Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Little Funeral Home History

My husband, Jess Barton "Bart", is the fourth generation mortician in his family. His father, Jess, of course, is the third generation. Jess and Bart's mother, Lauranell, have some intriguing old photos from the family business. The photos are included below with a history complied from an interview with Jess.

In 1897, my husband's great-grandfather, J. E. Stewart, began a furniture-hardware-undertaking business on the main floor of The Columbian Theater building.

In case it doesn't show clearly, the words Hardware and Furniture appear on either side of J. E. Stewart and Sons sign. An Undertaking sign hangs below.

It may sound like a strange business combination, but it made sense for the times. Furniture makers often also made caskets and they needed hardware to finish the job. J. E. sold solid walnut furniture made by the Abernathy Co. of Kansas City, and he employed a local finish carpenter to build caskets.

When a person died, J. E. would go to the family's home to prepare the body for viewing. As was common for undertaking, the family kitchen was the hub of his work. The family then went into the store to select a design for the casket and plan the services. Funeral services took place in the home or the family's church. Jess remembers moving many chairs and floor lamps into homes when he was a boy.

Pictured above is the black team of horses with the funeral hearse. J. E. also owned a white team and the family chose which horses would transport their loved one.

In 1918, J. E. bought this hearse, which was the first motorized hearse in Kansas.

A wealthy businessman named Louis Leach lived in our town for many years. In the 1880s, he built the Leach Opera house.

He also built this beautiful home across the street. The two buildings were connected by an underground tunnel. The actors and musicians would stay at the Leach home and all would travel to the Opera House via the tunnel. Within the basement of the Opera House were Turkish steam baths and the tunnel made using the baths and returning to the home during the winter comfortable and private.

By 1918, Mr. Leach had been living with his children in California for a number of years. He wrote a letter to the city council wishing to sell the opera house to the city for $2000. He did not want to be paid but rather have the city donate the money to various local charitable organizations. The city turned him down. J. E. wrote to Mr. Leach and accepted his offer.

So the Stewart Funeral Home opened in the old Leach Opera House building. Now, the option of having J. E. come pick up the person who had died and make preparations at the funeral home was available. Many families chose this option right away and over time all did.

Because the vehicles used by funeral homes were often large and able to hold a cot, many funeral homes also ran the ambulance service. The Stewart Funeral home did as well from the early 1930s into the 1960s. The family charged $5 a call for many years. This was not a profitable amount, but Jess's father, Harold Stewart, viewed this as a service to the community.

Bart's grandparents, Harold and Ruth, lived in this sweet house next door to the Leach Opera House. It even has an "S" for sweet on the chimney. Ok, I know it was really for Stewart.

In 1998, Bart joined the family business and the current location was completed in the same year. The current location was designed by Jess and Jess, Lauranell, Bart and I worked together to make the construction and decorating decisions. The new location offers much more parking and is on one level to make it handicapped accessible. The design is more open and added a family hospitality area. So the fourth generation of the Stewart family continues to provide funeral service needs to the families of the community.


kssnflwr said...

Jenny, What a fascinating story! Chris and I really enjoyed reading a little bit about the history of Wamego (and undertakers). Keep those stories coming!

Nancy said...

Thanks for the history lesson. It's fun to learn these things about our town (and friends).

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