The Mystery of Grace Turner Cannarr

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 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.

The Final Farewell

mortuaryonfireOn January 12, 2019, a fire broke out at Chapel by the Sea, the mortuary that’s been our next-door neighbor for 27 years. It was a terrible, surreal thing to witness. Wisps of light gray smoke from the open upstairs doorway quickly grew into roaring flames that exploded windows and engulfed the structure. Our property was never in peril, but that didn’t keep the fire from reaching across the alley to shake the core of my well-being.

Over the following weeks, I became obsessed with fire prevention. Our house is older than the mortuary. If an electrical fire happened there, it could happen here. I bought fire extinguishers for nearly every room of the house. I called Fort Bragg Electric to schedule an evaluation of our electrical system. A few months later, after all the outlets and light switches were replaced, I was able to sleep through the night without waking and sniffing like a dog for suspected signs of smoke. (We have smoke detectors, but my three o’clock in the morning irrational mind wasn’t about to trust them.)

Mortuarysemifinal1I woke each morning to the ruins of what was once a stately building. In addition to a mortuary, it housed an upstairs apartment. The Blair and then the Reynolds families resided there during our early years in Fort Bragg, and allowed us to create friendships that endure to this day. We share a common grief over the loss of this beloved place.

Spring ushered in an unusually warm summer. Open upstairs windows cooled our house, but also allowed the smell of charred wood to drift along the breeze and taunt me with the possibility that our house might be on fire. Once again, in the middle of many nights, I turned into a smoke-detecting watchdog.

MortuaryDay1AM3I looked forward to the day—September 17—when the process of tearing down the building would begin. That morning, I headed over there with my camera phone. I vaguely felt like I had when the fire broke out—too terrible to watch, yet demanded to be witnessed. I was relieved it would soon be gone, yet mourned the finality. Over the course of four days, a piece of equipment that looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex crunched walls, chewed them into pieces, and loaded the debris into massive dumpsters to be carted off.

And just like that, over 100 years of history was erased.MortuaryAngelFinal

I’m grateful the mortuary no longer stands as a reminder of all that was lost. I do not know what will take its place, but hope it will grace our street with the same majesty as the old building.










Death of a Mortuary

mortuaryintroWe moved to Fort Bragg 26 years ago when our children were very young. Our house is across the alley from Chapel by the Sea, the town’s only mortuary. It was the summer between kindergarten and first grade for our older child Harrison. He had no friends and a limited capacity to interact with his three-year old sister (and his parents). At the time, Larry Blair was a partner in the mortuary and lived in the upstairs apartment with his wife Shirley and teenage daughter Charla. Older daughter Charise was married to Nathan who worked for Larry. They lived in the alley apartment.

That summer, Nathan and another employee were often involved in outside work activities. While taking walks with the kids, we eventually got to know everyone on the other side of the alley. Convinced these were trustworthy people, my husband Gary and I consented to let Harrison hang out with the guys when they were outside. As the summer wore on, this happened a few hours each day. It also became a bargaining chip whenever Harrison misbehaved. “That’s it, buddy. You’re grounded.”

Imagine the deep sadness of a cherub-faced six-year old as he stood at our alley gate howling like a wounded hound dog, “Nathan, I can’t come over to the mortuary today. I’m grounded.”

At times, Charla graciously consented to tossing a baseball around with Harrison, honing throwing and catching skills that carried with him into Little League.

When Harrison discovered the casket room, he chose one for each member of our family. Older sister Jennifer recalls him describing hers as having pink satin lining and a white pillow. She felt honored. When his dad and I told him our plan was to be cremated, he scoffed and said, “Nobody wants to be buried anymore.”

From first through third grade, he aspired to become a mortician. However, he was conflicted. He also enjoyed ocean fishing and was enamored by our commercial fisherman friend Jared Williams. Whenever anyone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he’d reply, “A fishing mortician.” The inquirer flinched like someone splashed cold water in their face.

Over the years, our families socialized, celebrating birthdays and other events. But mostly, we visited across the alley, getting to know one another in a casual small town kind of way.

Eventually Larry and Shirley moved into their own home and later out of the area, but to this day Shirley calls me “Neighbor” whenever we meet. I have a deep and abiding affection for this lovely, kind woman.

Charise and Nathan divorced. She later married John Reynolds and they moved away. They had two children and returned to live in the mortuary alley apartment when Katelyn was nearly five and Jacob one and a half. This planted the seed of a deep, lifelong friendship where we shared many joys, including the birth of son Nick, and one major sorrow—John’s sudden death in 2010 when the children were 13, 10 and 7. Over the years, they moved to various places, but we remained close. Throughout it all, the looming red mortuary stood as a monument to these relationships.

And then, on Saturday afternoon January 12, 2019 there was a fire.


I wasn’t paying attention to the time, but later learned it was about ten minutes to two o’clock. I walked by my kitchen window and glanced, as I often do, at the mortuary. A work crew had spent the morning installing new windows in the upstairs apartment. This was part of a lengthy renovation project to a space that hadn’t been updated since the eighties.

