In January 2019, Fort Bragg’s only mortuary, Chapel by the Sea, was destroyed by fire. Two years later, I was asked to write its history for the local Real Estate Magazine. I interviewed a number of people and learned that over the course of 51 years, the mortuary changed ownership five times. Historically, mortuaries have been owned by men, and this one is no exception.
One of the owners was the late Bryan Fairlee. His son Duff told me Chapel by the Sea was his father’s second local mortuary purchase. Bryan bought his first in 1950 from Grace T. Cannarr.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Grace is an unusual name for a man.”
“Grace was a woman.”
It took guts for a woman to run such a business in the last century—a time when women were not encouraged to aspire beyond the role of homemaker. How on earth did Grace accomplish this? And in remote Fort Bragg, California of all places? These questions weren’t central to the article I’d been assigned. For that and a number of reasons, I had to put my curiosity on hold for a few years.
I eventually reached out to the Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Historical Society and was sent an article about Grace from their publication, Voice of the Past. The article provided an outline of Grace’s life and sparked my obsession to learn more about her. A few months ago, I discovered the website newspapers.com. I was thrilled to find a source that allowed me to learn more about Grace.
Grace Turner was born in Berlin, New Hampshire in 1889. By the time she was twenty-one, she’d married Alfred Sloane. I don’t know the exact date, but do know that in 1911, when she was 22 years old, she gave birth to a son named William.
In 1913, when she was 24 years old, she, her two-year old son, her parents William and Jeanette, and her sister Lulu traveled across county to Usal, California, about 28 miles north of Fort Bragg. Her uncle Luther Turner owned a cattle ranch there. Why they relocated is anyone’s guess. I’m thinking her father may not have been doing so great in New Hampshire and needed steady work. Or maybe he suffered a midlife crisis and sought adventure. Or perhaps they’d all grown weary of brutally cold winters and yearned to live in a temperate climate.
Things must not have been going so great between Grace and husband Alfred because as the group made their exodus, he stayed in New Hampshire. In August 1916, Grace was granted a divorce from him in Mendocino County.
During that cross-country trip, the family lingered long enough in Iowa City for Grace to become trained as an embalmer and undertaker at the Carpenter College of Embalming. What could have possibly motivated her to aspire to obtain such a designation in a field that hardly seemed welcoming to women?
Maybe Grace had long before set her sights on that school and her family obliged her as they made their way to California. If so, they had to be a mighty progressive clan. More likely, her dad needed to pick up work to finance their epic trek. Not content to wait out the delay by darning socks and doing laundry in boiling pots over open fires, I imagine a spunky, young Grace discovering the college and saying, “Why not enroll and set myself up to eventually have a career? I’m smart, I’m capable, I’m going to do this.”
Picture this—not only did Grace endure a move across the country when interstate highways were nonexistent and cars extremely uncomfortable, she also had to deal with the volatile moods of a toddler. Despite all this—and being a single mother—she managed to become a certified embalmer and undertaker along the way.
I’m in awe of her.
After her family settled on the Mendocino Coast, Grace met Robert C. Cannarr in Fort Bragg. I don’t know how they met, but envision a social event—perhaps a community potluck—where from across a crowded room, he caught her eye and sparks began to fly. Or maybe they encountered each other while dishing up potato salad and discovered a shared passion not only for the salad, but for the mortuary business.
Robert was born in 1882 in Rock Rapids, Iowa. As a teenager, he apprenticed as an undertaker in Muscatine, Iowa before enlisting in the Army. In 1910, instead of returning to Iowa, he went to the more scenic San Francisco. I have no idea what occupied him while there. In 1912, he moved to Fort Bragg where he made deliveries for the Union Lumber Company. He may have chosen Fort Bragg because logging and lumber mills were booming along the Mendocino Coast to supply a nearly endless demand to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. A few years later, he moved to Chicago where he received a degree in embalming in 1915.
In 1917, Robert married Grace and they moved to Sacramento where he became an embalmer for the firm Clark, Booth and Yardley. He adopted Grace’s son William.
A year later, Robert and Grace returned to Fort Bragg where Robert again worked for the Union Lumber Company. Grace went to work in the company’s office. In 1920, they opened the Cannarr Funeral Home on Franklin Street across from City Hall. I imagine it took them two years to scrimp and save from their paychecks in order to finance the business. At that time, the Mendocino Coast was a sparsely populated frontier filled with lumberjacks and fishermen who often lost their lives to dangerous jobs. A mortuary would have been profitable.
For 12 years, Cannarr-Cannarr was a successful business partnership, but it and their marriage ended in 1932. In the 1933 divorce settlement, Grace was granted the mortuary. She was 44 years old—a rare woman at that time to come out on the winning side of a divorce.
