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Joseph Merrill was a successful philanthropist who made a difference for the lives of young people in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), primarily through his support of African-American schools in Pine Bluff. He was also the founder of the Merrill Institute.
Joseph Merrill, the youngest child of William and Mary Merrill, was born in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, around 1810. He had two brothers and one sister. He started his trade of shoemaking at the age of eleven years old and worked until he was twenty-one years old in Boston, Massachusetts. Then he moved to Sidney, Ohio, and worked there for a few years. His health turned bad, and in December 1835, he moved south to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to improve his well-being. For twelve years, he was a clerk at a general merchandise store for James Du Baun. In 1847, Du Baun transferred Merrill to his Pine Bluff store.
Merrill married Elizabeth Olive Harding, a Kentucky native, on January 3,1855, in Pine Bluff. Elizabeth was the daughter of pioneer Pine Bluffians Dexter and Jane Allen Harding.
Joseph and Elizabeth’s first daughter, Mary Olive Merrill, was born on June 23, 1856. On November 26, 1857, Elizabeth died shortly after the birth of their second child. Their ten-day-old unnamed infant daughter was buried with her mother at Bellwood Cemetery on December 1.
Joseph had opened his own mercantile business by 1854, but he sold his business in 1860. He became a postmaster and was able to use his earnings to invest in property after the Civil War ended in 1865. He became a planter, and by 1889, he had accumulated 900 acres of land.
In 1886, Merrill sold a block of land and a two-story house between Mulberry, Linden, Scull, and Pullen streets to the Pine Bluff School District for $4,000. Merrill generously donated money to African Americans to remodel the house into a five-room schoolhouse. The board changed the name of the school to the Merrill Public School. Part of the school burned, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) restored the gymnasium building in 1939. It was turned into the general office of the Jefferson Comprehensive Care System Head Start Program during the 1980s.
On May 27, 1890, Joseph Merrill opened the Merrill Institute, which consisted of a library and swimming pool, among other rooms. This was the first home of Pine Bluff’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Later, the building was remodeled by the City Park Commission and completed by March 11, 1937. The swimming pool was left intact due the high costs and was covered with a bowling alley.
On July 22, 1890, Joseph Merrill died at the age of eighty years in Springfield, Ohio, at the home of one of his relatives. His body was shipped back home. The funeral was held at the Merrill Institute in Pine Bluff and had what was the second largest funeral procession in living memory. At his death, Merrill left a trust fund worth $175,000 to the Merrill Institute, which has since been used to aid the Boys Club, Teen Town, and the YMCA.
For additional information:“At Rest.” Pine Bluff Graphic. August 1, 1890, p. 3.
“Joseph Merrill Dead.” Pine Bluff Graphic. July 25, 1890, p. 3.
Leslie, James W. Land of the Cypress and Pine. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1976.
Brenda J. HallWhite Hall, Arkansas
Last Updated 11/12/2008
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