The undertaker in the big white house
There’s one thing you learn when you’re history snoopin’ — How little we know about each other.
Whether it’s our parents, our friends or someone in a history book, almost all of their life experiences are stored in their personal memories and remain as lost mysteries to us.
For anyone familiar with 20th century Medford history, John Perl is remembered as the undertaker whose business and home were both in the big white house on West Sixth Street at the corner of North Oakdale Avenue. Of course, there’s much more to his story than embalming and funeral arrangements.
John Adam Perl was born in Ohio to Peter and Mary Meier in 1875, just one year before his mother died.
Peter was an ambitious son of German immigrants and enlisted in the Civil War when he was 18. After the war he taught school in Ohio, while also helping his father in his furniture and casket-making business. It wasn’t unusual in the 19th century for furniture makers to also be the town’s undertaker, and Peter learned the trade from his father.
After Peter’s wife died in 1876, he took baby John and John’s older sister, Agnes, to Illinois. There, Peter continued to teach for a while, until moving to Decatur, Illinois, in 1878. He bought the local undertaking business and married Carrie Lucken.
While continuing as undertaker, and owner of other businesses, Peter became one of the town’s most prominent residents, and his investments made him a wealthy man. He was elected to local government, including county coroner, and was also the town’s sheriff for four years. His son John and daughter Agnes worked as guards in his jail, and when Peter’s deputy sheriff resigned, John replaced him.
In 1895, three days after his 20th birthday, John married Nellie Bundy, who was 18. Two of their three children survived to adulthood. John was already an assistant and partner with his father in the undertaking company, Perl & Son, after passing the embalmer examination required by the Illinois Board of Health. For over five years the two worked together.
In January 1901, the nation’s newspapers had been filled for months with stories about Louisiana and how the state had the perfect climate to grow rice and compete against importers from Asia. Cheap land was for sale and the rush was on. Peter bought 300 acres and sent John south to run a rice farm.
The initial success of the farm didn’t last. Four years later, the rice price paid to farmers had fallen by over 50%. Even though John had sold over $9,000 worth of rice in the previous season, it was hard to find competent workers. He vowed to stay on, but in less than a year he was exploring other opportunities.
His 1906 trip to Montana to enter a drawing for land claims on the Crow Indian reservation was a bust. His name, like most of 17,000 others, wasn’t drawn. He and Nellie moved the family to Lawton, Oklahoma, where John had half interest in a furniture store and was an undertaker. A year later his father died, and John was back in Louisiana.
By early 1910, John Perl had chosen Medford as his new home. He likely was following the Jackson County land rush, what is called the “Orchard Boom” — wealthy Easterners who came west to Southern Oregon after hearing how much money they could make by owning orchards.
He bought the funeral business of the Medford Furniture Company, offered a motorized hearse and a woman assistant, his wife, Nellie. In 1920 they bought that big white house on West Sixth Street.
John Perl, who had served four terms as Jackson County coroner, retired in February 1952 after 44 years as a funeral director. His son, Frank, took over the funeral business.
Nellie died in 1934 and, in 1937, John married Jean Watt, who died in 1954. John Perl passed in 1959 and rests between his wives in Medford’s Eastwood mausoleum.
We’ll never know it all, but at least now we know a little bit more.
Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.