Take a step back in the life of an undertaker when you walk into Tommy Begg’s Funeral Museum in Madison, Florida. Visit the original coffin shop with boxes of original ornaments and hardware, his restored 1918 Dodge hearse, the first motorized hearse in Florida, and just about everything an Undertaker used in the late 1800s.
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A Florida Undertaker’s Family Museum
T.J. “Tommy Beggs III
By Alice Adams
As you pass through the doors of Tommy Beggs’ Family Museum in Madison, Florida, an area where counties were named after presidents, you truly revisit the days of yesteryear, where stores had mezzanines and women wore corsets, when coffins were made and people bought on credit before the age of credit cards.
Retired funeral director Tommy Beggs of Madison, Florida, was the fortunate heir of the family’s general store – and much more than the building.
“When merchandise didn’t sell in season, it was boxed and stored,” Beggs said, “so when the store closed, it was full of merchandise.”
The museum’s initial inventory uncovered financial records reflecting business transactions dating back to the 1800s.
“From these records, we learned my great-grandfather bought Sea Island long staple cotton, a variety of cotton with a longer fiber, used to make fine men’s shirts, bedding and other linens,” he said. “Until harvest, farmers often ran short of money, so Tom Sr., gave farmers credit and then bought their cotton. These records are now part of the museum.”
With the help of his niece, Aileen Mostel (yes, that’s Mostel.) She married Tobias, the son of actor Zero Mostel), Tommy has been able to organize the museum, reflecting the various eras of Madison’s history and the part his family’s businesses played.
“My niece, who is nothing short of amazing, moved to Florida 15 years ago to be near her mother, who is my sister,” Tommy explained. “She has been invaluable in helping me categorize so much of the memorabilia and in explaining each part of the store.”
The museum is the home of a 1918 Dodge hearse, the first motorized hearse in Florida.
“It came from St. Louis, Missouri’s Williams Brothers Motor Car Company and is built on a Dodge chassis with a Rolls Royce engine,” he explained.
“When the new hearse arrived, employees helped Tom Jr., uncrate it and roll it out, only to realize nobody knew how to run it,” Tommy added. “At that time, Dr. Yates owned the only other motor car in Madison, so he was called to come and show Tom Jr., how to put gas in it and crank it.”
When the old hearse was replaced, it was stored in old garage with the firm’s ambulance.
“That became our favorite place to play,” the director said.”The hearse was moved to an old tobacco barn when the new Beggs Funeral Home was built. After it was restored and we were ready to move it into the museum, about 10 years ago, we had to remove one of the store’s show windows to get it into the building.”
Another exhibit pays tribute to the lives of Tommy’s Great Aunt Cora and Great Uncle, Counsel Black Ashley, a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston who was murdered in 1914 by a disgruntled client. “My aunt took over their mortgages and buildings, which were eventually bequeathed to his grandmother. With my father’s help, my aunt made it through the Great Depression and went on with her life,” the director said.
For funeral directors visiting the museum, the attic is a treasure trove of memorabilia and surprises, a veritable feast for the eyes from the Beggs’ early days in funeral service – from intricate ladies’ burial gowns to the veils once placed over open caskets, plentiful casket hardware and coffin parts from the casket shop. If you can name anything connected with the early days of funeral service, you’ll probably find it here.
There are also old layout beds and shrouds, very simple and very inexpensive for those who had nothing decent to be buried in, and there are fur coats from the store, marked to sell at $25, as well as knee-length wool men’s bathing suits and similar suits for women. Tommy said he thought it would be difficult to swim in them because the wool absorbed water.
Confessing to a long-standing love of history, Beggs has surrounded himself with the buildings and sometime ghosts of Madison’s history. He and wife Mary Jane own his grandparents’ home, a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1895, one of four homes in Madison listed on the National Historical Register. He and his son have an office in the old Beggs home, which they both believe has a resident ghost. The three funeral director brothers live on “Pickle Lane,” which is part of their great-great grandparents Parramore Plantation.
“We can’t figure out who it is, but, on two different occasions, I heard someone coming up the stairs, and, when I asked, ‘Who’s there?,’ no one answered,” the director said. “We suspect it might be Mama King, a retired school teacher who lived behind my parents’ home in a small cottage. I remember she used to just come in, like it was her house, so we kinda feel like it’s her ghost. We’ve also had things fall off shelves, like a whole sack of flour.”
While browsing this most interesting and little-known chronicle of past history, visitors to the Beggs Family Museum may hear a musical soundtrack wafting around the museum like the familiar aroma of Grandma’s freshly-baked bread. This unobtrusive musical background was composed by Tommy’s nephew, William Winter, also a resident of Madison.
“This museum is my way of honoring our ancestors,” Tommy said modestly. “Everything we know is because they taught us.”