assumed control of his parents' business activities.  These included his father's medical practice, half interest in Parmer & Webb Pharmacy, and extensive cotton farming acreage with related livestock trade to include thoroughbred horses.  He had inherited a love of thoroughbreds from his father, Clinton Dale Parmer, and his grandfather, Ephraim Parmer.  (This is why a thoroughbred horse is represented in the Parmer Scholar Foundation's logo.)

On January 2, 1877, Walter Oliver Parmer married Elizabeth Dunklin of Greenville. Elizabeth's parents, James H. Dunklin and Abigail Reid, were very prominent members of the community, and her grandparents were among the original settlers of Greenville.

A Sharp Businessman

From 1877 to 1881, Parmer served as a major in the Second Alabama Regiment of Volunteer Troops. During the period of reconstruction after the Civil War, Parmer continued to produce cotton on the family farms, despite having to pay a tax of $10 per bale.  Perhaps this exorbitant tax encouraged him to soon sell most of the family mercantile interests and large cotton acreage. In 1883, he and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Sumner County, Tennessee, near Nashville where he bought the 107-acre "Hughes" place at Woodbine on Nolensville Road. He maintained his livestock which included thoroughbred horses until 1907. 

Walter Oliver was an aggressive business man with a keen sense of timing.  He had bought the Hughes place for $7,500 and sold it with improvements for $50,000 in 1907, when he bought Edenwold on Gallatin Road in Davidson County, Tennessee. Edenwold, with its 600 acres, was an established thoroughbred breeding farm when Parmer moved there. In the meantime, he leased 400 acres of Belle Meade Plantation on the west side of Nashville, where the best thoroughbreds were stabled.

Parmer had initially used funds from his Greenville, Alabama, interest to fund his land purchase in Tennessee. Shortly after moving to Nashville, he entered the mule business with Bill Lyle.  This business, Parmer & Lyle, continued to sell mules and horses at a barn on Broad and 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville until at least 1910. Parmer conducted sales and auctioned stock during the period 1885-1903. On November 22-24, 1903, he conducted the last of several dispersal sales at Belle Meade.  In the meantime, Parmer, George M. Hendrie, and John W. Price owned and developed a Windsor, Ontario, race course just over the border from Detroit. Again, Parmer had made a wise investment, and by 1911, he was making $60,000 per year from the Windsor race track.

As Parmer began to accumulate more and more wealth, he became a director of the North Carolina and St. Louis Railroad and the Fort Meyers-Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of Atlantic Coast Line. He also became a member of the board of directors and a member of the finance committee of the American National Bank of Nashville, the American Securities Company, and the American Associates, Inc.

When the United States entered World War I, Walter Oliver shipped all of his thoroughbred horses to Lexington, Kentucky, and sold them at auction on November 12, 1917. With the call for all farmers to raise more food for the war effort, Parmer purchased and raised cattle and hogs.  Even though he suffered a severe loss on the sale of his horses, the stock farming was a marked success. Thus, Parmer was rewarded for his patriotism in this business endeavor. After the war, he discontinued the stock farming and did not return to thoroughbred breeding. Instead, he chose to devote his time to other business activities.

During the years Parmer and his family lived at Edenwold from 1907 until 1916, he had always wanted to purchase Belle Meade. The History of Belle Meade Mansion, Plantation and Stud by Ridley Wills, II, reviews the efforts of Parmer to acquire one of the south's grandest properties. During 1904, Parmer made a number of offers to buy the mansion and a large block of land.  He had been leasing 400 acres of the West Meade Farm for pasture during 1890-1917 when his brother, Samuel E. Parmer, was overseeing the Belle Meade rental property and horses. Finally, Walter O. Parmer purchased the Belle Meade Mansion and the 24 adjoining acres from Colonel Luke Lea at a public auction during May 1916 for $55,000. Prior to moving to Belle Meade in the fall of 1916, Parmer made some renovations including installing paneled partition walls and windows in the heretofore open breezeway adjoining the main house to the kitchen house. The mansion remains in this configuration to this date as a historical tourist site.

Other interesting acquisitions of Parmer included the Palm Cottage in Naples, Florida, which he owned and entertained in from 1916 until 1932. This famous cottage, located in Naples' oldest residential section, has since been acquired by the Collier County Historical Society and restored. With partners Allen Harlan of Columbia, Tennessee, and Bill Lyle, previously mentioned, Parmer leased large tracts of land in Texas for several years to produce wheat and hay for his livestock operations. Parmer's brother, Clinton Parmer, apparently oversaw the Texas operation, and later Clinton and his family settled in Waco, Texas.

A Generous Philanthropist

As mentioned earlier, Parmer did not complete his undergraduate work at Auburn due to the illness of his father. In 1913, 40 years after he left Auburn, the institution honored him with a diploma and membership in the alumni association. Parmer's interest in higher education was demonstrated initially by his support for his nephews and nieces by providing funding for them. The sons of Clinton Parmer, his brother, were provided opportunities at the Webb School, a private institution east of Nashville, and Walter's niece Margaret Fuller, completed a degree in education at Peabody College in Nashville. The niece later married J.W. Mason of Houston, Texas, where she taught school for many years.

