J.W. Parmley: Booster Extraordinaire, Or “a remarkable man of incredible energy”

New South Dakota towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century each had prominent men (primarily) of the community who hoped that their town would soon be a metropolis.  They worked tirelessly to build the town’s capacity and reputation–investing heavily in commerce, construction, infrastructure, transportation, and local government.  They believed that investment, labor, and technology should be used to their limit extent to improve and/or capitalize on available natural resources.  Although the previous statements were blatant generalizations, J.W. Parmley of Ipswich, Edmunds County, Dakota Territory was a quintessential Progressive-Era booster for Ipswich, for good roads, for progressive agriculture, for hydroelectric development, for world peace, and more.  He had to have been spread thin, but seemed to be an effective supporter of each effort with a great ability to inspire and organize other people.  From a 1915 biographical essay, “he looks at life from a wide standpoint, recognizes the opportunities for national and world progress and attacks everything with a contagious enthusiasm” [Kingsbury, History of Dakota, v.4, 32].

J.W. Parmley was born in 1861 to parents who had immigrated from England.  He was raised on a farm in Wisconsin and attended Lawrence University in Appleton.  In 1883, Parmley arrived by rail at Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, and headed just west to Roscoe.  The year 1883 was the same year that Edmunds County was organized.  In 1886, he married Melissa E. Baker and they eventually had two children, Loren and Irene (m. Trotzig).  He studied law for a time and, in 1887, passed the state bar examination, but did not practice law as a profession.

Early Initiatives

By 1900, he had built the Parmley Land Office, a small stone building that housed his Edmunds County Abstract Co. until the local settlement boom slowed in 1910.  At least in one case, in 1909, Parmley personally led a group of potential settlers out to view the parcels for sale.  In the 1900 and 1910 census, this work was characterized by the occupation “real estate agent.”  These land agents were in most South Dakota towns making their living by connecting potential settlers with property in their area.  Located at 115 Main, the land office became a small museum in 2005.

Parmley Land Office_Ipswich_NR Photo

Former Parmley Land Office, National Register photograph courtesy of the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office.

J.W. Parmley started the Roscoe Herald newspaper in 1883, which he merged with the South Dakota Tribune into the Ipswich Tribune in 1910, and Parmley was able to use his position as editor for free rail fares to travel and speak around the state and to attend State Press Association meetings.  He sold the Tribune in 1911 to B.P. Jackson and C.J. Jackson.

Parmley was one of the directors and vice-presidents of the 1893 Harvest Festival and Exposition, with accompanying Inter-state Grain Palace, in Aberdeen.  He and a Mr. Lewellyn designed the Edmunds County exhibit of a county map made with grass and grasses.  The Aberdeen Festival lasted until their exhibition building burned in 1902.  In 1909, Parmley worked with the Ipswich Commercial Club in their efforts to make an Ipswich Corn Palace.  It was built as a (relatively small) 16 x 48 ft. timber structure wrapped with panels decorated with corn cobs, first reading “Edmunds County” then “Ipswich, S.D.”  The display was erected on Main Street near the depot to be seen by all travelers and visitors.  It was on display at least through the 1920s.  The later design also used swastikas at the corners–a symbol at the time for the peace movement (see later note on Parmley’s involvement with the international peace movement).

See an image of the earlier Ipswich Corn Palace design on the South Dakota Archives Digital Collections at this link.

He also promoted hydroelectric development of the Missouri River in the 1910s-1920s, with the attitude that the unharnessed, wasted river’s power should be developed to support profitable ventures in South Dakota, including more intensive agriculture and extractive industries like rock quarries and mining.  For a time, he was president of the South Dakota Hydro League, which coordinated advocacy for hydroelectric development.  He threw particular support behind a local dam project that created Mina Lake, now called Parmley Dam.

Parmley and Good Roads

Parmley was an avid advocate of the Good Roads movement, purchasing his first automobile in 1905.  In 1905 and 1907, Parmley was elected to the state legislature, and supported legislation that would enable counties to collect funds for road development.  (He also worked on legislation for farmers institutes and prison reforms.)  The legislation was defeated at the time, because of opposition from farmers who suspected the road improvements would only be made for major roads and that increased auto traffic would interfere with local trade (particularly by scaring the women who went to local markets…) [The Aberdeen Democrat (SD), February 15, 1907].  Other commentary noted that farmers were not opposed to road improvements themselves, but to the provisions of the bill for centralized county authority over the improvements, preferring instead that townships be given charge of organizing the work.  Eventually, in 1911, a Good Roads bill did pass the state legislature, leaving small projects under $500 to the authority of the townships and larger projects to the counties.

