In touring the Palmer home, one must first understand that B.J. was unconventional.
Articles in the files of the Quad-City Times and its predecessor newspapers describe him as a dynamic man who loved the circus, wore his hair long, smoked cigars, went to bed early and had a favorite off-color story that doesn’t bear repeating in today’s newspaper.
He had a fetish for epigrams, or pithy sayings. One of his favorites was “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.” At one time, there were some 3,000 epigrams printed around campus buildings, so many that there wasn’t space for more.
Detractors regarded him as a charlatan, but when he died in 1961, his funeral at the Davenport Masonic Temple drew 3,000 mourners.
He also loved to collect.
Tourists begin their journey at his home by stepping into an outdoor courtyard populated with everything from totem poles to statues of deer, birds and the birth of Venus. But save yourself: Much more awaits.
Next, a guide will take you to “purgatory,” a dark, rock-lined hallway that once led to the heart of the Little Bit O’ Heaven tourist attraction, a large greenhouse with a 40-foot waterfall that was filled with such wonders as tropical fish, alligators and Oriental art. (Legend has it that the alligators were kept in the mansion basement over the winter until the stench got so bad that they were donated to a zoo.)
Little Bit O’ Heaven closed in the 1960s, a victim of changing public tastes, and it was dismantled in 1981.
After purgatory, it’s through the rear service door of the mansion to begin your tour. Here you’ll find the parquet floors, painted plaster molding and Italian marble fireplaces installed by the Petersens, overlaid with the collections, eccentricities and everyday stuff of the Palmers.
Examples: a photo of the Taj Mahal, a safe with a typed note informing would-be burglars that it contained no cash, a collection of tiger claws, an International Order of Odd Fellows suit, personal clothing and cigars.
Finally, one reaches the first room of the porch, and unusual rises to another level.
Off the home’s front entrance is a room with a player pipe organ purchased for $75,000, 10 years after Palmer paid $25,000 for the entire house.
If you’re lucky, someone will play a few measures of Bach’s “Tocata et Fuga,” a melody with a creepy feel often associated with Halloween.
Palmer’s favorite spot was the rustic room, so-called because it incorporates the trunks and branches of four ancient oak trees that were cut down to make a classroom building next to the house.
Look up and you’ll see some logs wrapped in belts with metal buckles that were from the uniforms of returning World War I soldier/students.
Between the rustic room and dining room stands a large Japanese cloisonné vase and two blue porcelain Chinese dogs.
Six steps down and you’re in the sunken solarium with a ceiling made of square latticework painted in circus colors of yellow, green, orange and red. The white wicker furniture came from a prison in the Philippines.
The tour reaches a crescendo in the last room of the porch when tour guide Alana Callender takes a deep breath and explains that it is a perfect example of B.J.’s collecting interests.
“Here we have fly whisks to keep your elephants moving,” she begins with a memorized speech that picks up speed as it goes along.
“On the floor is a humidor and umbrella stand made out of elephants’ feet, next to a kangaroo from Australia. Here is a bird of paradise on top of a Bodhisattva (an enlightened being) from India on top of a cabinet from Korea on top of Native American rugs.
“Over there,” she says, gesturing, “is a shrine from the Philippines holding a Hindu idol with a piece of African art. The figure in the back is Carrera marble from Italy.
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“We have elephants for good luck. There’s a Buddha from Siam, Japanese lanterns, a Buddhist monk’s umbrella made into a light fixture … and the whole room is painted to look like the inside of a circus wagon.”
The rest of the story
And then, taking a breath, she stops.
Passing through a butler’s pantry filled with dishes bearing the Palmer crest, you step into the humble, utilitarian kitchen, restored to its 1950s appearance. Here you’ll find a Roper stove, a Kelvinator Foodarama refrigerator/freezer, and walls and woodwork painted in bright circus colors.
On the floor, multi-colored tiles.
The late DeEtta Montgomery once told the Palmer staff that every time her husband Wayne sold a batch of floor tiles from his Quad-City carpet and furniture business, he kept one aside for Palmer. In time, there were enough tiles to cover the floor with no two alike.
At this point in the tour, participants and guides alike may feel exhausted. The house contains about 6,000 cataloged items, which is a lot to take in.
For all that, though, what you see is only a fraction of what the Palmers amassed. When Mabel died, half of the collection was willed to son Dave. When B.J. died, half of the remainder was willed to Davenport’s Putnam Museum. That left 25 percent of the original and the girls (B.J.’s three granddaughters) were all setting up housekeeping.
“What have here is the leftovers,” Callender says.