In the early 1700’s on Amelia Island, the duty of taking care of a loved one was left to the family and friends. Following the civil war, the reconstruction period began and by 1875 the original location of Fernandina moved from “old town” on the north end of the island to its current location. By then, funeral establishments began to open in nearby Jacksonville. When someone passed away here, one of the Jacksonville firms would be summoned and an undertaker would travel to Fernandina by train to care for the deceased. The undertaker usually stayed at the home of the family until the funeral services were complete. In the fall of 1877, the yellow fever epidemic devastated the town and many of the residents died as a result. Doctors from the surrounding areas came here to assist with the contagious disease, including Dr. John Denham Palmer, a noted civil war surgeon. By the end of 1877, the fever was conquered. Dr. Palmer remained here and built a beautiful home on Atlantic Avenue.
Around 1890, Estelle Sibley Rogers settled in Fernandina and opened the first funeral home. Estelle Rogers Funeral Director was located in a large three story home at #12 North Fifth Street. Mrs. Rogers was one of the first “lady” funeral directors in the state of Florida. She also served as secretary of the Florida Funeral Directors Association. In later years, she was assisted in the business by her grandson Conley S. Boothe.
By 1931, Mrs. Rogers decided to retire after almost 45 years of service to Fernandina and Nassau county. She passed away in 1952. Joseph McCall Oxley came to Fernandina from St. Marys, GA., in 1931 and acquired the funeral home from Mrs. Rogers. He renamed it Oxley Funeral Home. His brother Dean O. Oxley and E.C. “Buddy” Burgess also assisted at the funeral home. Mr. Oxley married the former Margaret Pickett of Callahan, FL. They had two children, Joan Oxley and Joseph McCall “Chip” Oxley, Jr.
In 1947, the historic Dr. John Denham Palmer house at 1305 Atlantic Avenue was purchased by Mr. Oxley and the funeral home was relocated from downtown to its present location. After years of service to our community, Mr. Oxley passed away on August 17, 1957 at the age of 49.
Mrs. Oxley continued to operate the business assisted by her cousin E.C.”Buddy” Burgess. In 1961, Harold R. Brackett, joined the firm. On July 1, 1974 Mrs. Oxley sold the business to John H. Heard of Moultrie, GA. The name later changed to Oxley-Heard Funeral Directors.
In 1991 Phillip T. Byrd came to Oxley-Heard and served as Vice President of the company until September of 2017.
Buddy Burgess was associated with the funeral home until his death on April 10, 1994. Following his death, the new Oxley-Heard Chapel was renamed the Burgess Chapel in his memory.
Mrs. Oxley retired to her summer home in North Carolina in 1974 and passed away on May 16, 2000.
Harold Bracket remained at Oxley-Heard Funeral Directors for 45 years. He passed away on January 19, 2006.
Today Oxley-Heard Funeral Directors is one of the oldest continuous businesses in Fernandina Beach and Nassau County.
The John Denham Palmer Home
That magnificent white doubled-galleried Key West Style Mansion at 1305 Atlantic Avenue, known today as Oxley-Heard Funeral Home, was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 3rd, 1986. It is truly remarkable how the integrity of the 1891 structure has been maintained throughout many usages. Over the decades, it has been a private residence, a hospital, a company accommodation with a cafeteria, a funeral home and allegedly even a bordello.
Today, in its usage as a funeral home, the past is nicely intact. The 12 ft. ceilings haven‘t been lowered to save on heating and cooling costs. The 2” thick heart pine floors are carpeted for quiet and safety but are still perfectly preserved. The heart pine stair rail and newel post gleam in a natural state, unpainted. The pocket doors about 10 ft. high are not the easiest to open and close, but they have been retained. Grass cloth had to be used on the walls because the original plaster has so many cracks that ordinary wallpaper could not hide them. The front steps leading up to the front porch have been rebuilt just like the originals.
The original house was basically square with a central hallway, an East and West Parlor in front, a dining (now the chapel) behind the East parlor and a downstairs bedroom behind the West parlor with the kitchen out back. The second floor, still with the nice high ceilings, contained more bedrooms, and the third floor was an unfinished attic. The house was built high off the ground with close-to-standing room in the basement. Out back was a carriage house, later converted to servants’ quarters.
When plumbing was put in sometime around the 1920’s, the structure was expanded in the rear. After the present owner Jack Heard, acquired the property and the business, he added offices in the rear which look as “old” as the original rooms because of the same dimensions and similar trim; Heard credits the care and craftsmanship of contractor Jim Thomas with good results.
Hanging in the back hall on the main floor is the certificate announcing the listing on the National Register, designating it the “The John Denham Palmer House”. So who was he?
According to the wife of a descendant, Mrs. Tom Palmer, John Denham Palmer was born on July 14, 1850, the son of Dr. Thomas Martin Palmer of Monticello, Florida, a Civil War surgeon and one of the first presidents of the Florida Medical Association. The son was usually called by his middle name, Denham, his mother’s family name.
Dr. J. Denham Palmer’s name, unfortunately, recalls a sad chapter of Fernandina history…the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1877. A History of Medicine in Duval County by Dr. Webster Merritt mentions Dr. J. Denham Palmer in 1877 as rumors of yellow fever in Fernandina reached Jacksonville. In late August, a City Health officer from Jacksonville named Dr. A.W. Knight came to inspect the situation in Fernandina. He was accompanied by a Fernandina Health Officer, Dr. Pope and Dr. J. Denham Palmer as he inspected the stricken and the dead.