Parmley invested his own resources in road development, and he was an advocate through public speeches around the state and in newspaper editorials.  Parmley spearheaded the Yellowstone Trail Association.  It started with a project he led to build a 26-mile graded road between Ipswich and Aberdeen (particularly because of Helgerson Slough, a spot where travelers habitually got stuck), which was named the Parmley Highway.  The inertia led to the grading of a 70-mile road continuing west to Mobridge.  It grew from that into the Twin Cities-Aberdeen-Yellowstone Park Trail and then into a coast-to-coast road from Massachusetts to Washington, “from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound.”

In 1912, the Yellowstone Trail Association had its inaugural meeting at Lemmon with participants from South Dakota and Minnesota, and Parmley was elected president.  It was reportedly the first organized highway in the country (although the Lincoln Highway Association came about at close to the same time).  On May 12, 1912, the Association held Trail Day.  Businesses along the route closed so that “thousands of townspeople and farmers [could spend] the day on the road with shovels, picks, split-log drags, graders, and tractors” [Clark, “Wonders,” 8].  The Association set up a staffed office in Aberdeen.  It determined the route (through Ipswich), advocated local capacity for grading and maintenance, monitored its condition, and created maps of the route for distribution at hotels and garages.  Bridges at the Powder River in Custer County, Montana and the Little Missouri River at Marmarth, North Dakota proved especially daunting projects for financial, political, or practical reasons, and the gravel boulevard at 5%-grade over the Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade mountains of Washington was considered a “brilliant achievement” in engineering [Clark, “Wonders,” 8].  Eventually, improvements were made all along the route, largely funded with local bonds and initiatives.  Different regions marked the trail in different ways with signs or stone markers.

“There have been road enthusiasts and road enthusiasts, but it is doubtful if there ever were any others just like the Yellowstone Trail boosters.”
— F.L. Clark, “Wonders of the Yellowstone Trail,” The Road-Maker 11(2) (May 1917), 7


Issue in which F.L. Clark’s article “Wonders of the Yellowstone Trail” appears.

On May 15, 1915, Parmley went with driver W.R. Payne and two reporters in a Studebaker Six across 350 (or thereabouts) miles of South Dakota on a publicized promotional tour along the Trail from Lemmon, SD to Ortonville, MN.  Despite rain, it took 16 hours and 15 (or 21) minutes, just over their 16 hour projection.  Good roads promoters along the route had pre-arranged with law enforcement that the car wouldn’t be stopped for speeding…  [Pierre Weekly Free Press (SD), May 20, 1915].  In September 1916, the War Department sent a message with a driver over the whole route of mostly gravel roads to Fort Lawton in Seattle that took only 121 hours and 12 minutes. The Trail is now U.S. Highway 12 and the last segment was hard-surfaced in 1950.  For a time, Parmley promoted a “Canada to Coast” highway from Manitoba to the Panama Canal, but that highway was not completed.  He also served as president of the South Dakota Good Roads Association from its founding in 1912 through at least 1916.

Marked highways became popular in the 1910s-20s for encouraging tourism.  Like the Yellowstone Trail, and approximately at the same time, the Black and Yellow Trail Association was well organized and kept an office in Huron.  It ran from Chicago through Brookings, Pierre, and the Black Hills to Yellowstone Park, now U.S. Highway 14.  It was at a Black and Yellow Trail convention that state historian Doane Robinson first made public an idea to carve monumental sculpture in the Black Hills as a tourist destination [See more at “Cora B. Johnson and Other Mount Rushmore Critics“].  Named highways are still used in cases like the Lewis & Clark Scenic Byway that follows Highways 1804 and 1806 (the years of the expedition going out and coming back) along the Missouri River and the Oyate Trail that follows U.S. Highway 18 through several Dakota and Lakota reservations.

Good roads in South Dakota were promoted for commercial capacity (farm-to-market roads) and for tourism development for the Black Hills.  Good Roads associations filled a gap between the desire of businessmen looking for viable transportation routes and the delay in government response.  Parmley’s first proposed legislation for enabling county highway organization in 1907 was defeated.  By 1912, many “trunk” highways had been initialized including the Meridian Highway running north/south through Yankton (modern US Highway 81), the Sioux City trail from Sioux City to Chamberlain (modern SD Highway 50), two east/west highways across the Missouri River at Chamberlain (SD Highway 16, later US Interstate 90) and at Pierre (SD Highway 34), and an east/west highway from Watertown to Belle Fourche (US Highway 212).  The Meridian Highway was organized at a state level, but many county good roads associations supported the other routes.  In 1913, South Dakota established a state highway commission but provided no funding.  One of their early priorities was to regulate signage erected by the many private highway associations.   In 1919, it finally became operational after the federal government provided matching funds.  In 1925, Parmley was appointed South Dakota Highway Commissioner.