Grace must have possessed immense fortitude to enter the mortuary business in the first place. I believe she worked hard to establish Cannarr-Cannarr and was not about to roll over to let Robert take it from her.
The town must have been abuzz with speculation as to what dirt Grace had on Robert to accomplish this feat. Or did a cold-hearted Grace cause Robert to fall into the arms of another woman, a woman from Mendocino, a woman he later married? Whatever the speculation, historical records indicate Grace carried on with dignity.
In true Grace fashion, she got to work and relocated the mortuary to Main Street—where the North Coast Brewery and Tap Room is now—and renamed it the Grace T. Cannarr Funeral Home. She ran it for 18 years in an era when most women were not allowed to own property, much less work outside the home The fact that she continued to operate this business through the Depression and nineteen forties shows she was an astute businesswoman.
The facts I learned about Grace made me yearn to know more. Three years ago, I reached out to my dear neighbor Joanne Matson who was 94 years old at the time and had long been active in the Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Historical Society. She said she’d known Grace.
Joanne told me that in the late nineteen thirties, she and her mother Laura Babcock lived in a large house on Franklin Street just north of Pine Street, where they rented rooms to female school teachers and served them dinner each evening. Grace, whose business was a short walk away, regularly joined them for the evening meal. This was after her divorce, after her son had grown and moved away.
When pressed about Grace’s character, Joanne would only offer, “She was very serious. My uncle worked for her and she always wanted things just so.”
Was Grace a control freak? Joanne, being a very sweet person, would not use that term, just conceded Grace sought perfection.
I envisioned Grace an early feminist, dressed in severe suits, wire-rimmed glasses, and sensible shoes. Joanne shook her head and giggled. “She was average height, a bit heavy-set and dressed in the fashion of the day.” I coaxed Joanne to dish up some shocking details about Grace. I could tell by her grin that she knew a thing or two, but she wouldn’t reveal them.
Joanne did share that Grace had two cousins who taught piano to children—Joanne included—at the Episcopal Church. She was struck by how the humor of these gregarious cousins differed from the serious Grace.
Over the course of learning about Grace, I’ve come to admire and feel a bit sorry for her. I imagine her somewhat aloof and friendless.
Grace was a businesswoman—a rarity for women of that era. To complicate matters, she was involved in what most people consider the messy business of death and embalming. Maybe the proper matrons of Fort Bragg were repelled by her profession. She belonged to a few women’s civic groups, but perhaps her efforts to connect only made her feel more socially isolated. I suspect most of her fellow club members were married with children. Grace was once also married and had a son, but had a career outside those expected roles. She eventually became a divorcee—a scarlet letter for women at that time—which may have increased her loneliness.
I hope Grace found a special kinship with the women teachers at Joanne’s mother’s boarding house. It warms my heart to imagine her sitting around a large table at the end of a stressful workday and enjoying a homecooked meal with other professionals who became true friends.
In 1950, after 18 years of operating the Grace T. Cannarr Funeral Home, ill health forced Grace to sell. Sweet, wonderful Byran Fairlee bought the business. A year later, she died on March 29, 1951. Her obituary states that an illness caused her to spend nearly eight months in the hospital. I’m saddened to realize this dynamo of a woman suffered a painful end, but happy she died at home, which her obituary lists as 544 N. Corry Street, a few blocks from my house, a midsize, stately structure—one I’ve long admired.
Her death sparked a battle over her estate, valued at $150,000—the equivalent of $1.7 million today. Her son William was angered to learn that his mother’s will left him a measly $25,000, stipulated piddly sums to 11 other beneficiaries and $115,000 to a scoundrel named Albert Rowe. In court, William accused Rowe of moving into his mother’s house in January 1951 and attempting to keep him away from her. A few weeks before she died—while heavily sedated with painkillers—Rowe convinced her to change her will. William also accused his mother’s caregiver Katie MacLean of being in cahoots with Rowe.
Nearly a year after Grace’s death, the case was settled out of court. William inherited one-half of the estate and Rowe the other half. MacLean received a diamond ring valued at $2,500—the equivalent of $29,000 today.
Bryan Fairlee conducted Grace’s funeral service and honored her final wishes by transporting her to the Chapel of the Chimes Cemetery in Santa Rosa. In 1964, her son William was interned next to her. Like his adopted father, Robert, William had no biological children.
Grace Turner Cannarr took respectful care of the dead along the Mendocino Coast for decades and consoled families through the most traumatic events of their lives. She accomplished this at a time when women did not become certified embalmers and undertakers. If they worked at all, they became nurses or teachers. Grace defied the times by becoming an equal partner in a mortuary business for twelve years and running it as a single woman for another eighteen.
Grace Turner Cannarr has become one of my heroes. As much as I’ve uncovered about her, I yearn to know more. One of my biggest disappointments is I cannot find a picture of her. I’d be overjoyed f anyone reading this can supply me with more information.