Evanson Jensen Funeral Homes achieves its centennial

100 years of continuous service to the Lemmon community and West River Area is an achievement few businesses or professions attain.

George Fields is pictured driving the horse dawn funeral coach for Evanson Jensen Funeral Home in the early 1900s. – Courtesy photo


By Eldon S. Jensen

Special to the Record

Posted June 22, 2012

100 years of continuous service to the Lemmon community and West River Area is an achievement few businesses or professions attain.

These writings, in four 25-year segments, hopefully will tell the story.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Our firm was founded by R. S. “Dick” Evanson. Born in 1886 and originally from Fish Creek, Wisc., he had been in Lemmon since 1908 and worked with a brother in the operation of the Royal Hotel, later operating a feed store. He was approached by the Braden Furniture and Undertaking business because they could not acclimate to the wide-open spaces of Dakota and wanted to go back East.

“Dick, do you think you can buy us out and run this type of business?” was the question asked (as relayed to me years later.) Braden evidently was a customer of Dick’s at the feed store, in those “horse drawn” days.

The transaction was completed on June 12, 1912 for the property, inventory and equipment at 409 Main St. and Dick was off to the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis to take a six-week course in embalming. The work was left to the hands of Charles Kruse, who had homesteaded south of Lemmon and was experienced and licensed in Chicago.

After his “education,” his higher education came from doing the work. The emotional-psychological aspects of grief where not taught in those days. The undertaker was expected to do the physical work and provide the merchandise necessary to bury the dead. Fifty years later, I observed that Dick had a full understanding of the grieving process, learned through the school of hard knocks. George Fields, pictured driving the horse drawn funeral coach must have been one of Dick’s early day “assistants.”

Six years later, in 1918, he purchased the Nickisch undertaking and furniture business at 401 Main St, and combined the firms at that location. There it remained for this first 25 years as R.S. Evanson Furniture and Undertaking.

Co-mingled into these acquisitions comes a story about alcohol and error. It’s told that one of these “undertakers” imbibed frequently and kept his bottles in the same cabinet. He grabbed the wrong bottle and that was the end of the story. Since that time, there has been only one funeral home in Lemmon. Dick relayed an accurate saying about business and competition, “Don’t worry about competition….just run your business as if you had the strongest competition right across the street….and you won’t have any.”

Some may recall the 24’ x 120’, two story wood framed building, the lot is now the parking area north of the Lemmon IGA grocery store. It housed the furniture inventory and office on the main floor, the “undertaking/embalming” room at the far east end and the casket inventory on the second floor. There was a rope pull elevator and a long steep stairway, which accessed the second floor.

When I started working for the Evanson’s, the Funeral Home (1937) had been moved to 4th Ave. W., but many a furniture customer reminded me of what used to be up there, and were reluctant to ascend those stairs. Others preferred to have us pull them up on that old elevator, which depending on the number of people, was an upper body building experience. Coming down was easy as long as you held onto the brake rope.

The earliest records in our possession, compared to the recording and filings required today, are a handwritten book of Inventory dated 1918 to 1921 and a three-sheet, carbon copy Reynold’s American Repeating Order Book. The latter bears Dick’s handwriting “Undertaking 1919 & 1920.”

The locations of earlier versions of such records are unknown and perhaps were even more archaic in relation to today’s accounting. The inventory entries of Jan. 1, 1918, show a reversible mattress for $3.75, an ironing board for 90 cents, a leather chair for $5 and a combined inventory with caskets, equipment, and the horse drawn hearse ($400) of $5,017.55. It was definitely a combined business. Included in the casket inventories are entries of “caskets in Bison” explaining further the large geographic area of West River Country covered by R. S. Evanson.

The “undertaking” sales book starts on March 2, 1919, and the first entry is a sale to Mrs. David Joyce, of Faith, for a casket, hearse, services, digging the grave and clothing, totaling $95.90. Mrs. Joyce was the widow of the early day Faith, S.D. undertaker and had continued to operate that business after his early death. There is no designation as to whom the decedent was, but indicates that Dick also assisted others in the same work at great distances. Some of the entries are marked “charged,” others also marked “paid” and still others “cash.”.

Besides “north of town,” Marmath, Haynes, Reeder, Chance, Whitney, Pleasant Ridge, Thunder Hawk, Stowers, Morristown, Watauga, Bison and Coal Springs are the towns of residence listed. Also interesting in these pages are the names of early day homesteaders and residents: Williams, Stanley, Stevens, Gleason, Becker, Johnson, Engle, Ostby, Hagen, Moore, Foster, Nelson, Ostenberg, Spore, Olson, Peterson, Randen, Texley, Scheid and Napton, to list a few.

