Ghosts of Main Street – Marion’s Forgotten Son

June 28, 2018

By Julie Traynor

Phillip Parmelee –
Pioneer Aviator

 July 4th is soon upon us. It is a time when every town across America proudly touts its accomplishments, its history and honors its famous sons and daughters. We celebrate who we are and what we stand for, even if we do not all agree on what they may be. In the history of our little town, we have had a few brushes with those who made a splash and a difference.

One of our earliest notables was a young man who was a mechanical genius, inventor and would become an early aviator, working for the Wright Brothers. He would fly the first commercial goods ever delivered by an airplane and he would fly aviation’s first passenger.  

Phillip Parmelee came to Winterfield as a boy in 1901. His father, C.W. Parmelee bought a 40 acre farm east of Marion in the Grandon neighborhood and set up a saw mill.

His exceptional teenaged son Phil built small dynamos and electrified each of the farm’s buildings, house and mill. This must have been quite a sight at night as a traveler approached the corner of what is now Long Lake Road and Partridge Avenue.
Young Parmelee was first and briefly attracted to the fledgling moving picture business, where he met his future wife. The couple was soon off to Flint where he worked for a time for Buick, the man and the business. He was soon lured away by the ‘flying machine’ and work for the Wright Brothers. Orville himself hired Parmelee.

This is the C.W. Parmelee family, comprised of Charles W., his wife Sadie, son Phillip and baby daughter Helen. This photo is courtesy of Bonnie Hamer, whose ancestors were Grandon neighbors of the family.

This is the C.W. Parmelee family, comprised of Charles W., his wife Sadie, son Phillip and baby daughter Helen. This photo is courtesy of Bonnie Hamer, whose ancestors were Grandon neighbors of the family.

Phillip Parmelee, whose parents lived at Marion, Michigan, was killed in an aviation accident in Washington State in 1912. He was 27 years old and was buried in the family plot in Hubbardston, Michigan. The elder Parmelee’s eventually sold their property and returned to Clinton County, where they are buried near their son.

From time to time history tellers remember Phillip Parmelee, the brilliant young man who died too soon. A record setting trip between Flint and Flushing was recounted by his distant cousin, the well-known author Edmund Love, in one of his Michigan stories.

Phillip Parmelee’s life was recounted a couple of years ago in the Michigan History Magazine. It was a beautifully written account, focusing on his many accomplishments and short life. Once again, there is no mention of his earliest inventing days at Marion, Michigan.

We are the ones lost to history, not Phil.

This appeared locally, August 3, 1939, seventeen years after Parmelee’s untimely death.

“Not a great number of Marionites recognize that a former Marion boy was pictured in Monday’s Detroit Free Press at the sticks of one of the early Wright planes. The plane, claimed to be the first bomber, was pictured in 1911 and the few persons who knew Phillip Parmelee in his boyhood in this vicinity, had no trouble in instantly recognizing the one who brought quite a bit of publicity to this locality.

Phil, as the natives called him, was the son of C. W. Parmelee, who came to Winterfield Twp. about 1900 and brought land and established a saw mill. Phil, then in his teens, was first, last and all the time a born wizard. He first built a tiny electric motor, using as a starter for this first armature, a copper shell from a BB cartridge. This was a success, and at one time he had in his workshop on the mill property, over 20 small motors. Then he felt he could enlarge on his accomplishments and build a dynamo of sufficient output to light the home and mill. This caused quite a bit of comment and his eagerness to do bigger things resulted in his building of a steam auto, using a buggy body and bicycle wheels, building his steam boiler and planning the entire gasoline heating system.

A few of the old-timers will remember the commotion his trips into town caused along Main Street.”

Phil’s brief but brilliant career was eagerly followed by the Marion Press. C.T. Sadler, owner, editor and publisher, who knew Phil from his first days here, happily noted young Parmelee’s accomplishments and family visits. The family’s travels were noted in the usual neighborhood news. The elder Parmelee’s brother owned a farm in Middle Branch Township and resided here long after the Winterfield family returned to Clinton County. 

Today the Parmelee farm and mill site is home to Consumers Power’s Gas Storage offices, located five miles east of Marion. This property, formerly known as Michigan Gas Storage, has been located here since the 1940’s. With the removal of a stand of white poplar a few years ago, nothing remains to mark the Parmelee occupancy.

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