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Marion County pioneer documented early days

Main Street in Palmyra. Dr. J.N. Coons practiced medicine in Palmyra, Mo., from roughly 1880 to 1901. His office was first located on North Main St., and he later sold that building and moved to the northwest corner of Main and Hamilton streets. After a serious injury resulting from an encounter with a rooster, he and his family moved to Hannibal. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION


When Dr. James N. Coons of Marion County closed his eyes in eternal slumber, his vivid memories of the earliest days of this region might have been lost forever.

He died at the age of 86 in November 1915. During his lifetime he witnessed the actual development of this part of the state. Luckily, during his golden years he frequently shared his memories via Palmyra newspapers, which accounts for much of the information for this story.

By his own account, Dr. Coons first came to Marion County when just a boy of 12 – in 1841 - riding a horse which followed two wagons pulling his family and their belongings from Kentucky to Northeast Missouri. The family settled in Fabius Township in the northern region of Marion County, and that’s where they resided until ill health called his parents home.

His parents were Joseph Coons (1791-1848) and Elizabeth Boone Nelson Coons (1773-1854). The land they originally settled was obtained through a land grant issued in 1838 and signed by President Martin Van Buren.

While Dr. Coons’ early education wasn’t up to the standards that later prevailed, he was a quick learner, and decided at an early age that medicine was his calling.

Following his death in 1915, the Palmyra Spectator published a summary of Dr. Coons’ life, which the doctor himself had written two years prior.

“I was educated in private schools in Kentucky, in public schools in Missouri, in LaGrange Academy and in Baptist College in Palmyra. I was never graduated in these schools but I had a fair English education and some knowledge of Latin, especially in the grammar of both languages. My medical education was had first under the tuition of medical friends, then in the medical department of Iowa State University, where I graduated in 1857.”

Both of his parents deceased prior to his graduation from college, Dr. Coons settled in Shelbyville, Mo., where he began the practice of medicine. There he met Anna M. Conner, and they subsequently married and had four children.

Coons Homestead

The weight of his medical practice in Shelbyville took a toll on his health. In 1870, he took a break from his practice, purchased his old family homestead in Fabius Township, and there he farmed until his health improved.

He made a run for the state legislature in 1880, and that same year served on a committee to get a levee built upon the Fabius, in order to protect the bottom lands from overflow.

“With health regained, I left my old home and came to Palmyra in order to give my children better facility for education,” he wrote in 1913. He opened a medical practice in Palmyra, first on North Main, in a building which he sold in 1884 to Lewis Lucke for $1,200. After selling his building, he relocated his practice to the northwest corner of Main and Hamilton, where he worked until 1901.

Pugnacious rooster

In April 1901, a serious injury caused him to once again take a break from the practice of medicine.

The injury occurred at his home. “While in his chicken yard he was attacked by a pugnacious rooster and defended himself by kicking at it. He kicked a little high and lost his balance with the above result,” the Palmyra Spectator reported on April 25, 1901. “The hurt was a very painful one and opiates had to be administered to him. The chances are he will be a crippled for some time.”

Two months later, the newspaper reported that Dr. Coons was able to get around fairly well in his invalid chair, yet remained hospitalized.

Once he was released from the hospital, he closed his office located on the northwest corner of Main and Hamilton streets, and prepared for his family’s future.

In 1907 he put his office building up for sale.

“For sale

“My Main street business property – a two-story brick business house, in which is the Express office, opposite the Merchants Hotel, and a room south of Express office; consists of two business rooms and four upper rooms. The lot has 50 ft front on Main street and extends to the alley 126 ft. A good cistern and granitoid sidewalk. Address Dr. J.N. Coons, Hannibal, Mo. Nov. 20, 1907, Palmyra Spectator.”

Move to Hannibal

Dr. Coons and his family moved to Hannibal around 1901, where he purchased a small fruit farm at the intersection of Hayden and Paris Road. (The streets were later renamed Country Club Drive and Pleasant Street.)

There, living just to the south of the new Country Club, the Coons family was in the midst of Hannibal society. Miss Lena Coons was listed among the members of the Hannibal Country Club in 1905.

That same year, she invited members of the Pierian Club of Palmyra for an outing at her family’s Hannibal home.

The Palmyra Spectator reported on this outing in its July 19, 1905 edition.

“ A merry party left Palmyra Thursday morning for Dr. Coons’ beautiful country home in the suburbs of Hannibal. The guests were made to feel perfectly at home to roam at will through house and grounds. Miss Lena served an elegant lunch on the lawn, under a large wild cherry tree.

“At half past five the party drove to the country club where they were again hospitably received. After a walk over the golf links super was served on the porch of the club house. The grounds are beautiful and the people of Hannibal are to be congratulated on having this lovely resort. The Pierians drove home by moonlight, declaring the day to have been one of the most delightful since the club organization.”

The Coons family returned to Palmyra in 1912. Dr. Coons wanted to live out his remaining years in close proximity with his long-time friends and neighbors.

He rented out the Hannibal house to John Gatts, the Palmyra Spectator reported.

In 1919, Dr. Coons’ daughter Lena told the Marion County Herald that they had sold the Hannibal property to John J. Brown Jr., of the Brown Jewelry Company in Hannibal. His family lived at 2018 Pleasant until sometime in the 1930s.

The Quincy Daily Whig also reported on the real estate transaction:

“Mr. Brown will convert the place into a beautiful suburban home with modern conveniences which he and his wife will occupy as soon as the improvements are completed. It will be one of the most beautiful suburban homes in this section.”

Coons children

Two children predeceased their parents. Lulie died as a 4-year-old circa 1867 while the family was living in Shelbyville, and William Edgar Coons died in 1893. Surviving their parents were James Henry Coons and Lena Coons, and a grandson, Edgar Elliot Coons.

Dr. Coons was particularly proud of the education he was able to provide for his three children who lived to adulthood. “I gave my children a farm better education than I myself had, feeling that it was more valuable than money and not as easily stolen,” he wrote prior to his death.

Lena, who was with her father at the time of his death in 1915, was an accomplished musician, acquiring her education at Christian College in Columbia, Mo. Her work in music education took her away from Palmyra for awhile, including teaching at the public schools of El Paso, Texas; and as teacher of music in West Plains college, Howell County, Mo.

Sharp intellect and a frail constitution could describe Dr. Coons’ first born son, William Edgar Coons. A scholar, lawyer and educator, William married Miss Kate Elliott of Monroe City, Mo., in 1891, and together they had a young son. Two years after his marriage, at the age of 33, William died, leaving his parents, sister and one brother to mourn his death.

Following her mother’s death in 1928, Lena Coons and her surviving brother, J.H. Coons, proceeded to have the remains of their deceased sister, Lulie, moved from Shelbyville to their parents’ resting place at Greenwood Cemetery in Palmyra. All that remained in the grave after 61 years was a piece of cloth from the child’s dress, and one leather shoe in a remarkable state of preservation. The remains were placed in a new burial box and reinterred at Greenwood Cemetery.

Mary Lou Montgomery is researcher and writer, specializing in people and personalities from the past. She is the former editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post.

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