Parmer's philanthropic activities also extended to his adopted home of Nashville. When Vanderbilt University constructed a new football stadium and Dudley Field in 1922, Parmer provided the majority of the funds for a new field house. The Parmer Field House was used for almost 50 years as dressing rooms for every Vanderbilt football player and hundreds of visiting gridders. John Bibb, sports editor of the Nashville Tennessean, proposed in an article dated November 3, 1988, to use the Parmer club house to house a Vanderbilt Athletic Hall of Fame, which most likely would have pleased Walter Oliver. Parmer also provided funds for the West End Methodist church building and contributed to numerous other organizations.

Parmer was not only a thoroughbred race horse breeder and owner but also a sports enthusiast. He was chairman of the finance committee of the Athletic Association of Vanderbilt University, as well as a member of the famous Waponaca Club in Arkansas, the Belle Meade Golf and Country Club, the Naples Golf Club of Naples, Florida, and the Harpeth Hills Hunt Club. In addition, he was a member of the Hermitage Club of Nashville for nearly 40 years and served as a director and vice president of this club. He served as director of the Conservatory of Music in Nashville. He was also a member of the Millionaires Club of Detroit and served as secretary of the Highland Park Club in Detroit. 

Walter O. Parmer was known and loved by many local citizens in his hometown of Greenville, Alabama, and his visits were always eagerly anticipated. When the Greenville elementary school burned in the 1920s, the new school constructed in 1927 was named in his honor. Parmer provided funds for playground equipment to be delivered to the school in December 1928, as a Christmas present for the children. The Walter O. Parmer Elementary School continues to bear his name, even as a new state-of-the art building is being constructed on the site in 2009.

Tennessee also benefited from Parmer's interest in education. The Parmer Elementary School in Belle Meade was constructed on land given by Parmer to the Davidson County Schools in 1925. This land is on Leake Avenue in Nashville, and the brick school building, which opened in 1928, was in use until the year 1982. All that remains of the school after a 1985 fire is a brick archway.

During September 1925, while visiting friends in his home town of Greenville, Parmer announced that in his will he was providing a scholarship fund of $500,000, to be used perpetually as an educational trust for Butler County boys to become available upon the death of his wife, Elizabeth Dunklin Parmer. Due to the 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent depression of the 1930s, the fund was $250,000 initially after his wife's death in 1934.

Walter Oliver and Elizabeth Dunklin Parmer were never blessed with children. However, his brother and sister-in-law, Samuel Ephraim Parmer and Lottie Thomas, named a son Walter O. Parmer on October 7, 1881. Unfortunately, this child died on April 4, 1888. Clinton Lane "Clint" Parmer and Lizzie Gentry, youngest brother and sister-in-law, also named a son Walter Oliver Parmer on September 10, 1901.  This child lived a full, happy life, and died December 19, 1973, in Waco, Texas.

Walter O. Parmer was always a generous person and especially to his brothers, sisters, and their children. His will left specific monetary amounts to Elizabeth Dunklin Parmer, wife; Samuel E. Parmer, brother; Mary Frances Parmer Fuller, sister; Walter Miller Haynes, nephew; Parmer Haynes, nephew; Clinton L. Parmer, Jr., nephew; Ellen Genry Parmer, niece; Charles B. Parmer, nephew; and Walter O. Parmer, nephew. The amounts were substantial sums during the depths of the depression in 1932.

Walter Oliver Parmer died at 9:45 p.m. on Monday, May 23, 1932, at a Nashville hospital. He had been in ill health for more than two months. Corrective surgery on the preceding Saturday was not successful.

Parmer's Generosity Continues

Since 1936, the W.O. Parmer Scholarship Fund has provided scholarships for students with the best grades in accredited high schools in the Alabama counties of Butler, Lowndes, Crenshaw, Conecuh, Covington, and Wilcox. The students must demonstrate financial need and can attend Vanderbilt University, Auburn University, or The University of Alabama. The scholarships were initially limited to white males of the six counties listed, but the awards are now open to both genders and all races. The trustees of the fund have always been local citizens of Butler County with the Board of the American Bank of Nashville and its successors serving as fiduciary of the funds. Scholarships continue to be provided each year, even though the total number in 2008 is less than the fifteen per year originally anticipated by Walter Oliver Parmer. Even he was not able to foresee the effects of inflation.

From school year 1936-37 to school year 2008-2009, more than 400 students have been selected as recipients of the Walter O. Parmer Scholarship. Unfortunately, the number of recipients attending Vanderbilt University has steadily declined due to the high academic standards and cost of a private institution. From 1936-1961 (25 years), 46 recipients selected Vanderbilt. Since 1961 to 2008 (47 years), only 11 scholarships have been awarded to Vanderbilt students.

In 1937, Robert W. Dees became the first descendant of Ephraim Parmer, grandfather to Walter O. Parmer, and his first wife Susan Kendall selected to receive the scholarship.  Dees was followed by Robert Lee "Bobby" Parmer in 1956, also a descendant of Ephraim and Susan. Also in 1956, Walter Ray Parmer was the first descendant of Ephraim and his second wife Matilda Seale Parmer, grandmother to Walter O. Parmer, to receive the honor. In 1964, Walter Ray's first cousin Paul Parmer McIntyre, was selected as a scholarship recipient.

Read more about the history of the W.O. Parmer Scholarship.