In 1926, bound, indexed Undertaker’s Funeral Record books were put into place – progress in record keeping was here. The pages contained much more information, and the first pages were completed in great detail but this gradually dwindles over the continuing entries. On Jan. 16, 1926, Harry Riis, 46, a Lemmon Banker, was accidentally asphyxiated with “petrometria carbon monoxide.” The pallbearers were Carl Hose, John Bamble, Joe Frundle, Dr. Curtis, E. O. Myron and Sam Rien, recognizable names in the early days of Lemmon. His wife, Judith, raised her family of four and subsequently worked at the Lemmon Library for many years. The causes of death entries ranged from pneumonia, shot himself, swallowed a shingle nail, chronic myocardia dispensation to heart failure, injured in run away with team of horses and dropsy. There must have been concerns in the banking business in 1925 and 1926, as the First State Bank of Lemmon was closed.

Then in April, Carl W. Hose, First State Bank President, a pallbearer for Harry Riis, died at age 38 of a gunshot wound to the head. Greater details in an old Lemmon newspaper indicated he was under arrest for absconding with $30,000 from the bank and on his way to the county jail, asked to stop at his home. Hose evidently went in the front door, out the back to his garage, where he took his own life, with the sheriff parked a waiting on the street. He was shipped to Minneapolis by train for burial.

Dick once said, “You have it easy compared to my work in the early days….now the children are coming in to bury their parents, I had parents coming in the bury their children.”

Added to this could be the manner of death and low median age at the time of death. The caskets were inventoried in these handwritten books by size and length from 1’9” to 6’3” in increments of 6 inches of length. Thirty-three caskets were on hand and only seven would be considered adult size. One can see from these old records the difficulties of the work during those early days. Thank God the infant/adult mortality rate has completely reversed.

One death for the year 1917 is only recorded on a simple granite marker in Greenhill Cemetery “Clara Evanson 1890-1917.” Though mentioned only once over the years, she was Dick Evanson’s first wife.

Clara had evidently come with him to Lemmon in 1908 and died 5 years into his operation of the undertaking parlour. They also had a daughter, who was taken to California to be cared for by relatives and she passed away there as a young girl. Dick also had his grief to bear in those early years and was tested in his ability to care for others.

On Jan. 1, 1927, he recorded in pencil, toward the back of the book, what would be a financial statement in today’s accounting language. Buildings, inventory, equipment, fixtures totaled $9,136.44, “on books”, what was owed his business was $3,519.62 and cash on hand and in the bank was $771.41. Less his “bills payable” of $3,907.34 brought the business net worth to $8,826.51. He, like so many of our hard working Pioneers saw banks failing and were just around the corner of the Dirty Thirties.

On Jan. 21, 1919, he was married to Sadie Christina Aure in Minneapolis and they returned to Lemmon to continue the operation of R.S. Evanson Furniture and Undertaking and raise a family. Their son, Vernon “Evie,” was born in November of 1919 and then came daughters, Dolores and Dorothy. All were raised and educated in Lemmon. In 1937 they purchased property next to their 4th Ave. home and moved the undertaking business there, establishing Evanson Funeral Home.

Dick was always interested in the betterment of his community and served as mayor, and worked with any project that came along. Being originally from Wisconsin, he loved his trees, and was constantly in his yards and around the community, caring for the trees and grass, when able to be away from the business.

The work must have moved much slower in those days of horse drawn equipment, the Model A, and train for travel; the telegraph, postal service and crank telephones. Many of the preparations for burial were completed in the home of the deceased. With his portable “cooling board”, instrument and fluids satchel he would travel to the rural home. After the completion of this initial work, he would return in a day to do the dressing, hair care, and bring the casket that had been chosen.

The visitations, wakes, and even the funeral services were held in the home, overflowing into the farm yard. Many burials were done on the homestead land of these early settlers, and over the years new land owners or family members requested moving of the grave to organized cemeteries. Many still lay in the fields and prairies, their families having left after “proving up” or failing to do so, “drying out,” or going broke.

The Dirty Thirties finished out the first 25 years of business for R. S. Evanson Undertaker and Furniture. The record books show payments by barter; “one load of coal,” “one turkey” or “a goose.” So it was for many businesses, and those who came to settle the land of the Western Dakotas.

After Mr. Evanson’s death in 1971, a check came in the mail with a letter attached.

“This is for payment for the sewing machine we purchased from R. S. Evanson, not long before we had to leave Lemmon. I hope this is sufficient to cover the carrying charges as well,” the letter stated. The check, one of a kind to cover those old purchases, was taken to Sadie Evanson.

So it was for the first quarter century.