Joel Webster Parker

1817 - 1893

“In the later years of his life Joel Webster Parker was a man of patriarchal appearance. His hair was silvered over and his long flowing white beard made him seem venerable but “though the snows of many winters were on his head, the flower of spring blossomed in his heart.” In other words Mr. Parker remained young in spirit and in interests and his life was one of intense usefulness. For a considerable period he was closely associated with the lumber trade in Sioux Falls and that he embodied the highest principles of manhood and conduct in his business affairs was indicated by the high regard in which he was everywhere held by his contemporaries and his colleagues. He was descended in both the paternal and maternal lines from English ancestry, although both the Parker and Benham families were early established on New England soil. His maternal grandmother was a cousin to Noah Webster. His father, Joel Parker Sr., was born in Berkshire county, Massachusetts, and wedded Mary Benham, a native of Hartford, Connecticut. They were married at Bridgewater, Oneida county, New York, and in Sangerfield, that county, their son, Joel Webster, was born March 28, 1817. Several moves were made in the Empire state, the last to the town of Jerusalem, Yates county, and thence in 1835 the family removed to New London, Huron county, Ohio.

Webster Parker, as the subject of this review was called, remained at the paternal homestead during the greater part of his youth, dividing his time between the work of the fields and his books, making good use of such opportunities for education as fell to his lot. In 1841 he left Ohio for what was then the far west and for several years travelled through the lead mining region of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, selling merchandise from a wagon, as was the general custom of the locality and period. He was a commercial traveler of those early days in the west, carrying not a sample case but his own stock in trade. A letter dated 1845, from one relative to another says: “He has a very pleasant, comfortable conveyance and he drives an elegant span of horses, to which he is very much attached.” It is certain that the young man received a warm welcome wherever he went in that new western country, his genial disposition winning him many friends. In 1846 he settled at Babel, Illinois, where he opened a store and a few years later he engaged in farming for a time. But the mercantile business better suited his inclinations and in 1852 he located at Warren, Jo Daviess county, Illinois, where he soon developed a profitable business, in which he engaged for sixteen years, conducting a general store. In 1868 he removed to Hillsboro, Vernon county, Wisconsin, where he was the proprietor of a general store until 1875, when he went to Millston, Jackson county, Wisconsin. At that place he engaged not only in merchandising but also in the lumber business. That move, however, was made only as a temporary one and in 1879 he came to Dakota and established his home in Sioux Falls, which was then a little village upon the frontier and gave little promise of becoming the progressive enterprising city which it is today. Here he entered into partnership with his son, James W. Parker, for the conduct of a lumberyard, business being carried on under the firm name of J. W. Parker & Son. With the admission of James W. Leverett to the firm the style of the Sioux Falls Lumber Company was assumed and the business during the lifetime of James W. Parker was conducted under that name. In 1886, Mr. Parker disposed of his interest and devoted his efforts largely to the management of his investments and property holdings. Success attended him upon the journey of life because his methods were reliable, his enterprise unfaltering and his judgement sound and discriminating. Of slight physique, but endowed with indominable energy and courage, he faced bravely the exigencies of business life.

On the 26th of February, 1845, Mr. Parker was united in marriage to Miss Mary W. Colburn, who departed this life December 6, 1846. On the 23d of January, 1848, he married Miss Rebecca Brown Colburn, who survives. She was born at Sacket Harbor, New York, a daughter of Charles and Rebecca Colburn and a lineal descendent of Rev. Samuel Whiting, of Lynn, Massachusetts, who sailed from England for the new world in 1636. Mrs. Parker was a member of the Presbyterian church in early life but later joined the Freewill Baptist church, of which her husband was a member. In her Mr. Parker had an efficient helpmate whose life has ever been characterized by strong religious faith, devotion to family and friends, deep sympathy and remarkable fortitude. To Mr. and Mrs Parker were born seven children: George and Mary E., now both deceased; Carrie A.; James W., who has also passed away; Jessie R.; Fannie C.; and Sarah, who is deceased.

Mr. Parker possessed in large measure “the saving sense of humor.” He was ever recognized as an earnest, consistent Christian man, and in the faith of his church he passed away on the 14th of April, 1893, at the age of seventy-six years. The Freewill Baptist church found in him a most earnest and consistent adherent and worker and he gave generously to its support at all times. In his later life he voted with the prohibition party, for he was a strong advocate of temperance principles and regarded the question of the abolition or control of the liquor traffic as the paramount one before the people. He held to the highest standards and ideals of life. Ever in the vanguard of reform, he was an early and earnest supporter of abolition principles. He advocated woman suffrage long before there was any general interest in the subject. He also employed women clerks fifty years ago – a decided innovation at that time. He was fond of animals; kind to them himself and intolerant of their ill-treatment by others. He loved children, and they, in turn, loved him; he was in truth the children’s friend. With Mr. Parker, as with so many others, education was less a matter of schools than of lessons in the world’s university, in which he was a diligent learner. Moreover, his tastes were scholarly; he was a careful, appreciative reader of solid literature. In a practical way he was a student of natural history. He loved trees, taking great pleasure in planting them and watching their growth. Hundreds of them were planted by him in Sioux Falls.

Of the funeral, which was a remarkable demonstration, a local paper said: “The funeral of Joel W. Parker was an event without a parallel in the history of this city, and one which will probably never be equaled in many particulars, – the result of a life without a spot or blemish in the eyes of the community. The attendance of sympathetic friends took in all grades of society from the president of a bank to the most humble citizen – just as the sympathy and charity of the departed had done during all the years he had been a resident of the Queen City.” One who knew him well said of him: “He was a most kindly, lovable Christian gentleman, and all of his friends and acquaintances are the better for having known him.” A contemporary biographer has written of him: “Mr. Parker did much for the material advancement of Sioux Falls, having erected a number of good buildings and having been a generous subscriber to public enterprises. In politics he gave his allegiance and staunch support to the prohibition party, and thus showed in a significant way, as he did in all relation of life, that he had the courage to stand boldly forward as an advocate of and worker for those principle which he believed to be right. He was humanity’s friend, and as such did all in his power to uplift his fellowmen and enrich their lives, this spirit, not less than definite principle, accounting for the exalted attitude which he maintained in political matters. He was an uncompromising foe to the liquor traffic, as he was to all else that tends to lower the standard of human ideals, and his labors in the moral field, in which he taught not less by personal example than by precept and kindly admonition, were such as to justify the revering of his memory for all time to come.”

George W. Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory, Vol. 5 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1915) pp. 1074 – 1078.

Joel Webster Parker was buried in the family lot, Block 10 – Lot 7 of the cemetery, on April 16, 1893. He rests next to his wife, Rebecca, and in the company of several of his children and grandchildren.