AUSTIN, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – A local female pioneer was recognized in Austin Thursday as a part of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. That pioneer is Melissa Dora or M.D. Oliver-Eakle who helped shape Amarillo into the city we know today.
The Texas Women’s Hall of Fame biennial awards ceremony recognizes the achievements of women across the Lone Star State and this year, prior to the ceremony, the Governor’s Commission for Women will be celebrating M. D. Oliver-Eakle.
According to the Texas State Historical Association and Executive Director of Center City of Amarillo Beth Duke, M.D. Oliver-Eakle originally came to Amarillo to visit her brothers John and James Callaway, but after her husband, William Oliver, industrialist and principal stockholder of Mississippi Mills, then the South’s largest textile manufacturer died in 1891, she returned to the High Plains and bought land in Potter and Randall counties. She would then move to Amarillo permanently in 1895.
TSHA added she caused a stir among those in Amarillo when she arrived with her fine horses, carriage, and household servants, who were said to be the first Blacks in Amarillo. Soon she would be labeled the “Duchess.”
“She was an amazing businesswoman, they say that her wealth exceeded the wealth of the city of Amarillo and that during the depression she lent money to Amarillo and developed several businesses because she was able to withstand the Great Depression,” said Duke.
Duke added the reason Oliver-Eakle used her initials most times was because some people didn’t want to do business with a woman.
According to the TSHA, in 1902, Melissa Dora married O. M. Eakle, an organizer of the Amarillo National Bank and the first president of the Amarillo Board of Trade, and in 1903, M.D. filed with the city a residential plat that comprised part of the land she had bought in 1891. This residential development she platted is the Plemons-Eakle Neighborhood, which is a National Register historic district and the initial development included the Washington Street campus of Amarillo College and the adjacent Memorial Park.
According to the TSHA, she gave the city Oliver-Eakle Park. Oliver-Eakle also helped finance the Amarillo Opera House and also helped establish the Tri-State Fair.
According to TSHA, in 1927, she completed Amarillo’s first skyscraper, the ten-story Oliver-Eakle Building. Her grandson, Bourdon Barfield, would later rename the historic building the Barfield Building in 1947. Oliver-Eakle had sponsored the local temperance movement, but despite her intolerance for liquor, she had a speakeasy in the basement of The Barfield.
The Governor’s Commission for Women Vice Chairwoman Amy Henderson said due to Oliver-Eakle’s nomination and due to her passing away in 1931, they decided to honor her in a different way.
“The commission will now have its first pioneer woman induction into the hall of fame and Melissa Oliver-Eakle will be our inaugural woman, pioneer woman inducted. I think that is really cool and I think it’s really special, especially from Amarillo, that our first inaugural pioneer woman is from Amarillo,” said Henderson.
Henderson said it’s super special to have Oliver-Eakle create this new category in the hall of fame.
“You know up here in Amarillo, up here in the Panhandle, we feel like we are overlooked sometimes. We are really pull yourself up by your bootstrap type of community and to have the first pioneer woman inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame is very special to me,” said Henderson.
Duke said it’s exciting to share Oliver-Eakle’s story.
“I think the unwritten histories of some of these pioneers, whether they are women or from a minority group or whatever, it’s just exciting that we are now bringing some of those stories to life because they are to the richness of Texas history…This was a real person who had the vision to make Amarillo a real destination even back in the 20s and her name belongs on the Plemons-Eakle neighborhood, it’s only two national historic neighborhoods in Amarillo and that is a mark of pride that all these landmarks continue her legacy and Oliver-Eakle park, there is a historical marker to her, but how many times have we driven by and not really known the person it stood for, so I think this is a great way to keep her story alive,” said Duke.
Henderson said she doesn’t have words to describe what it means to highlight the women going into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.
“Most of the time, these women have their heads down and they are just grinding it out, they are trying to balance life and kids and family and then do these amazing things to help Texas foster its economy with science or business or philanthropy, I think it’s a really important recognization,” said Henderson.
Henderson added these inductions showcase what leaders these women are.
“It really casts a light on their efforts and what true leaders they are in the state of Texas and then it will also inspire other women, and not just women, but everybody to inspire to keep grasping and keep inspiring and keep pushing forward for greater things beyond themselves,” said Henderson.
The only other person from Amarillo inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame is Sybil B. Harrington, who was a 1996-1997 inductee.