Other Interests

On March 6, 1921, Parmley organized an interest meeting in Aberdeen to organize the Yellowstone Aerial Association to promote an airline that would connect South Dakota to the West Coast.  Many landing strips were built in various communities, but in those early days of air travel, the airline never came to pass.

On a farm extending along most of the north edge of Ipswich, Parmley raised Shetland ponies from 1903 to 1940.  Initially, the ponies were purchased to encourage his son who suffered croup and asthma to spend time outside, but they also became a popular local attraction.  At the farm, Parmley espoused progressive agriculture, buying the first manure spreader in the area and building the first silo to promote those innovations in agricultural practice. Like many other large farms, he participated with the South Dakota State Agricultural College’s experimental programs to find crop seed for wheat, alfalfa, corn, flax, and other crops that would perform better in South Dakota’s semi-arid conditions.  He also lectured on progressive agriculture in various venues, like at the opening celebration of a cooperative creamery in Groton in 1913.

In 1919-20, the Parmleys built a “fireproof” house in town constructed substantially with concrete block and brick in a popular Craftsman bungalow style.  Items brought back from his travels, including shells, were embedded in the two rubble stone fireplaces.  Other stone collected by Parmley was used as part of the city’s 1928 Memorial Arch over the highway.  The house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and has been open as a museum since 1983.


Parmley House, c.1980, photo from the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office.

In 1912, Parmley served as the first president of the South Dakota Peace Society (a part of a world peace movement with similar organizations in many states under the American Peace Society) and became involved in establishing the International Peace Garden on the border between North Dakota and Manitoba in 1932.  He was a popular lecturer on peace until his death, an early topic having been “Better Roads or Battleships,” and another “War’s Waste of Men and Money.”


Moritzen, The Peace Movement in America (1912), 126.

To show the breadth of his activity, Parmley also:

  • was appointed  the first superintendent of schools for Edmunds County upon its organization in 1883
  • was register of deeds, county clerk, and county judge
  • served on the State Brand and Mark Committee in 1900-02
  • was a director and eventual owner of the Aberdeen Pressed Brick Plant at Mina
  • was part owner of the McPherson County Abstract Co. in Leola
  • was active in the South Dakota Corn Growers and Breeders Association, 1907
  • ran for lieutenant governor in 1910
  • held several offices in state’s Republican party campaigns, like chairmanship of Republican enrollment committee in 1913
  • was a county director for the State Horticultural Society in 1914
  • promoted the temperance movement, including speaking at the state Dry Convention in 1915
  • served as a trustee of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell
  • served as chairman of the War Labor Board of the Edmunds County Council of Defense in 1921 (maybe connected to his road-building work…)
  • served on the Mount Rushmore Advisory Commission
  • was nominated to the South Dakota Board of Regents in 1933.

J.W. Parmley passed away in 1940 and was buried at Ipswich Southside Cemetery.


The Aberdeen Democrat (SD), February 15-22, 1907.

The Advocate of Peace (April 1912), 87. [via Google Books]

American Co-operative Journal 9(4) (December 1913), 323. [via Google Books]

American Highway Association. Good Roads Year Book (Washington D.C.:AHA, 1914 and 1916), 426. [via Google Books]

Biennial Report of the Attorney General of the State of South Dakota, 1911-1912 (Pierre: Hipple Printing Co., 1912), 715. [via Google Books]

Brick and Clay Record (June 3, 1919), 1009. [via Google Books]

Bucklin, Steven J. “Fly-Over Country?: A Glimpse of South Dakota through Its Aviation History.” South Dakota History 45(2) (Summer 2015), 103.

The Citizen-Republican (Scotland SD), March 9, 1905-May 20, 1915.

City of Ipswich website pages on “History,” “J.W. Parmley,” “The Yellowstone Trail,” “J.W. Parmley Museum,” and “Memorial Arch.”

Clark, F.L. “Wonders of the Yellowstone Trail,” The Road-Maker 11(2) (May 1917), 7-9.

Coursey, O.W. Who’s Who in South Dakota, Vol. 2. Mitchell SD: Educator Supply Company, 1916. [via Google Books]

Evans, Rod. Palaces on the Prairie. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 2009 (pgs. 109-140).

