January 8, 2004

Gerth’s Celebrates 100 Years In Business

Longevity is uncommon in these days of business mergers and acquisitions. Last month the last Disney family member left the company. For a company to remain as a business for a century with the same owners is a rarity.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Gerth & Baskett Furniture and the Gerth Funeral Service. The Gerth family has owned and operated both businesses since Fred Gerth Sr. founded them in 1904 in Wyaconda.

“It says something about the family’s commitment through now four generations to this area”, said Fritz Gerth, the business’ co-owner since 1993. “It is rare for one family to own a business this long. Many sell out or close because their children move away or choose not to enter the business. Also, many small businesses have been unable to adapt to the changing climate where they have to compete with the larger discount stores and out of town businesses and are forced to close.”

Fred Gerth founded an undertaking and furniture store in Wyaconda in 1904. Now those two businesses may seem to be an odd match, but at the turn of the century many funeral homes owners also operated furniture stores or hardware stores. At the time, it was economical because the wood manufacturers made both caskets and furniture and they were shipped together on the same trains.

One of the seminal events in Gerth’s history occurred when Ella Ewing passed away in Gorin on January 10, 1913. Her family contacted Fred Gerth to handle the services. The story of how he found a casket and vault appropriate for the 8 foot 4 ½ Ewing is chronicled in Bette Wiley’s Book, Our Miss Ella.

There had been a heavy snow, and Gerth traveled to the Ewing home in Gorin from Wyaconda via horse and buggy. In those days, most of the funeral arrangements and visitation were held in the home. Even the embalming was done there.

Due to her great height, Ewing was too tall for the portable-embalming table so Gerth had to use her specially made dining room chairs, which were the same height as the six foot long embalming table, to accommodate the procedure.

When he was finished, he spoke with Ben Ewing, Ella’s father, about arrangements. Ben wanted his daughter buried in a casket and sealed permanently in a vault. Ella, a proud and private person, feared her body would be experimented on or even displayed after her death.

Gerth remembered he had seen an oversized demonstration model vault at a show and contacted the manufacturers in Burlington, IA. They agreed to sell him the model, and make a casket to fit, but he had to come to Iowa and pick them up. After preparing the Ewing home for visitation, Gerth then left and promised to return the next day.

Immediately after leaving the Ewing home, Gerth rode to Wyaconda and boarded a train for Ft. Madison, IA. From there he traveled again by horse and buggy to Burlington, arriving in the middle of the night at the factory. Upon receiving the casket and vault, he drove them back to Ft. Madison and loaded them on the train for the ride back to Wyaconda.

Arriving in Wyaconda the morning of the service, Gerth loaded the casket into the horse drawn hearse, which had to be modified to carry the large casket, and rode to Gorin. The casket was so heavy that it took 10 men to carry it.

The funeral procession took Miss Ewing to the Harmony Grove Baptist Church, roughly five miles south of Gorin. When they arrived, a crowd had gathered that was so large the small church could not hold it. Wood burning stoves were placed outside to keep the mourners warm.

Miss Ewing was buried in the oversized vault and concrete poured on it to seal it forever, according to her family’s wishes.

The funeral service of Ella Ewing garnered Fred Gerth a measure of notoriety. In the next few years, the business grew from Wyaconda to include funeral homes in Gorin and Rutledge, as well as a facility in Bible Grove, which had been owned by the Thrasher family.

The family also grew as George Baskett, Fred Gerth’s brother-in-law, joined the firm in 1913, creating Gerth & Baskett.

Baskett operated the stores in Wyaconda and Gorin when Fred Gerth moved to Memphis in 1930, when they purchased Mulch and Sons.

As well as having a funeral home and furniture store, Gerth’s for many years provided free ambulance services in Northeast Missouri. Before Scotland County Memorial Hospital, the nearest health care facilities were in Kirksville and Iowa.

Albert C. Gerth and Frederick Gerth took over operations of the business following the retirement of Fred Gerth Sr. and George Baskett. George Frederick Gerth succeeded his father Albert, following his untimely death in 1959.

During this time, the furniture store expanded to locations in Shelbina and Paris. They also purchased the Individual Mausoleum Corporation (IMCO) in Jamesport. IMCO was one of the first to produce granite top burial mausoleums. There are some of these mausoleums in most of the cemeteries in the area.

Frederick Gerth purchased George Gerth’s share of the company in the early 1970’s and then closed the furniture stores in Shelbina and Paris. The locations in Gorin, Rutledge and Bible Grove were also closed, leaving the current business locations in Memphis and Wyaconda.

Gerth & Baskett merged with D.W. Payne & Sons following a fire that destroyed the Payne’s business in 1979. PayneGerth operated until 1993, when the businesses split.

When Frederick Gerth retired in 1993, Fritz and Janet Gerth became the owners of Gerth & Baskett Furniture and Gerth Funeral Services. Melissa (Gerth) Behrens and her husband Jeff will be the fourth generation to run the business. Nathanial Gerth and Reese Hogarth are also the current employees. Tracey Russell maintains the Wyaconda location.

Gerth Funeral Service operates facilities in Memphis and Wyaconda. Both buildings were extensively remodeled in the early 1990’s. The Memphis building features a children’s room, library, private family seating, and a full service kitchen.

“In 1904, when Granddad started, the visitation was in the home and the service in a church,” said Fritz Gerth. “Now, we have modern and comfortable parlors and chapels in the facilities. Many families have moved away and only return for the funeral. So our parlor has to serve as a comfortable place for them to visit and grieve.

“Also, back then the service was more formal. Now we strive to have a personal experience for our families by providing a comfortable parlor, memory boards to display photos, personalized memorial videos to play on a big screen television, and a website with funeral information for people to express their condolences if they can’t get here.”

There have also been many changes in the furniture business. Gerth & Baskett Furniture has operated exclusively out of the Memphis location since 1994, following the closing of the Wyaconda furniture store. Over the past 100 years, Gerth & Baskett has carried everything from pianos to appliances. Now the business deals in furniture, bedding and carpeting.

“Many of the names have changed,” Gerth said. “At one time, my granddad sold more Cable Nelson Pianos than any other dealer per capita in the United States. We have carried every major name brand from Krohler to Lazy Boy to now Lane, Benchcraft, Berkline and Bruards. We have sold and represented about every carpet mill in America at one time. (Gerth & Baskett) has sold Simmons, Sealy, Serta, Therapedic, and Spring Air mattresses. The names change, but we are still here.”

Gerth said the biggest changes in the business have been in transportation and style. When the business was founded, smaller towns had many stores because goods were shipped cheaply via train. Now merchandise is delivered in trucks, which is more expensive.

Also today, there is such a greater variety of furniture styles and tastes. A business must have a better knowledge and understanding of its market to survive. Customers have a wide range of choices and a business must be able to satisfy them, at a good price.

A lot has changed since Fred Gerth opened his one storeroom in 1904. The business plans several promotions during the year to celebrate the anniversary and the four generations that have maintained this family tradition.

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