Sunday, July 13, 2008

Founding Mother

At one point in my life the events of 1890 seemed like ancient history, but if in the grand scheme of things that isn't all that long ago. Today Amarillo, Texas has a population nearing 200,000 but a mere 118 years ago less than five hundred residents called the town home.

It was during the summer of 1890 that a woman named Dora Callaway Oliver first visited Amarillo to see her two merchant brothers. The wife of William Oliver, the head of Mississippi Mills, the South's largest textile manufacturer, Dora Oliver fell in love with the area and visited many times eventually purchasing a large area of land. When her husband died in 1895, she packed up and moved to Amarillo as a full-time resident.

The wealthy widow created quite the stir, what with her fine horses, carriage and household servants were the first black residents of the town. Mrs. Oliver liked to ride about town atop a fine Chestnut horse and clad in elegant English riding attire. She was said to be rather aloof to those she met out on the streets and was soon dubbed with the sarcastic title of "The Duchess."

But at the same time Mrs. Oliver was known among her friends as warm, gentle and generous.

In 1895, Amarillo was in the throes of economic depression, and Mrs. Oliver reportedly had more liquid assets than all the area banks combined. So she entered into the world of banking herself.

At that time women were scarce in the world of bankers and men were often skeptical of their abilities so most of her early debtors knew only that they were beholding to somebody named M. D. Oliver. I think it would have been interesting to see how many desperate men would have put aside their chauvinistic tendencies to borrow from a woman. Most, I'm guessing.

After 11 years of widowhood, Dora Oliver married a man named O. M. Eakle in 1902. He was also a banker, but their marriage was rocky from the start. By all accounts Dora had gotten used to her independence and preferred to make her own decisions. The couple was often estranged but did manage to see eye to eye often enough for them to have one child, a girl. O. M Eakle died in 1914.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Oliver-Eakle, as she was now went by continued to thrive as a shrewd business woman.

Over the years, she used the land she'd purchased in 1891 and started a subdivision which still stands today. Amarillo College and Memorial Park are located on part of her original acreage. Mrs. Oliver-Eakle also donated land to the the city for a park which bears her name to this day.

Operating in a more traditional woman's role Mrs. Oliver-Eakle also worked hard to bring culture to Amarillo. She aided in founding a town library, and she helped finance the Amarillo Opera House. She also was extremely vocal in the temperance movement, but we won't hold that against her. She held such influence that Chicago mobsters made several kidnapping and extortion attempts on Mrs. Oliver-Eakle, but she held her own by toting a pearl-handled revolver in her purse for protection.

In 1927, at the age of 63, she saw the completion of Amarillo's first office skyscraper. The 10-story Oliver-Eakle Building (later renamed the Barfield Building) was yet another successful example of her business sense.

Mrs. Oliver-Eakle died on Nov. 17, 1931 but no one can say she didn't live an full life and her touch can still be seen in the city to this day.

Don't forget to check out Barrie Summy's blog. Since I am away she is compiling the list of bloggers this week taking part in My Town Monday.



women had to be tough to survive back then..and the country would eat you alive if you let it...
great post..

Charles Gramlich said...

Kind of harsh that a woman who clearly had respect for herself and others, and some refinement, would be dubbed something kind of snooty like "Duchess." Sounds like she was a wonderful lady, the kind that changes the world around her for the better.

Anonymous said...

I like to think that if I lived back then, I'd be just like Dora.

Ah, screw it, who am I kidding? I'd have been knocked up a million times, raising babies and stuck in some dudes kitchen.

Come to think of it, that's my life in the here and now.

Damn it.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I could say it any better than Redneck Mommy.

I'll try to be inspired instead of depressed.

Barbara Martin said...

Well done, Travis. My grandmother was a suffragette, too, and women had to be tough then to get the government to listen to reason. In some circles Mrs. Oliver-Eakle would have been an outcast for having no husband.

Charles, women didn't have rights then. Women were mens' property. Good thing that sort of thinking has stopped.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Fascinating woman!


pattinase (abbott) said...

As I've said before, you are a born historian.

Bernita said...

A strong, complex and courageous personality.
Really like that she founded a library.

Brooke said...

I am impressed with your flair for history, this was really interesting!

Also...and I hate to do this but I am spreading the word...I got an EXTREMELY weird comment about my daughter and it freaked me out to no end. I changed my blog address, you can now find me at

The comment came from someone called Andrew B, I don't know if he is just a random weirdo or what...

Brooke said...

And I hope you are having a great time on your trip! (Sorry, meant to add that before :)

angel, jr. said...

Wow, that is interesting, especially to see how much she has done in that day and age.

Clare2e said...

I'd love to see the movie of the rich widow banker foiling the Chicago outfit! I bet they held the whole temperance thing against her plenty.

Danette Haworth said...

Wow! What a woman!

Nan Higginson said...

Ah, the joys of being an old gal with buckets of money. Good thing she was basically a good woman. Hate to think what that combo of money and age could have done for a nasty octogenarian!

Write On!

Robin said...

Very cool..but as we know, Panhandle women had to be tough. What a land to carve a life from in that day and age.

These women (and men) have gone a long ways to stifling my whining.

My grandma gave birth to ten babies on this prairie and never's humbling and inspiring. When I get the urge to whine...I do everything I can to shove that history down my throat before a "poor me" even has a chance!

Love it!

Karen Fisher-Alaniz said...

Ah dang. I was so inspired by your "My Town Monday" thing and now I don't know what to do with it. So, sorry if this is in the wrong place (and I know it is). I tried the link but it didn't work (or else it's my wonky computer). Anyway-I posted about your challenge yesterday and posted my first "Monday" post today. Yes, there really is a Walla Walla, Thanks for the inspiration and hope Vegas was FAB! ~Karen