By Charles Cooper
Hello everyone, hope you’re having a good week.
As I promised last week, the saga continues. In 1934 Hugh Trusty, who worked at the post office, decided to go into the funeral business. He knew very little about it, but he had been observing the McLarty Company and had noticed that more and more people were using the services rather than handling their own with the help of friends and neighbors. He had also read about a gentleman in Itta Bena named M.T. Williams who had established a company called Southern Undertaking to sell burial policies with a face value of $150.
Williams already had several funeral homes selling the policies and it looked like an exciting new concept. It so happened that Williams was acquainted with Will Gardner. Gardner knew everyone in the county and had recently had his grocery store partnership with Gates Wood and Sam Nations fall victim of the depression.
Williams approached him and asked if he thought he could sell burial insurance and Will Gardner said, “I can sell anything as long as it’s honest.” Neither man could have visualized the far reaching consequences of their association when Trusty established a connection with Williams and Southern Undertaking.
Like many successful ideas it was based on simplicity. It would be a self-insuring operation whereas Southern would supply him with the necessary forms for a five percent charge and Trusty would provide the service with his ninety-five percent. The policy was issued at the local level and was a one-page document with Southern Undertaking in large print at the top and a picture of M.T. Williams in the middle and no fine print.
It simply stated that the insured upon his death was entitled to a casket with suit or dress and transportation up to 100 miles in the amount not to exceed $150.
Trusty rented a store front on Main street and Will Gardner took a copy of the policy and hit the road. Williams told Trusty that he would have to buy a hearse, a tent and grave equipment and this would basically be his entire cash outlay. He even sent him literature from various funeral coach manufacturers but said that most preferred the Flexible built on a Buick chassis. because it had the best prices.
Hugh Trusty was a good businessman but frugal and he learned that Flexible also offered a unit built on a Pontiac chassis that was even more reasonable, so he ordered a 1933 Pontiac which was still in service in 1948.
Somehow Will Gardner learned that Robert McLarty didn’t believe in burial insurance so on Saturdays he would stand in front of the McLarty store and approach every customer going in or out and show them a copy of the policy and in most instances, make a sale. During the week he traveled through the country making sales and since times were hard and money scarce, he often took chickens, eggs produce and hams in lieu of cash.
He told me once that he practically fed his family that way. It paid off and his son, Frank Gardner who had retired from the railroad on disability expanded the business going into Panola County. Trusty bought a two-story house on North Main and moved the business there.
Since embalming was still not widely used, he would hire an embalmer from another funeral home when necessary. Finally in 1935 he realized he would have to hire a full-time embalmer and Louis Jamison who traveled for Memphis casket company told him about a young man named O.V. Newman who had recently graduated from Gupton-Jones Mortuary School and was looking for a job. Trusty hired him.
During the rest of the 1930s Will Gardner’s son, Cap, who was working extra board for the railroad worked there and others were Buddy Hart, Lonzo Harding, and Billy Barnes In 1941 the Postal Service gave Hugh Trusty a choice, sell his business or give up the Post Office job.
Trusty decided to stay with the Post Office and Cap Gardner, who had the money, and Newman the expertise bought him out creating Newman-Gardner. Trusty was bitter about having to sell so he refused to lease the building to the new company and once again it became a store front operation in the Bank of Water building facing Wood street.
When World War II started Cap Gardner was able to become a full-time railroad engineer, so he sold his interest to Newman with the stipulation that it remain Newman-Gardner in honor of Will Gardner who had contributed so much to its success.
Cap told me once that he didn’t care how much money the funeral home made, it couldn’t compare with working for the railroad. During World War II Newman had trouble hiring people so he used part-time employees and the one he used most of the time was Tom Scanlon.
Finally Paul Kiihnl was hired full time, later went to mortuary school and when Newman opened a business in Batesville, Paul became manager and Ray Schmitz became assistant.
When Schmitz left Water Valley James Kolb took his place and Josie Simpson worked there until he enlisted in the Navy. Paul met me on the street one day and asked me if I was interested in a job and I said yes and started there in January of 1948.
Not long after James Kolb went in the insurance business and Johnny Middleton was hired. After Paul left Newman sold an interest to Johnny and it became Newman-Middle-ton. They couldn’t get along and it was sold to Homer Dunn who wasn’t very successful.
Lawrence Hale then bought the business. Some time later it became apparent that the town couldn’t support two funeral homes so he sold to Hamric Henry. Lawrence worked there until bad health forced him to retire.
I’m proud of my association with these two businesses and hope this was interesting to all of you.
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org or write me at P. O. Box 613189 Memphis, TN 38101 and have a Merry Christmas.