We think of Memorial Day as one of the quiet holidays. It's a day for visiting cemeteries or, perhaps, sleeping late.
Sixty or 70 years ago, though, there wasn't much sleeping late on the ordinarily quiet residential streets of North Knoxville near the old Brownlow School. It's hard to sleep when an old man is out on the sidewalk, whaling away on a snare drum.
The old man with the drum was Martin Parmelee. He was, at the time, a distinguished architect whose buildings included UT's library, apartment buildings, and several churches. But in his later years, he came to be better known for a previous distinction. Many believed him to be Knoxville's last surviving Union veteran.
I first heard about him through Al Heins, who's one of several people I wouldn't know unless I occasionally had a BLT at the counter of Pete's Cafe on Union Avenue. Back in the '30s, Heins lived on East Glenwood, near old Brownlow School, near Parmelee's house. "He'd be out there on the sidewalk with his drum, every Memorial Day," Heins recalls.
Al referred me to one of his old neighbors. Dean Barber is a genial retiree, a former business executive who happens to be Martin Parmelee's grandson. He supplied me with the old man's story.
Parmelee grew up in the town of Juneau, Wisconsin, where his father was postmaster. At 9, he heard rumors of war. "We didn't know who the Negro people were," he later recalled. His mother told him that "the North was going to try to get the Southern people to treat the Negroes like human beings...." To Parmelee, the North and South were the sides of his family's farm; he thought the war would be fought right there in Wisconsin. Naturally, he was interested.
He picked up the drums first by banging on a tin can with whittled drumsticks and joined a small band—two fifers, three drummers—that became the official accompaniment of the 29th Wisconsin Regiment.
Early in the war their job was mainly to inspire recruits. "We felt that we were full-fledged soldiers," he once said, "and were treated as such."
He once responded, "Suffice it to say that, were it made known to me that I would be compelled to pass through my war experiences again, I would say, 'give me death instead.'"
We don't know just what the boy passed through, but in 1863, after a couple of small battles, the Wisconsin 29th endured weeks of trench warfare in the siege of Vicksburg.
When he heard of his father's final illness in 1864, Parmelee returned home, a seasoned child of 12.
Parmelee graduated from Wayland University in 1873, and had the makings of a fine career in the Midwest, known for designing the regional headquarters of the Chatauqua fellowship. He married and had a few kids. Then, at the age of 36, he began losing weight. His doctor gave him a startling prognosis. Move to a warmer climate, he said, or you may not live six more months.
Parmelee didn't wait to endure another Wisconsin winter. That October, 1888, Parmelee packed a couple of family cows into a freight car and rode with them in the freight car to the unfamiliar city of Knoxville; his wife and five kids followed in a passenger car.
His grandson's not sure why he picked Knoxville; its dominance by old Unionists may have had something to do with it. In 1888, Knoxville also had a reputation, not altogether deserved, as a health spa; resorts like Fountain City advertised their medicinal mineral waters.
Something worked; Parmelee's health, and weight, returned rapidly.
His first business partner was fellow Midwesterner George Barber, soon to be a nationally successful architect of Victorian homes. Parmelee later established his own firm, but the Barber and Parmelee families stayed close, and intermarried. Dean Barber's descended from both.
Parmelee designed his own home on East Glenwood in 1907. Throughout his success as an architect, Parmelee remained proud of his three childhood years traveling with the 29th. He always turned out for the May holiday to commemorate the Union dead.
Barber recalls his grandfather in the Union parades down Gay Street when he was in his 70s. Later on, in his 80s, he preferred to ride in the back of a truck or convertible, a member of an increasingly rare fraternity of Union veterans; still, he played his snare drum. Barber remembers him practicing before the parades on his front porch on East Glenwood. "He had several different rhythms," Barber says: the marching rhythms of the 29th.
The last time Parmelee is known to have played his old Union snare drum on Memorial Day was in 1944, just days before D-Day. He was 92, and not strong enough to attend the parade, but, indulging visitors, he banged on it some inside his house on East Glenwood.
He died there in late 1945, the newspapers reported, "with a framed likeness of his revered Lincoln looking down from the wall."
Parmelee's house is still there, in a state of mid-renovation, on the western fringe of the gentrified Fourth and Gill neighborhood.
At his West Knoxville home, Parmelee's grandson still treasures the wooden snare drum, a little the worse for wear, its sheepskin head still intact but no longer strong enough to take much of a beating. It's marked with the names of the soldiers of the 29th Wisconsin.