STILL A SLOW RIDE

 

                                                  Published in the Sunday Journal Gazette

 

                                                                By Forest J. McComb

 

Retirement hobbies can take people into some strange things, but the one CHARLES W. RICHARDS pursues a mile and one half southeast of Huntertown on the Hathaway Road is one of the most unusual.

 

Charlie has had a great love of horses for all his 76 years working, training and handling them, and when the opportunity came to purchase an old horse-drawn hearse from MRS. DWIGHT PARKER of Albion, he did so for two reasons.  Charlie thought the hearse should be preserved for its historical and antique value.  And, of course, the hearse involved the use of horses. 

 

The hearse was in a sad state of disrepair, but it was built by the United States Carriage Co. of Columbus, Ohio, and Charlie’s family pitched in to help overhaul it.  Eventually, it was cleaned, repaired, painted and fitted with new rubber tires.

 

The stylish and well-built hearse was like remodeling an old house.  When it’s built right in the first place, a little understanding work and loving care will bring it back to its original appearance, and that’s what was done even to upholstering the driver’s seat.

 

The hearse, painted black, has an overall body length of 12 feet and it stands seven feet high.  The enclosed casket compartment is made of wood and glass, as are the rear doors.  There are four round upright posts, one for each corner, five inches in diameter and they have scrollwork top and bottom.  The black drapes for the windows and doors are trimmed in brown fringe and tassels and are thought to be the original ones that came with the hearse.

 

                                                The Vehicle Bed Laced With Steel  

 

Steel reinforcing in the bed does away with the need of a reach between axles;  the 43-inch diameter front wheels can swing under the driver’s seat, enabling the hearse to make very short turns.  The rear wheels stand 48 inches high and the four wheels are equipped with solid, cushioned rubber tires.  The driver’s seat, accommodating two persons, is up high in front and unprotected from the weather.  There is an oil lamp on each side.

 

Over a period of seven years, Charlie has used three different teams on the hearse.  In training a team he first drives in the farm fields before taking them on the road.  The horses are taught obedience – to start, stop, and stand, for it’s dangerous to take an unsafe team into a crowd.

 

Charlie made his first appearance with the somber vehicle seven years ago in the Huntertown Fair parade.  The farthest he’s been with the hearse is to Columbia City for the Old Settler’s Day parade.

 

He’s also been to Churubusco for Turtle Days, the Auburn Street Fair and to Grabill for the dedication of the Grabill Barn.  He was invited there by IRVING DELEGRANGE, who then rode with Charlie in the parade.

 

When on parade, Charlie dresses for the part, wearing appropriate clothing, a black suit, tall hat, gloves and bow tie and could easily pass for an undertaker.  In face, after the Grabill parade he was approached by a stranger and asked how long he’d been “in business.”

 

Besides farming, Charlie hauled farmers’ livestock to market for 26 years and has many friends around the country.  One of them, CARL SINDERS, Garrett, R.R. 1, knowing Charlie needed a casket to complete the hearse, saw the opportunity to get one that never had been uncrated.  Carl bought it at once and then called Charlie to tell about getting it for him.

 

The horse-drawn hearse was put out of business between 1910 and 1914, and the transition didn’t come easy as many people without automobiles continued to attend funerals with horses.  A slow car speed was still too fast for the horses and the auto hearse would have to stop and let them catch up. 

 

Folks around 70 years old remember when all funerals were by horse-drawn vehicles.  Sometimes the procession would be one half to a mile long and the different horses and vehicles made quite a contrast.  And something was lost too, when the horse was dropped from funerals.

 

Before funeral parlor service became a reality, a death was strictly a family affair.  My pioneer grandfather, P. W. JACKSON, who lived for 70 years north of Fort Wayne on the Coldwater Road, told of an experience.  He, a brother and a brother-in-law by the name of CUMMINGS went by wagon to Fort Wayne to fish in the St. Mary’s River.  It was a hot day and Cummings decided to go swimming and he drowned.  The brothers were able to recover the body and grandfather was asked, “What did you do then?”

 

“We loaded him in the wagon and started home,” was his reply, “What else was there to do?”

 

And over the years, death also brought on some unplanned humor still remembered.  It was customary and right for neighbors to turn out to help and console a stricken family.  There was a character who lost his wife one winter and when friends offered their sympathy, he was inclined to look for the brighter side of things, and he said, “Yes – it is too bad;  but better now than in corn plantin’ time!”

 

And my father had a story about a woman who died very suddenly.  When the news got around, the farmhouse was crowded that evening.  The cause of death hadn’t been released, and was causing considerable speculation among the visitors.

 

A hard-of-hearing man was sitting behind two women who were holding a whispering conversation.  The man had an ear cupped to hear, and when he caught a couple of words, figured he had it.  “Yup,” he said, “female trouble, eh?  Mighty bad disease!  That’s the same thing that killed my brother Jake!”  

 

In a parade at Churubusco Charlie used a bay team of young three-year olds and they got a severe test in training.  He was placed directly behind a band, and one of the band maneuvers was to reverse its direction while playing.  Charlie stopped when he saw what they were doing and the band came within 20 feet of the horses, who stood as if it was all in the day’s work;  but the alerted ears pointing forward showed they were under considerable pressure. 

 

It costs $24 to shoe a team, and in going farther than Huntertown, the horses are hauled by truck and the hearse by trailer.  So far, Charlie has stood all expenses but doesn’t think it has been more than if he’d taken to fishing or playing golf.

 

Charles W. Richards and family have done a very commendable thing to preserve the old hearse.  It represents an “era of history,” and someday it is to be hoped it finds its way into a museum.