I recently attended a lecture here in Amarillo and I learned about an amazing woman who contributed so much to the growth of this city. I doubt things would’ve progressed as fast as they did if not for Melissa Oliver-Eakle. This city certainly owes her a lot. But let’s start at the beginning, before she came to Texas.
Melissa Dora Callaway came into the world in Eufaula, Alabama on September 23, 1860. She was the daughter of Joshua S. and Melissa Ann Callaway. They grew cotton which was a cash crop all across the south during and after the Civil War.
Melissa was an independent, well-educated woman who didn’t marry until she was 24 years old and it was to William Oliver, a 52 yearold widower. William was a wealthy industrialist and a huge stockholder in Mississippi Mills—a cotton processing company. By all accounts, they had a good marriage. Melissa bought clothes from Paris, expensive jewelry, and had the best of everything. William was known as the Cotton King and acquired a fortune in the millions.
William was laid to rest in 1891 and he and Melissa had no children. Two of her brothers moved to Amarillo, Texas and bought businesses. They saw promise in this city. After the death of William, the fortune went solely to Melissa. She filled an entire train with her belongings, horses, servants and household furnishings and moved to Amarillo.
When she arrived in 1895, the population was 500. She caused quite a stir. She would ride her favorite horse, a chestnut, down the streets in her elegant clothing and hats. Soon everyone called her The Duchess.
She began buying property—a lot of it. She worked constantly to bring culture to the city. A lover of the opera and classical literature, she was instrumental in building an opera house and the first library. And she donated land for city parks. Below is her home.
Then the country entered an economic depression and the banks failed. Her personal fortune exceeded the combined capital of all area banks. During this time, a woman wasn’t allowed to conduct business affairs so using the name M.D. Oliver, she loaned them money and they never knew they did business with a woman.
Some say she loaned money to ranchers who hit upon hard times. I dare say she did.
In 1902, after being widowed for 11 years, she married again at the age of 38. Her new husband was O.M. Eakle—a furniture maker and undertaker. The marriage was rocky to say the least. But she gave birth to a daughter in October, 1902 and named her Oliver Rae Eakle. She was the only child Melissa would have.
O. M. Eakle died in 1914, leaving her a widow once again.
In 1927, Chicago mobsters tried to kidnap Melissa because of her involvement and organization of a temperance movement here. This prompted her to carry a pearl-handled revolver in her purse. They never succeeded.
At the age of 63, she built a 10 story skyscraper in downtown Amarillo—the city’s first. It was called the Oliver-Eakle Building.
After a long illness, Melissa passed away in November, 1931 and was buried at the local cemetery. She was a very colorful and influential woman who used her wealth to better this town and the people who lived here. I would love to have known her.
Do you know anything about the history of where you live? Any early people who settled there?
(The Panhandle Plans Museum is credited for the pictures.)