On Dr. Knight’s recommendation, the Jacksonville Board of Health quarantined against Fernandina on September 1st. The people of Fernandina were quite incensed and even Dr. Palmer wrote a letter to a Jacksonville doctor denying there was yellow fever in Fernandina, and the letter appeared in the newspaper. A second inspection trip was planned but then cancelled when, on September 7th, the Fernandina Health officer, Dr. Pope and Mayor Riddle officially notified the Jacksonville Board of Health that yellow fever was prevailing in Fernandina. Quarantine officers were stationed on roads and waterways to stop all traffic from Fernandina into Jacksonville.
The epidemic was so bad by mid-September that local physicians appealed for help. An early volunteer was Dr. Francis Preston Wellford, who was honored in the beautiful stained glass window in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church because he died in service here. Apparently, Dr. J. Denham Palmer was among the local physicians who contracted the fever. A letter written September 30th from Dr. Wellford to a Jacksonville doctor stated: “I am tired after over fifty visits today. Dr. Martin and …I are the only helpers professionally, the others from sickness…and unavoidable cause being eliminated.”
Mrs. Palmer, the descendant’s wife, theorized in a letter: I think he contracted yellow fever, survived and became immune because otherwise he could not have gone to Memphis to help in that epidemic.”
Dr. Merritt’s history carried some appalling statistics: A census of Fernandina, taken on September 28th, had shown a population of 1,632, 1,146 of whom had the fever. There were 94 deaths, a mortality rate of about 5-1/2% of the total population. Among the white people the mortality rate was 16%, while among the African American population, it was less than 1 % .
“Physicians and nurses came from many parts of the United States to lend aid, and contributions from widespread areas to the relief fund amounted to more than $26,000, but suffering, nevertheless was intense. The epidemic left the people of the town almost destitute while business, which depended chiefly on shipping, was utterly prostrate… So much for that part of Dr. Palmer’s story.
Dr. J. Denham Palmer was married to Sarah Rogers Walker, who would bear him six children. On June 25, 1890, Lot 1 of Block 244, the site to be their home, was deeded from the Florida Town Improvement Company to Sarah R.W. Palmer for $500. They mortgaged the property on January 19, 1891 to Lucy C. Carnegie for $2500, which suggests that some construction had begun or else Lucy Carnegie was financing it in order to have a good physician permanently in Fernandina. A lien dated February 1, 1891, is recorded: “Notice of J.R. Eddins to J. Denham Palmer that he holds a lien for $105.00 for material furnished to build a residence upon Lot 1, Block 244, City of Fernandina.” Construction was apparently completed in 1891 because the 1892 Tax Roll records a $2500 improvement added to a land valuation of $300.
Paul Weaver’s research for the Historic Properties Survey of Fernandina in 1985 reveals that the contractor for the Palmer House was John R. Mann, who built some of Fernandina’s finest residences – Villa Las Palmas, The Hoyt, Humphrey, Horsey and Hinton Baker Houses – as well as three significant buildings on Centre Street – the A.S. Allan building, the demolished Keystone Hotel we still treasure in old photographs, and the Memorial Methodist Church.
The Palmers had two additional mortgages placed on the property in 1892, eventually leading to several foreclosure lawsuits until the property was finally conveyed to Lucy C. Carnegie on October 5, 1906. On May 29, 1907, she deeded the property to Dr. J. Louis Horsey and others as trustees for Fernandina General Hospital. The deed spelled out conditions which had to be met by the hospital. Because Fernandina General Hospital “entirely failed to comply with, fulfill or perform any of the conditions of said deed,” the property was deeded back to Lucy Carnegie on February 15, 1914.
Lucy C. Carnegie died on January 16, 1916, naming her children as executors in her will and advising the sale of all real estate except that on Cumberland Island and Carnegie Building “as soon as practicable.”
Sale of the Palmer House took almost four years, and it is rumored that during this time (latter part of World War I) the house was the scene of parties, gambling and probably prostitution.
If true, any such steamy activity ended when the property was sold on December 24, 1919 to Everett Mizell, President of the First National Bank of Fernandina.
After quite a number of deed exchanges and assignments of mortgages over a 15 year period, the property was sold after December 1, 1934 to a series of forest products companies to be used to house management personnel; for a time a cafeteria was maintained, which attracted some students from the high school next door. The structure reverted to a private home after its purchase on April 21, 1940, by A.H. Stier and his wife Grace. Stier was Timber manager for Container Corporation. His wife retrieved the lattice work from under the house and replaced it around the base. She also was responsible for planting all of the azaleas around the house. She was such an enthusiast of Yuletide decoration that she put a real, lighted candle in every window all around the house and even up in the attic. (Christmas was a very nervous time for Mr. Stier.) She also kept the elaborately decorated Christmas tree up until summertime. With two living rooms plus den on the main floor, the house was a showcase for the wedding reception of the Stier’s daughter Joanne upon her marriage on April 30, 1942 to Gene Lasserre.
The Stier’s sold the property to J.M. Oxley and his wife Margaret, on June 7, 1948. In 1931, the Oxley’s had started a funeral home business at Centre and 5th and they moved the business into the Palmer House. Mrs. Oxley continued the business after her husband’s death in 1957 and eventually sold the property and the business in 1974 to the present owner, Jack Heard.
Heard deserves our thanks for taking such good care of this local landmark, The John Denham Palmer House.
Helen Litrico- 1992
“We have always looked to the past to build our foundation for the future”.