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J. Forrest Palmer laid foundation for long-time Hannibal pharmacy

The old St. Mary’s Pharmacy building still stands today, home to Jason Utterback Insurance at 2704 St. Mary’s, and as business site for Margretta’s Beauty Shop, 2702 St. Mary’s. The original business owner was J. Forrest Palmer, who went on to own a chain of drug stores in the western states. This photo is circa 1941. HERRING PHOTO/STEVE CHOU COLLECTION


J. Forrest Palmer was only 23 years old when he opened St. Mary’s Pharmacy in 1927, located on the west side of St. Mary’s Avenue, numbered 2907, in the business block that now serves as office for Dr. William Esicar (2903), and continuing north to the parking lot of Griffen’s Floral Co. (2919).

A native of Ralls County, Palmer possessed a keen business sense that would launch not only a long-lasting Hannibal pharmacy in a developing part of town, but also that would eventually establish himself as a national leader in the expanding drug store field.

Mr. Palmer didn’t stay long in Hannibal – he sold the pharmacy to Henry Petrie circa 1934 – but the business roots that he planted in Hannibal still serve as a foundation for other businesses which have followed.

J. Forrest Palmer was born in 1904, and spent his early years in Jasper, Ralls County, Missouri. The son of John Albert and Kate S. Palmer, Forrest Palmer set out on his ambitious business interests at a young age.

His son-in-law, Don Fuller of St. Louis, remembers a story that Forrest loved to tell: A high school teacher at Center, Mo., asked him what he wanted to do after he graduated. Palmer had grown up on a farm. He said he didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he knew what he didn’t want to do: Farm.

Instead, Forrest earned a degree from a pharmacy school in Kansas City, which is now part of the University of Missouri KC system.

A year after opening St. Mary’s Pharmacy, he married Helen Irene Mitchell, a union that would ultimately produce three children.

Don Fuller says that his father-in-law was “a great guy,” and was known in his day as an entrepreneur. “My generation called it a wheeler dealer,” Fuller said.

After Palmer operated St. Mary’s Pharmacy on the west side the avenue - next door to a Kroger’s store at 2705 St. Mary’s - for at least two years, and after adding a popular soda fountain for his clientele, Palmer moved the business across the street and a little to the south, in a newly constructed wedge-shaped building at the corner of St. Mary’s and North Hawkins.

That iconic structure, which housed the pharmacy through a succession of owners during the next decades, today serves as insurance office for Jason Utterback, 2704 St. Mary’s, and as business site for Margretta’s Beauty Shop, 2702 St. Mary’s.

Members of the Baby Boomer generation remember E. Melvin Bird, who operated the pharmacy in this building from 1941 until the business moved to 2900 St. Mary’s in 1967. While most memories of the pharmacists who preceded Mr. Bird have faded from memory, these individuals none-the-less left a mark on this town.

J. Forrest Palmer

After leaving Hannibal in 1933, he founded Palmer Drugs, a western chain of drugstores headquartered in McAllen, Texas.

By the end of the summer, 1939, Palmer was hard at work, extensively remodeling the Palmer Walgreen drug store at the corner of South Main street and Beaumont avenue in McAllen, Texas.

While the store space was to be increased significantly, the primary focus behind the remodeling project was to add air conditioning to the pharmacy, making it the first air conditioned pharmacy in the Brownsville area in Texas.

In Aug. 20, 1939, the Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper ( offered a photo of Palmer, saw in hand, working on the reconstruction project.

In 1948, J. Forrest Palmer of McAllen purchased the famous (and believed haunted) Shary Yacht Club hotel at Port Isabel, Texas and opened the dining room to the public. The sales price was understood to be more than $100,000. (Brownsville Herald at

Palmer sold his interests in the pharmacy chain of stores around 1951, and he and his wife settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was active in church and Rotary both in McAllen and Fayetteville, serving as president of Rotary in both communities.

He established Fayetteville’s first strip mall, his son-in-law said, which housed a pharmacy and a Piggly Wiggley.

Palmer died in January 1975, and is buried at Grand View Cemetery just south of Hannibal.

Don Fuller said that his inlaws lived a long time in Texas and Arkansas, but that they always considered Hannibal home.

Henry Petrie

J. Forrest Palmer sold St. Mary’s Pharmacy to Harry D. Petrie circa 1934.

The son of Samuel L. and Sophia M. Petrie of Camp Point, Adams County, Ill., Harry Petrie and his wife Verlie lived at 232 N. Hawkins along with their daughter, Carol, in 1940.

After leaving Hannibal, the Petries moved to Bowling Green, where Harry opened a pharmacy on the Courthouse Square in 1941. He continued to be affiliated with the Bowling Green Pharmacy for many years.

Melvin Bird and Ray Washburn bought the pharmacy in 1941 and Washburn sold his share of the business to Bird in January 1945.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Steve Chou for his research assistance for this story.

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