Friday, August 28, 2009

Cemetery Walk No. 3: Edith and Sam Beardsley

Edith and Sam Beardsley were one of Chariton’s early power couples, innovators at a time when undertaking was shifting from a furniture store sideline to full-time profession and both involved in their business to the point that when Sam unexpectedly dropped dead, Edith continued to operate Beardsley Funeral Home on her own for nearly 20 more years.

The photo above, perhaps taken about 1920, is of the Beardsleys with their son, Joe, adopted in 1911 at the age of two months.

Sam was the only son of Wilfred Wesley Beardsley, an Ohio-born marble cutter and purveyor of tombstones who came to Chariton as a young man, and his first wife, Sarah. He was named Samuel Newton Beardsley upon his birth in Chariton during June of 1880.

Edith, whose parents were Millard Fillmore and Ida J. (Willhite) Stevens, was born Aug. 11, 1884, in Grant City, Missouri, where she graduated from high school in 1902. Edith and Sam were married in Chariton on March 1, 1904.

Sam apparently got his start as an undertaker as an apprentice in the Melville Furniture Store operation, but in 1916 he struck out on his own solely as an undertaker.

The Chariton Herald Patriot of March 8, 1916, contained the following announcement: “Having severed my connection with the Melville Furniture store, I will have an exclusive and modern funeral establishment at my home, which I have remodeled for the purpose. I will have a complete new stock and rigs, and I feel that by devoting my entire time to the business I can give better service that ever before. I am located at 537 North Grand St., both phones No. 253. After September 1st I can furnish automobile hearse where it is wanted. Yours very respectfully, Sam Beardsley.”

The new Beardsley Funeral Home, opened at a time when undertakers as a rule embalmed the deceased in his or her home and the corpse remained at home until funeral services were held there or in a church, was an innovation in itself. It was located in a large and rather plain foursquare house located on a lot now occupied by the gymnasium addition to Chariton High School.

Fifteen years later, the Beardsleys were ready to take the next logical step, acquiring a far grander building in a better location and remodeling it into what the Chariton Leader of Nov. 10, 1931, called the “finest funeral home in Iowa.”

The house the Beardsleys had purchased, located at 227 South Grand Street (now Fielding Funeral Home), had been built by Frank R. Crocker and his wife, Minnie (Arnold) Crocker, then remodeled and expanded by the Crockers into one of Chariton’s finest homes. The horseshoe-shaped window on the east façade was a distinctive feature, as were the the turret at its southeast corner and a distinctive porte-chochere that allowed guests to alight from their carriages under cover and pass through a small foyer into a grand reception room where an open stair soared to the second floor.

Following Frank R. Crocker’s suicide in 1907 in this house and the collapse of the Mallory-owned First National Bank, which he had managed into insolvency, the Crocker home became entangled in court action as First National’s federal receiver attempted to obtain ownership on behalf of bank creditors. Litigation continued for years, but finally the Iowa Supreme Court awarded the house to Minnie Crocker, ruling that it was indeed exempt from other claims.

Minnie Crocker then sold the home to businessman Horace G. Larimer and his wife, Willie Blanche (Hollinger) Larimer, and they lived there with their family until after his death in 1928 when it came on the market again.

This photo appears to have been taken after the Larimers had vacated the home but before the Beardsleys had begun to remodel it. The sign indicates that Ralph Downs, who later operated Downs Funeral Home out of the old J.E. Stanton home on East Court Avenue, operated briefly out of the old Crocker-Larimer house, too, but I’ve not explored that aspect of things.

Whatever the case, the Beardsleys spent most of 1931 remodeling and expanding the house and it was ready for a grand opening to which all of Lucas County was invited --- from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14 and 15, 1931. The project had cost $10,000, an astonishing amount at that time.

Just prior to the open house, the editor of The Leader toured the new funeral home and published the following report in his edition of Nov. 10:

Sam Beardsley Announces Formal Opening of New Home for Saturday and Sunday
Building Cost $10,000
Two Floors of New Home Used in Funeral Service

The new Beardsley Funeral home will be thrown open to the general public of Southern Iowa at a formal opening on Saturday and Sunday, November 14 and 15, Sam Beardsley, owner, said Tuesday.

The new home was completed recently at a cost of $10,000 which included remodeling the Larimer home and installing the latest funeral equipment. The building has four floors, two of which are turned over to the exclusive use for funeral service.

The entire home has been remodeled and finished in white paint. It presents an attractive appearance with tall shade trees and landscaping, with simplicity the major note surrounding the home.

The porch of the home is in stone. The front room of the house has been made into an office, the floor of which is inlaid presenting an unusually sober picture.

A door to the rear of the office opens into the reception room and a circling, wide stair case mounts toward the second floor from this room. To the left of the office is the state room.

Opening off the reception room is the chapel capable of seating several hundred. The draperies of the chapel are in steady red with walls in two tones of cream.

The rostrum of the chapel is in the west end of the building. Mounted on the rostrum is a microphone through which the speaker’s voice is amplified to every room in the building. The Turner public address system also furnishes organ music prior to and following the service.

To the left of the speaker, across the hallway on the first floor is the family room where relatives may sit in comparative separation. The family room will seat 45 persons.

At the rear of the first floor wide doors open into the garage where the six automobiles comprising the Beardsley carriage service are stored. The casket is loaded into the hearse inside the building. The car service of the Beardsley home includes three passenger cars, one hearse, one ambulance and one truck.

Mounting to the third floor on the electric automatic elevator, the service rooms of the home are located. The largest room on the third floor is turned over to the casket display room where the buyer may purchase any type of casket. To the rear of this room is located the burial garment room where dresses and suits may be purchased for burial. In this room is stored the baby caskets.

