Horse Drawn Hearse

Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

We are located at 421 Summer Street. We are closed but appointments can be made with a 48 hour notice by email to stjohnsburyhhc@gmail.com . All Vermont Covid 19 rules are followed. Everyone that keeps the doors open at History & Heritage is in the high risk numbers of their life according to the virus statistics and we need to have everyone comfortable. This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home and barn a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Browse our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.

Horse Drawn Hearse

I was not sure if I should follow up my last article on the Pandemic of 1918 with a hearse story, but wanting to tell you of some of our prized collections, here we go. The acquiring of the horse-drawn hearse started in 1986; it belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Houghton on the Red Village Road in Lyndonville, and they had decided to sell it. They had taken good care of it by keeping a roof over its head and the wheels off the bare ground. Claire Dunne Johnson had documented the hearse as being owned by East St. Johnsbury around the turn of the century. It was then sold to the town of Kirby. Although not documented, Elton Lapoint, a long-time employee of C. A. Calderwood Funeral Home, claimed that the hearse was one of the first in St. Johnsbury.


I need to digress for a moment for those of you who remember Calderwood Funeral Home. I saw many a funeral procession enter the Mount Pleasant Cemetery with Wesley Calderwood in the lead car driving the clergy person, followed by the hearse with Elton Lapoint and Donald Radford. They were a class act – Donald and Elton – professional, but when the mourners had left, quick on their feet and never afraid to get their hands dirty if you needed a hand and always had smiles and laughter before leaving the cemetery.


Not wanting to see this piece leave St. Johnsbury, a plea went out for $1600.00 to purchase the hearse knowing there was an interest from Connecticut should we fail. Success was ours and the hearse became the property of the Fairbanks Museum. We said because of space constraints that the hearse would only be displayed periodically and hopefully used in the town’s Bicentennial parade the following year. We moved it on an open trailer to Calderwood’s to a stall they had underneath their garage, accessed off from Federal Street. I knew we had done the right thing when three kids watching us after turning off Eastern Ave., headed for the barn, asking, “What is it?”



We turned to Ken Wheeling of Monkton, Vt. and formally of the Shelburne Museum for as much information as we could glean about our new possession. Ken had written the book on all the horse drawn vehicles at the Shelburne Museum. The small plate identifying its maker had long disappeared off the back of the hearse. Ken’s best guess at the age was just prior to or just after the Civil War. It was not fancy, had no brass lanterns or filigree but its simplicity was sound. The glass was unbroken, the curtains still hung and it was horse worthy without any repairs. A good cleaning and a paint job was all it seemed to need. Ken provided all the information to enable the hearse to remain in good condition, from the grease to use on the wheels, to the spray on the bolts, to the application of linseed oil for the cracks in the hubs. He also gave guidance on the type of paint to use, the sanding between coats, and the brushing of ONE way after the first two coats!


The labor of love was performed by Dianne Rolfe, Sue Gallagher, Julian Butler, Shari Ross, Bruce Brink, Bob Lowry, and the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery crew!


Upon our acquiring the hearse, Agnes Powers Reed from Kirby shared a story about the hearse from her childhood. It was “mud season” in the spring of 1926 or 1927 and the roads were a mess. Charles Ford had passed away and was to be buried in the North Kirby Cemetery. Kirby had the horse drawn hearse then and Agnes’s father, Roy Powers, was asked to meet the undertaker at East Lyndon to provide transportation of the body to the cemetery. Agnes, who was six, and her brother, Maurice, who was four asked if they might have a ride down the hill. Agnes wrote, “Of course it was empty! Daddy lifted us up into it. The doors were hooked open and we had a ride down the hill. We were delighted and walked back home.”


Fast forward to the Bicentennial Parade in 1987 and Melissa Coffin can be added to Agnes and Maurice’s adventure as a live rider in the hearse. She even took a nap as it left the cemetery!


A folder in our archives has various expenses for the Village, including an expense book showing $600.00 paid H. Fairbanks for a hearse in 1866. In 1867, J. D. Miller, manufacturer of Carriages and Sleighs, was paid $50.00 for runners for a hearse. The box part of the hearse could be lifted off the wheels and put on these runners for winter use. Can we connect the dots to the physical hearse that we have now? The answer would be no.

After being stored at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, the former Bubba’s on Railroad Street, and coming out for parades and Craft days, the hearse has a permanent resting place in the Carriage Barn at History & Heritage where we can answer the young people’s question – “What is it?”

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