Hansen, N.E. Cooperative Tests of Alfalfa from Siberia and European Russia (Mitchell SD: Mitchell Publishing Co., 1913), 40. [via Google Books]

—–, Ed. Eleventh Annual Report of the State Horticultural Society (Aberdeen SD: News Printing Co., 1914), 197. [via Google Books]

Hot Springs Weekly Star (SD), March 3, 1910-July 19, 1912 [via Chronicling America – LOC]

Julin, Suzanne. A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles: Black Hills Tourism, 1880-1941. Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2009 (pgs. 27-28).

Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory, Vol. 4 (1915), 28-32.

Laws passed at the Seventh Session of the Legislature of the State of South Dakota (Aberdeen: J.F. Kelley & Co., 1901), lxvi. [via Google Books]

Lee, Shebby. “Traveling the Sunshine State: The Growth of Tourism in South Dakota, 1914-1939.” South Dakota History (1989), 194-223.

Meeks, Harold. “On the Road to Yellowstone: The Yellowstone Trail and American Highways 1900-1930.” Lincoln Highway OH website. Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2000.  [Includes link to U.S. map with the highway marked, although it’s not very sharp…]

The Mitchell Capital (SD), December 20, 1907-January 20, 1910. [via Chronicling America – LOC]

Moritzen, Julius. “The Farmer as a Peace Ally.” The Peace Movement of America (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912), 119. [via Google Books]

National Register of Historic Places nominations for Parmley Land Office (NRIS #79002402) and J.W. Parmley House (#80003720).

“A Palace of Grain,” Milling 17(9)(September 1893), 355-356. [via Google Books]

Paper Trade Journal (November 30, 1911), 52. [via Google Books]

Parmley, J.W. “The Undeveloped Possibilities of Electricity in South Dakota,” Proceedings of the South Dakota Academy of Science (1917), 32-39. [via Google Books]

Pierre Weekly Free Press (SD), July 25, 1912-May 20, 1915. [via Chronicling America – LOC]

Popp, Richard L. South Dakota 1900-1930, in Vintage Postcards. Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001. [via Google Books]

Ridge, Alice A. “Joseph Parmley, Dreamer and Builder of the Yellowstone Trail.” The Arrow 21 (February 2012), 8-9.

Rock Products 24 (July 30, 1921), 49. [via Google Books]

“South Dakota Calls,” Public Ownership 5(2) (February 1923), 16. [via Google Books]

Standard Atlas of Edmunds County, South Dakota (Chicago: Geo. A. Ogle & Co., 1916), 29.

Stephens, Dan. “Black & Yellow Trail: The Road to Sturgis,” Motorcycle Magazine: Sturgis Motorcycle Museum (2016), 54-60.

“Thirty-Sixth Annual Convention South Dakota Bankers,” Commercial West (June 17, 1922), 18. [via Google Books]

Turner County Herald (Hurley, SD), February 21, 1907-September 16, 1915 [via Chronicling America – LOC]

U.S. Census Bureau. Tenth Census of the United States. Mifflin, Iowa County WI, ED #154 (June 11, 1880), 18.

—–. Twelfth Census of the United States. Ipswich, Edmunds County SD, ED #141 (June 8, 1900), 5.

—–. Thirteenth Census of the United States, Ipswich, Edmunds County SD, ED #174 (April 21, 1910), 5A.

—–. Sixteenth Census of the United States, Ipswich, Edmunds County SD, ED #23-20 (April 8, 1940), 5A.

Wysk, Greg A. “Dakota Images: Joseph W. Parmley,” South Dakota History 29(4) (2000), 364.

Other Links:

J.W. Parmley,” on Wikipedia. References: Joseph Parmley Trotzig, Joe Parmley: South Dakota Pioneer and Roadbuilder (Marco Island, FL: Giztort Graphics, 2002) and Ralph W. Bebermeyer, “J.W. Parmley,” J.W. Parmley Historical Society. Edmunds County, SD. 1983.

Joseph William Lincoln Parmley,” on Find-a-Grave website. With photos of Parmley as a portrait and in an early car with the pennant “Yellowstone Trail” from his 1915 promotional trip.

Bedeau, Michael. “Yellowstone Trail,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2004.

Notes on J.W. Parmley Papers at the Archives and Special Collections of the University of South Dakota.

Parmley House, 1983, South Dakota Digital Archives, SDSHS.

A photo of him later in life, SD4History, SDSHS.


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