History of Palmer Park

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From Family Farm to
Community Park

Excerpted from the tour guide script, from the First Annual Palmer Park and Palmer Park Historic Apartment District Architectural Tour, written by Gregory Piazza, with updating by Jim Meyers and PFPP

Our story begins in 1832 when Judge James Witherell (1759-1838) purchased 80 acres of land between what are now Hamilton Avenue, Fairway Drive, Six Mile and Seven Mile. Judge Witherell built a small log cabin on the north side of what is now Six Mile and Log Cabin Street. This area had been historically used as an Native American camping site.  Log Cabin Street is so named because it was the trail from downtown that ended at Witherell’s log cabin. Witherell was a judge of the Third Michigan Territorial Court and contemporary of Judge Augustus Woodward. In 1838 with Witherell’s death, the acreage was left to his daughter Mary Palmer. It passed to Mary’s son, Thomas (1830-1913) in 1874.

Thomas expanded the family’s holdings, eventually owning some 640 acres. This is roughly the area from Woodward and Six Mile to Woodward and Eight Mile, Six Mile to Fairway, up to Eight Mile and to Woodward. Palmer developed a farm where he raised prize Percheron horses. In 1855 Palmer married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Pitts Merrill (1837-1916), daughter of Charles Merrill a noted businessman with large holdings in lumber. The Palmers would adopt four children: Harold (aka Higinio, Hidalgo), Betita, Lizzie and Gail. Read more about the Palmers.

 The park’s most identifiable feature is the Log Cabin which sits on a small knoll steps from Woodward Avenue and overlooking Lake Frances. There is a story that the Palmers often came out to the farm to picnic. After a Fourth of July party at the farm, Mrs. Palmer is reputed to have said: “I’ve lived in a brick house, a stone house and a wooden house. But never in a log cabin.”

In 1885 Senator Palmer contracted with architects George Mason and Zachariah Rice to build a log cabin. The cabin was built from trees harvested in the area and furnished with Palmer antiques including a large canoe suspended from the sitting room ceiling. At its feet was spring-fed Lake Frances named for Mrs. Palmer’s mother. There was a rustic bridge on the north side of this Lake and a lighthouse (which still stands) on one of the islands. 

George Mason was a prominent architect who partnered with Zachariah Rice in 1878. Together they designed the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, the Ponchartrain Hotel (1907) and the Detroit Yacht Club (1923) and many other notable structures. Mason’s crowning achievement was the immense Masonic Temple (1926) at Temple and Cass. It is the largest Masonic temple in the world with nearly 1,000 rooms. Rice would later marry Gail Palmer.  From 1884 to 1896, Albert Kahn worked for the firm which closed in 1898. Kahn worked on several projects with Mason before Mason’s death in 1948. Read more about the Log Cabin at HistoricDetroit.org and at nighttraintodetroit.com.

According to Crocket McElroy in Souvenir History of Palmer Park: “About 110 acres of this this land was laid out into a park by Olmstead & Elliot, celebrated landscape gardeners of Boston, Mass., under the general directions of Mrs. Palmer. The plan includes two lakes, several islands, pathways and between five and six miles of roads. Mrs. Palmer designed the Log Cabin and caused it to be built. She then furnished it with ‘olden time’ furniture.” (The City of Detroit has stored furniture from the cabin at Fort Wayne. In the future, we hope to return some of it to the cabin.)

In 1894 the Senator donated the first 120 acres that would become Palmer Park. The Palmers wanted it named Log Cabin Park but the City called it Palmer Park. By 1897 Palmer had donated the majority of the land we know as the Park. A portion of the Log Cabin farm was sold and became the Detroit Golf Club at the end of the 19th century.

“In 1895 Mr. Palmer presented the city with one hundred and forty acres of his beloved farm to be used as a pleasure park for the people of the City of Detroit, with only one stipulation, that none of the virgin forest should be wantonly destroyed.”

Thomas W. Palmer, by M. Agnes Burton,
Michigan Historical Commission, A State Department of History and Archives

Other lakes and features at Palmer Park: In addition to Lake Francis, another lake was dug behind what is now the swimming pool and used as a fish breeding pond. Beyond it to the west, was Lake Harold with an island called Inselruh and a waterfall called Pontiac Cascade. Some believe that the great Chief Pontiac was buried roughly where the cascade waterfall once stood. The lake was filled in with earth excavated from the construction of the Lodge freeway during the mid-20th century, which suppressed this beautiful flow of water to the burial grounds area. There was also a large white wooden casino (Rodgers & MacFarlane), which burned down in May of 1945.

Other attractions in the park included extensive gardens filled with plants grown in the park’s greenhouses; a huge spruce log hollowed out at one end, forming furniture in a little room. The opposite end was hollowed out and had bars to contain the lions and tigers that once inhabited it. It was originally at the 1904 World’s Fair and was given to the Senator. There were also walking and riding trails and a wooden wishing well.

The Forest: “The trees are in great variety, there being more than seventy kinds. There are seven kinds of oak, eleven kinds of willow, five kinds of thorn and the trees common to this section of the country, such as elm, maple, beech, hickory, ash, basswood, tamarack and birch. Among the rarer trees are sassafras, walnut, butternut,balm of gilead. Slippery-elm, plum and cherry. There is claimed to be a greater variety of Trees in Palmer Park indigenous to the soil than there is in the whole of Europe with its millions of acre of forests. At a convention of park Comissioners  held at the park a few years ago, it was agreed that there was no other such a primeval park, as Palmer Park, within thirty miles of anv city in the United States.” — “Souvenir History of Palmer Park and Sketch of Hon. Thomas W. Palmer, Sage of Log Cabin Farm” by Crocket McElroy, 1908

Near the western entrance to the Log Cabin is a large bell hanging — originally in a rustic wooden frame. This bell was designed and cast by Paula Gomez in Spain in 1793 (an inscription is engrave in the bell to  this effect). It was taken to Mexico more than 200 years ago. The late William A. Moore, and the late Senator McMillan and a few other friends raised a fund, bought the bell, and presented it to Senator Palmer, who gave it to the City of Detroit. The weight of this bell is 1015 pounds.

In 1904, Mrs. Palmer donated this marble masterpiece to the City in memory of her father Charles Merrill. Designed by the New York firm of Carrere and Hastings, the fountain was placed in front of the Detroit Opera House on the exact center of Campus Martius. It was built in the classical style and cost $1 million. The photo at below is the one of the few photos of the fountain in its original location and of it functioning. In 1923 the fountain was moved to the Park to prevent it from being damaged by increased traffic downtown.  The fountain functioned for one season in the Park and then pipes broke. It has not functioned since then. PFPP hopes to be able to fix the fountain in the future. Read more about the fountain.

The fountain in its original downtown Detroit location, c. 1920.

To read more about the history of the park in the 1908 book “Souvenir History of Palmer Park and Sketch of Hon. Thomas W. Palmer, Sage of Log Cabin Farm” by Crocket McElroy, click here.

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