John Howard Parnell
John Howard Parnell (1843-1923), a native of Ireland, settled in Chambers County for some years and established the Sunny South Fruit Farm, where he cultivated and marketed peaches and cotton for more than a decade. His farm provided an important source of employment and credit in east-central Alabama in the economically depressed years after the Civil War, but he did not originate commercial peach production in the South, as commonly believed. John’s brother Charles visited the United States and Alabama in the early 1870s and would return to Ireland to lead the Irish home rule movement.
John Howard Parnell Parnell was born in 1843, the fifth child of John Henry Parnell, an Irish landowner, and Delia Stewart Parnell, the American daughter of Adm. Charles “Old Ironsides” Stewart, who commanded the USS Constitution during the War of 1812. He was educated in Paris by a tutor and attended the Chipping Norton School in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, and the School of Mining in Dublin, Ireland. When his father died in 1859, Parnell received a sizable monetary inheritance, but his younger brother Charles inherited the family estate of Avondale. John Parnell sought to increase his wealth by investing in the United States economy. Responding to an 1866 advertisement in a New York newspaper, he purchased 1,482 acres of land from Col. George Huguley for $12,000 in cash near River View in Chambers County, intending to establish a plantation. He brought with him William and Margaret Merna from Ireland to serve respectively as plantation manager and housekeeper. Parnell arrived in Alabama in 1867 and established the Sunny South Farm. Although not large compared to cotton plantations in Alabama’s Black Belt region, the plantation employed local labor and became a significant agricultural enterprise in the Chattahoochee Valley.
Parnell’s most significant contributions to life in rural east Alabama were his humanitarian efforts on behalf of citizens who had suffered economic hardship as a result of the Civil War and its aftermath. When the local cotton mill in River View burned in 1870, he brought all the workers to his farm and provided them with employment and temporary housing. He also established the Parnell Mercantile Company, reputed to be the largest general store east of Montgomery, which assisted farmers who had been ruined financially by the war by extending them credit. Parnell would put many thousands of dollars into circulation in the area by the time he returned to Ireland. His generosity and public spiritedness was much appreciated and remembered fondly by local residents long afterwards. The Mernas, incidentally, were instrumental in establishing the Holy Family Catholic Church in nearby Lanett.
Charles Stewart Parnell The most notable event during Parnell’s residence in Chambers County was a prolonged visit by his brother in 1872. Charles Parnell had become engaged to an American heiress the preceding year, but she had a change of heart, informing Charles that he was not notable enough for her. He pursued her from Europe to New England to no effect and then retreated to his brother’s farm in the early summer of 1872. John took him partridge hunting and on tours of the region, and the brothers also explored investment opportunities in the Birmingham mining and iron industries. Their efforts were halted by a train derailment on the South & North Alabama Railroad in which Charles was seriously injured. This event would combine with Charles’ distaste for the living conditions on Sunny South Farm, the region’s climate and cuisine, and his antipathy for the Black laborers on John’s farm to permanently color the younger Parnell’s view of the South. It was ironic that the man who would later champion the peasants of his homeland had scant appreciation for the culture of the lower classes and recently emancipated enslaved people on the farm.
Although Charles first sided with the abolitionists of the North, he gradually veered towards the “Lost Cause” view of the South, which, like his native Ireland, he perceived as an underdog consisting of oppressed people fighting for freedom. These sympathies were reinforced by the harsh retributions of Reconstruction he witnessed. These experiences became the underpinning of his home rule platform that the younger Parnell, dubbed “The Uncrowned King of Ireland,” would espouse in the British Houses of Parliament over the next decade.
Avondale House John Parnell was not a successful businessman or horticulturist. In 1884, he sold his farm to A. M. Eady Company for $5,068 and moved to Cowles Station (now Milstead, Macon County) near Montgomery, where he lived and continued to cultivate peaches on the plantation of Benjamin Winston Walker. Parnell returned to Ireland in the early 1890s and inherited Avondale following his brother’s death in 1891. He found it heavily mortgaged, however, and soon sold it. He served as an Irish Nationalist Member of Parliament from 1895 to 1900 and then as City Marshal and Register of Pawnbrokers in Dublin. He married Olivia Isabella Smythe, a widow, in 1907. John Parnell died on May 3, 1923, at his home in Glenageary, Ireland.
John Parnell Memorial Park Although he never returned to Alabama, Parnell left a lasting mark on Chattahoochee Valley folklore. Its most striking aspect, which has long lingered in the hearts and minds of heritage-seekers, is the myth that Parnell initiated commercial peach-growing in the South. Contrary to popular predilections, his importance lay not in his agricultural enterprises but in the world-wide fame of his brother and the well-intentioned efforts of local boosters to gain a greater degree of recognition for their region. His presence in Alabama was memorialized in 2001 when a contingent of the Parnell Society of Dublin visited the site of the Sunny South Farm and planted a line of peach trees along River Road in front of the West Point Stevens Company warehouse. It was designated the John Parnell Memorial Park.
Fair, John D. “Parnell and Peaches: A Study in the Construction of Historical Myth.” Alabama Review 58 (April 2005): 113-35.
Fair, John D., and Cordelia C. Humphrey. “The Alabama Dimension to the Political Thought of Charles Stewart Parnell.” Alabama Review 52 (January 1999): 21-50.
“John Howard Parnell” surname files, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
“John Howard Parnell” folder, J. R. Rutland Papers, Auburn University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, Auburn, Alabama.
Parnell, John Howard. Charles Stewart Parnell, A Memoir. London: Constable & Co., 1916.
Quinlan, Kieran. Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
Tillery, Floyd. “Parnell’s Brother.” Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, October 11, 1936.