I saw a large puff of what I thought was mist coming from the open door. Within seconds, the mist turned dark grey. I hollered at Gary, “The mortuary’s on fire!” I grabbed the phone and rushed outside while dialing 911. It had already been reported.

mortuaryonfireA flurry of law enforcement arrived to cordon off the street. Neighbors gathered, some inside my fence, all of us sharing looks of horror and tears. We watched the smoke grow in volume and black intensity. I cried for it to stop. This stately building stood for over 100 years, the past 26 years as our neighbor. This couldn’t be happening—STOP!

The fire had other ideas.

Within minutes, huge flames erupted from the door. Seconds after that, the newly installed windows exploded with fireballs. Our amazing volunteer fire department arrived and set to work, spraying the building with thousands of gallons of water. I held hope they could contain it at the upper level.

The fire had other ideas.

The violence of a structure fire is terrifying to witness. Despite the copious amount of water sprayed with extreme velocity, the fire spread to the lower level, eventually forcing those windows to explode.

Within a few hours, our beautiful mortuary was in ruins. The freshly completed apartment renovations had gone up in smoke. Julie, the manager who had moved in two weeks previously, and her dog Pillie had been out of town for the day. She had anticipated returning to new, draft-free windows only to find she had lost virtually everything—most devastating were her two young cats, two canaries, and a fish. When she arrived, she stood next to her friend Amy, tears rolling down her cheeks.

mortuaryfirefightersAbout 4:30pm, the fire department had contained the blaze and began wrapping up. I am in awe at how, despite the chaos of the fire, they maintained their professionalism and focus. Heavy hoses had been dragged about the property, yet they did not damage one plant of the major landscaping project that was completed this past fall.

mortuarysemifinalAfter a fitful night of little sleep, I rose the following morning worried about Julie. I didn’t want to, but couldn’t help, looking out our east windows to a sight I’ve always revered. It was horrible—a burnt out shell of a once stately building. My sadness runs deeper than I could ever have imagined. I can’t fathom how I’ll face this mutilated scar in the coming days and weeks.

mortuarysemifinal1For now, I try to find consolation in the fact that even though the monument is gone, the love it symbolized remains. Charise, Charla, Katelyn, Jacob, Nick, the Blairs and my family share a common grief, but we also share a special bond that will carry us through.


A Go Fund Me account has been set up for Julie who lost nearly everything in the fire:

To read about the most common causes of house fires and how to prevent them, go to:


For twenty-two years, we’ve lived next door to the Mendocino Coast’s only mortuary. We’re often asked, “Doesn’t it bother you?” No, it does not. (Read my guest blog post “Neighbors.”)

In addition to the mortuary business, there are two apartments on the property—the one directly above the main building is rented to a full-time tenant; the other, above the alley garage, is unoccupied.

In recent years, the owners allow friends to occasionally stay in the vacant apartment. If they rented it for money, it could get listed on Yelp and subject to reviews, which might pose a problem.

My husband Gary is in the habit of waking early. I know the term “early” is open to interpretation. To some people, 6:00 a.m. is early, to others eight. I think we can all agree that three or four o’clock in the morning is damned early. By the time I get going—usually five-thirty or six, Gary is in mid-morning mode and delighted to have company.

I enter the kitchen to, “Good morning! How are ya?”

I groan, stumble to the coffeemaker, pour a cup and search out the nearest dark space.

Our dog Lucy is a slow riser, but usually ready to go outside by six-thirty. Today, she announces to the world that she does not like the vehicle parked in the normally empty space across the alley. Gary yells at her to stop barking while he carries a container to the alley and dumps cans and glass into the large recycle bin.

I pour a second cup of coffee and sigh.

Overall, the apartment above the mortuary garage is a great place to stay. It’s within walking distance to downtown and a short drive to the beach. It’s quiet on the east side, but not so much on the west.

If it was subject to Yelp reviews, I imagine they would read like this:

yelpThis is a wonderful place except for the cat that clawed at the front door in an apparent effort to seek asylum. We believe he’s demonic. We will never stay here again. Laine R., Oakland CA


yelpWe were awakened at daybreak by what we thought was a homeless meth addict flinging things while hollering in the alley. Trembling with fear, we peeked around the curtains to find the man next door dumping cans and glass into the recycle bin and yelling at someone named Lucy. We will never stay here again. Kasi H., San Francisco CA

yelpWe found the apartment well-appointed and roomy. But as we moved our luggage from the car, an albino animal with a brown patch over one eye barked incessantly from the house across the alley. Efforts to ignore it only made the howling louder. As we approached the gate to get a better look, it let out a puddle of pee and rolled in it. Each time we went to or left our car, the creature yowled. We will never stay here again. Jenn H., Kirkland, WAcloseup

yelpWhen we arrived at nine o’clock at night, all was quiet and peaceful. Little did we know this was because the inhabitants across the alley were asleep. At the crack of dawn, we were startled awake by the baying of a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog and a man yelling, “Leave Little Mister alone!” What kind of freaks are these people? We will never stay here again. H. Riley, San Francisco CA


Kris S. (who refused to disclose the identity of his city)