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O’Donnell family’s roots planted in South Hannibal

James O’Donnell advertisement in the 1925 Hannibal City Directory. This was the year that James Thomas O’Donnell purchased O’Donnell Funeral Home from his uncles, Robert and Thomas O’Donnell. Image accessed via the Hannibal Free Public Library’s website.


When the fire bell rang at 2:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, 1906, the two horses assigned to South Hannibal’s Union Street fire station started jumping with anticipation.

The alarm came from a row of adjoining frame buildings along Main Street in South Hannibal, where business houses typically occupied the ground floor with apartments above.

When the go-head came, the horses, hitched and probably steered by Station 3 driver, 44-year-old William Henry McOwan, bolted to the scene, just a few blocks to the east.

The area, fed by a six-inch line which crossed Bear Creek and connected to Hannibal’s water supply, had an available hydrant within the same block as the fire. The department’s 1,000 feet of 2 1/2-inch cotton hose was able to quickly supply water to the scene.

If it hadn’t been for quick action by all concerned, the whole block of wooden buildings - housing several saloons, a barber shop, confectionary shop and a shoe cobbler - could have been a total loss. But as it was, damage was contained to Gus Siedler’s saloon, at 116 Main, South Hannibal, and the apartment above, occupied by the building’s owner, James O’Donnell, a widower of Scottish descent, and his daughter, Frances Ogle.

Mr. O’Donnell had gained a reputation in the neighborhood as a solid businessman since coming to Hannibal circa 1870.

His furniture and household goods were damaged by water, smoke and breakage, but repairs after the fire enabled re-establishment of both business and residential occupation.

This photo, taken from the west side of South Main Street, circa 1903, reveals a thriving business district, despite the flood-swollen street. The street at the time was known as Third Street, South Side. Siedler & Vollmar’s Bar, was housed in the the building with the large Anheuser Busch sign, 116 Third, South Side. The building was owned by James O’Donnell (1837-1912). Note the wooden sidewalks prominent on the east side of the street. PHOTO FROM THE HULL, ILL., HISTORY MUSEUM COLLECTION


James O’Donnell was born at Glasgow, Scotland in 1837, and brought his family, consisting of wife, Maria Smith O’Donnell, and three children, John, Thomas and Frances, to the United States circa 1870. They found that South Hannibal, Mo., offered abundant opportunities for their still-growing family, which would, before too many years passed, include Robert and Michael.

In the late 1870s, James O’Donnell requested, and was granted, a huckster license for operation of a food stand in South Hannibal. It is unclear when he purchased the building at 116 Main, South Hannibal, but it is known that by 1885 he and his first-born son, John, age 24, were operating a lucrative grocery business, O’Donnell and Son, at this address.

During his years in Hannibal, James O’Donnell was not only able to earn enough money to raise his large family, but he was also able to help his sons go into business for themselves.

Second generation

John O’Donnell, (1861-1927) the eldest son, left the grocery business and went work as a conductor for the St. Louis and Hannibal Railroad, a profession he would continue throughout his lifespan.

Frances O’Donnell, (1867-1926) married Fred Ogle (1865-1906) in 1892. He ultimately left the grocery business where he had worked with John O'Donnell, and went to work as a conductor for the MK&T railroad.

Six months after the fire that damaged the O’Donnell building, Fred Ogle was in the caboose of the northbound Red-Ball freight which was crossing a high trestle a short distance below Branson, Mo., when the caboose jumped the tracks and careened down an estimated 112-foot embankment. Both Ogle, the brakeman, and Carl Dunlap, the conductor, were killed instantly. Ogle left as survivors his wife and two daughters, Marie Ogle, born in 1892, and Margaret Ogle, born in 1897.

Thomas O’Donnell (1869-1946) managed O’Donnell Drug Company in 1901, at 226 Broadway. When about 34 years old, in 1903, he made the worthy decision to study embalming at Quincy, Ill.

By July 1903, he and his brother, Robert O’Donnell (1872-1946), with financial assistance from their father, partnered to establish O’Donnell Bros., undertakers and embalmers and picture framing at 403 Broadway. The business would remain at this location until circa 1910, when they purchased the former home of J.J. Cruikshank Jr., at 300 South Fifth St. and moved the funeral home to the same location where it has been for the last 111 years.

Michael O’Donnell, (1875-1914) worked in the family grocery, and later as a bartender in the family’s saloon at 116 Main, South Hannibal. He was married to Myrtle Lacy, and they had three children, including James Thomas O’Donnell, born in 1898.

Third generation

James Thomas O’Donnell, when he was 13, went to work with his uncles in the funeral business.

In 1925, when he was 27, he purchased O’Donnell Funeral Home from his uncles, Robert and Thomas O’Donnell, and renamed the business the James O’Donnell Funeral Home.

The Quincy Daily Herald reported on April 20, 1925:

“James O’Donell has been connected with the firm for the last 14 years and is thoroughly acquainted with every phase of the business. He was at one time the youngest licensed embalmer in the state, having passed the state board at fifteen years of age.”

The 1906 Sanborn fire prevention map shows the businesses along the west side of the 100 block of Main Street, South Hannibal. Note that 116 and 118 indicate that the building has been damaged by fire. This double building was owned by James O’Donnell (1837-1912). Map accessed via the digital library, University of Missouri.

44-year-old William H. McOwan was the designated driver at Fire Station No. 3 on Hannibal's South Side on Feb. 9, 1906. That was the day that James O'Donnell's building caught fire on Main Street. The Fire Department's quick action was credited with saving the building and the other frame structures on the West Side of South Main Street. Photo contributed by Pamela Sandoval, via

Next week: Thomas and Robert O’Donnell begin a new adventure in California.

Note: Information on the water supply and fire apparatus was obtained from the 1906 Sanborn Fire Prevention Map, accessed via the digital library, University of Missouri.


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