In 1910 August Carlson alighted from a train in Rhinelander with his two small sons and an infant daughter. It was midnight, and this recently widowed furniture maker was heading to Rockford, Ill., to join a community of immigrant Swedes who had come to this country like he had only a few short years before. The train to Rockford was not scheduled to leave Rhinelander until noon the next day and so August settled in with his youngsters to wait out the night at the train station.
But fate would deal this accomplished furniture maker a different hand-a hand that would result in his descendants continuing the family tradition of the Carlson Funeral Home that has been part of the Rhinelander area for just a little more than 100 years.
Today, August’s great grandson, Bruce, and his great-great grandson, Michael, (and Bruce’s broth-in-law, John Mayo) continue in this family business. To commemorate that century-old accomplishment, the Carlsons are donating 100 Liberty elm trees that will be planted throughout the city on May 18. “We think this is a good way to give back to a community that has been so much a part of our family throughout the years,” said Bruce.
But leaving a funeral home legacy was not August’s intention when he was waiting for the noon train to Rockford. He had recently lost his wife, who had died giving birth to twins. One of the twins also died, leaving this grieving 37-year-old widower with a family of young children to raise by himself. But while he was waiting for the train, he happened to strike up a conversation with a Mr. Gustavson, who took pity on this lonely traveler and offered the family a place to stay and probably a hot meal.
This act of kindness inspired August and he decided to settle in Rhinelander. He was an ambitious man, and it wasn’t long before he opened his own business selling and repairing used furniture on Stevens Street. Before long, he rented a spot on Brown Street and eventually built a new store where Frasier Plumbing and Heating is located today.
One day shortly after settling into his new building, August was visited by some Rhinelander businessmen who wanted him to attend mortuary school and open a funeral business. He had already been building caskets and it seemed a natural step to complete a course to become a full-fledged mortician.
However, by then Augusts’ sons, Rudolph and Ceaser, were old enough to attend and it was decided Ceaser would take this course. But he didn’t like it and came back to Rhinelander shortly after the program began. Figuring he had already paid good money for this school, August sent Rudolph, who did complete the program. In 1928, August built a chapel next to his store and with his furniture building expertise, he continued constructing caskets for families who had lost loved ones. Now, with Rudy a full- fledged mortician, services could be held in the chapel and families could even take the visitation tradition out of their home and into a neutral location.
Until funeral homes actually started expanding their services, there was very little variation on how funerals were conducted in the early years of the 1900s. In fact, many funeral directors were based in furniture stores and were actually, like August, woodworkers. When someone passed away, the family would contact the funeral director of their choice and he would go to the home of the deceased and prepare the body. “It was pretty much a standard procedure,” said Bruce. “The body would be prepared, and a visitation would take place in the home. Then there would be a church service and the burial, with people returning after that for a meal at the church.”
Eventually, August even became Rhinelander’s coroner and the Carlson family provided ambulance service for the area for many years. “Up until 1962, the Carlson family provided emergency transportation to people in this area,” said Bruce. “Our family’s station wagon was one of the first ambulances.”
Rudy ran the family business until 1973, when he passed away. Then his sons, Jim and David, took over. David, Bruce’s dad, passed away when Bruce was 29 years old. “I went from being an assistant to president of the company when my dad passed away suddenly,” said Bruce.
The funeral industry has seen remarkable changes in the last 100 years. Now courses to become a funeral director don’t last only a month or two like they did when August and Rudy were in the business. “In the last 27 years, since I’ve been here, the government paperwork when someone passes away has increased one hundredfold,” said Bruce. “There are many complicated and technology-driven practices that are part of this industry now, and it takes many years of schooling to learn all there is to know.”
Bruce is proud of the fact that this year his son, Michael, will become a licensed funeral director, making this a fifth generation family business. “We never presumed Michael to go into this business growing up,” said Bruce. “He’s the one who chose this to be in this profession.”
But there’s no hiding the fact that being in the funeral business is not a 9 to 5 job. Like the Carlson family has experienced for many years, and over many generations, family events like birthday parties, vacations and other get-togethers are continually subject to interruptions. “As kids, we would sometimes grumble about that fact,” said Bruce. “But my dad and Uncle Jim, and my grandfather, always told us to think about what that family was going through and how our family was there to help those people and get them through a very hard time in their life. That always made us think twice.”
Bruce carries those sentiments into his work today, and feels privileged to help those who come to him for the services the Carlson family can provide for loved ones who have died. “I feel that what we can do for the people left behind plays an important role in how they heal down the road,” said Bruce. “A funeral only happens one time, it’s not an occasion you can do over, so we do our best to make sure that everything is exactly how the family wants it. That is very, very important to us.”
Also very important for Bruce is the tree donation he is making to enhance the beauty of Rhinelander. “We used to have some big elm trees in this city and we had many other big trees that were taken down by storms over the years,” he said. “I’d like to see more elms trees around. Before they got Dutch elm disease, they were really magnificent.”
The trees ordered for this project are actually Dutch elm disease-resistant, and many will be planted by schools, in parks, at churches, the golf courses and other public areas. They will be delivered Saturday, May 18, and Bruce is looking for volunteers to help plant the trees. (Plans are still being made and will be announced closer to the event.) There are some basic guidelines where these trees can’t be planted, such as under electrical wires and over sewer lines. They can be planted in grassy boulevards between sidewalks and the street, provided that area is at least five feet wide. Rhinelander residents can request a tree be planted near their home, provided the conditions are suitable.
Bruce hopes that in the years to come these trees will grow and flourish, providing not only shade and beauty throughout the city, but also a fit memorial for all the people the Carlsons have had the privilege to know and help over a span of 100 years. “I hope someday people will say Rhinelander is that town with all those beautiful, big trees,” he said. “And I’m really glad I can be a part of that.”
For more information about this project or to suggest a tree planting site, call Bruce Carlson at (715) 369-1414.