On this same floor is the operating room where the body is prepared for burial. A closet on this floor contains all the undertaking equipment.

The second floor has been turned over to the living quarters of the Beardsley family. This floor lists bed rooms, a sitting room and a dining room together with a kitchen and ironing porch in the rear. The floor has a guest room which is always available for guests of the home. The maid room is located on this floor.

In the basement a mechanical coal stoker furnishes heat for the building. A lounging room for employees of the home is located in the basement while a toilet and shower bath has also been installed. The laundry room completes the basement rooms.

The home is one of the finest outside of Des Moines. The home is capable of furnishing the finest in funeral service and all Chariton can share the pride of the owners in this fine asset to the community.

And indeed it was a sight to behold and a major factor in breaking Lucas Countyans of funeral-related customs that had been in effect since the beginning of Lucas County. Funerals in private homes became almost unheard of and funerals in churches became less frequent. Dunshee Funeral Home, Downs Funeral Home, Miley Funeral Home --- all competed, but Beardsley had the edge. In my own family (except for my maternal grandfather who had not liked Sam Beardsley and specifically forbade his children to retains his successors) it generally was felt that death was not official unless Archie Beals preached, Gilbert Gartin sang and Beardsley’s handled the arrangements.

Sam Beardsley did not have long, however, to utilize his fine new funeral home. He died there unexpectedly of a heart attack on 30 April 1935, age 54, and became a patron rather than a purveyor.

Edith Beardsley continued to operate the funeral home with assistance from her son and other licensed embalmers until 1952, when she entered an operating partnership with Keith and Mary (Laufersweiler) Fielding. The Fieldings purchased Edith’s share of the business following her death on Aug. 21, 1958, of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. She was 74. Fielding Funeral Home now is owned and operated by Clark and Maureen Fielding, son and daughter-in-law of the late Keith and Mary.

I do not remember Sam Beardsley, of course, but have heard a number of stories about him. I do remember Edith, however.

My aunt, Flora Myers, had worked as Edith’s maid in the new funeral home for a time not long after it was completed. I’m not sure if this was while Aunt Flora was attending normal school or at a time when she had failed to obtain a teaching job (competition for these low-paying country school jobs was fierce during the Great Depression).

She had liked Edith and Edith had liked her and they had remained in touch. When Aunt Flora died too young of complications from multiple sclerosis during May of 1958, just three months before Edith’s own death, she came down those grand stairs at the funeral home when we stopped there to reminisce with my dad. So I remember Edith as dignified, gracious and kind.

At the Chariton Cemetery, Sam and Edith Beardsley are buried on the east side of the drive that parallels its west boundary. To reach the graves, rive straight west from the main gates to the west end of the cemetery and turn left. The Beardsley graves will be perhaps half way between that turn and the Copeland mausoleum on your left, easily visible from a vehicle.

The Fielding family added the new chapel at right, designed to be complement the original house and recycling in its porch original materials. When the chapel was added, the porte chochere was enclosed to serve as an entrance and a number of other interior modifications were made to the original building and 1931 features. Some years before the chapel was added, porches on the southeast corner were removed and additional rooms added in their place.


Ed said...

As someone who would like to be a better genealogist, how do you get all your pictures? I would assume that you have inherited most of them in one way or another but perhaps not?

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Ed,

If the photo is of someone related to me, I usually have it. I was lucky enough to inherit several hundred family photos and have acquired many others from contacts over the years. If it's someone I'm interested in, I usually ask if there's a photo and if they'd mind sending me a copy. Usually folks are glad to share.

The only caution here, if your contact plans to scan or already has scanned the image, is to be specific about the size of image you want --- "large" is usually good enough. It needs to be large enough for you to manipulate once you get it --- not an image so small that it will pixilate out if you try to bring it up to anything other than postage stamp size.

There are an amazing number of photos stashed in places other than family attics, too, if you're willing to do a little detective work.

The Beardsley family picture here, for example, is an orphan that somehow strayed into a large notebook of other orphans in the Lucas County Genealogical Society library. No one remembers where it came from. I found it while beginning the job of organizing the notebook. That notebook also contains some very early photos of various Lucas County people acquired by the Chariton Public Library back when the library still considered history to be part of its "mission." That is no longer the case, and the library disbursed that collection will-nilly, some of it ending up in the genealogical society collection; and some of it in the Lucas County Historical Society museum. Most libraries are not so cavalier about their historical collection, so it never hurts to ask the public library in the community an ancestor lived if it has a photo archive. The Mason City Public Library, for example, has an amazing photo archive. Sadly, none of my ancestors lived there. The old funeral home photo is something I scanned out of the 1976 Lucas County history, published by the genealogical society.

I'm also at work trying to organize the archives at St. Andrew's Church, and photos of the Copeland family turned up there although the Copelands themselves are dead or long gone. So it never hurts to ask the church your ancestors attended, if it's still around, if it has photos in its archive.

Historical societies sometimes have fairly amazing collections of photos in their museums --- many on display, some unidentified and many others identified but jumbled in storage boxes and virtually inaccessible unless the museum has a good accession index or you have lots of time. It never hurts to ask or, if you can, just to walk through the museum. The Pioneer Trails museum in Corydon, for example --- one of the state's best local museums --- sells case space to families who then donate memorabilia to fill it. A surprising number of families have put their family photo albums there.

The willingness of museum staffs to share this material varies from very cooperative to not cooperative at all, but at least it's worth a try.

And of course I rely on Google "image." You just never know who is going to turn up there. I also like the Library of Congress digital collection where all sorts of photos are available via the search engine --- The Historic American Buildings Survey photos of some of the old buildings at Bentonsport can be found there, for example.