Madera County Historical Society
Richard Curtis Jay directed the Madera Concert Band in the early part of the 20th century. At the same time he learned the art of embalming and founded Jay Chapel, which is now celebrating its 125th year.
As Madera County’s Quasquicentennial draws to a close, we can’t let it end without paying tribute to Richard Curtis Jay who founded Jay Chapel. Just as the county is celebrating its 125 anniversary, so is Jay Chapel celebrating its Quasquicentennial.
In the same month that the electorate voted to create Madera County, so did Jay step in to fill the gap left by an uncaring undertaker who refused in May of 1893, to build a casket for a Madera woman who had died in a destitute condition. She was about to be denied a decent burial until Mr. Jay stepped in to save the day.
In doing so, Jay gave up a career in music, his first love. He also gave up his furniture business to dedicate the rest of his life to assisting Madera County residents as they bore the burdens associated with the loss of loved ones.
From his earliest recollections, Richard Curtis Jay had been in love with music. While he earned his living as a store clerk in Jermyn, Pennsylvania, he taught music as a sideline, and started the Jermyn band. Under his skillful tutelage, the band won a medal that he wore in later years in Madera.
Jay resisted the lure of California until 1877, at which time he came to the Golden State and settled in San Jose. There, he followed his natural inclinations and found work as a musician. From San Jose, he moved to Virginia City, Nevada, and remained there for two years, teaching music. In 1881, he returned to Jermyn, and in the years that followed he continued leading the band while he operated a music store.
In 1891, R.C. Jay once more traveled to California, this time accompanied by his wife, Anna. They settled in the Hughes addition of Madera, located west of the future site of the Madera County Courthouse, and he was never to leave California again.
Jay took advantage of his merchandising experience and opened up a furniture store in Madera. When the unfortunate incident of the burial of the indigent woman occurred, he added undertaking to his long list of successful endeavors. Eight years after coming to Madera and five years after becoming an undertaker, Jay was nominated to the office of coroner and pubic administrator of Madera County. He was elected by a large majority of the voters in the fledgling county and took the oath of office in January 1899. In 1902, he was reelected by a majority of 1,030.
Jay was described in an early history as “a believer in Republican principles and a progressive citizen, contributing generously to worthy causes.” Jay also found time to participate in the activities of the Ancient Order of United Woodmen, the Odd Fellows, and the Masonic Lodge.
Of all of his many community affairs, however, music was closest to his heart. Richard Curtis Jay organized and directed the Madera Concert Band. One 1908 photograph shows this group on the steps of the Madera County Courthouse. Mr. Jay is standing on the first step, cornet under his arm while his son, Robert Seldon Jay, is shown standing in the back row with his trombone.
Jay’s Madera Concert Band was heralded throughout the Valley, winning many first-place awards in parades and concerts. The Madera Weekly Tribune, commenting on a 4th of July performance in Madera in 1909, reported the Opera House was filled to the doors while the band played its patriotic program.
The Tribune wrote, “The Madera Concert Band overture was the first number and much to the success of the day is owed to that group ... There was lots of music — at the parade, at the literary exercises, during the sporting events, and at the afternoon and evening concerts. Our town has good reason to be proud of her excellent musical organization.”
None of this would have taken place without the dedication of Richard Curtis Jay.
As we have indicated earlier, however, music was not his all-abiding love. Having once committed himself to the business of caring for the deceased, Jay was as indefatigable in his chosen profession as he was in his music interests.
Jay prepared himself in the science and art of embalming by taking a course of study at the Champion College at Springfield, Ohio. Later he enjoyed the advantage of a practical and thorough course in the New York Training School for embalming, by means of which he became fully qualified for the important profession he had chosen.
Jay chose his first place of business as a mortician in part of the Old Yosemite Hotel on North E Street. From there, Jay moved to several other places on Yosemite Avenue. In 1924, the business was moved to the corner of South C and Sixth Streets, where it remained until 1961. At that time it was moved to its present location at 1121 Roberts Ave.
So while we take time to honor the beginning of our county, we also salute Richard Curtis Jay and Jay Chapel and the part that pioneer institution has played in Madera County for 125 years.