Wyaconda bids farewell to business of bidding farewell

Fritz Gerth, left, holds a framed letter from Harry S. Truman while Jeff Behrens holds an original photograph of Missouri's tallest woman, Ella Ewing, outside the Gerth Funeral Home in Wyaconda, Mo. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Dec. 24, 2012 7:58 am Updated: Jan. 14, 2013 9:20 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

WYACONDA, Mo. -- After 108 years of organizing proper farewells to Wyaconda residents, Gerth Funeral Service is saying goodbye while helping welcome one resident back.

The Gerth family has sold the chapel at 115 Main to Wyaconda native Angela Allen and her husband Travis. The couple intends to open a restaurant and bar at the location. With Wyaconda's declining population, Jeff Behrens said this chapel only hosted 2-3 funerals each year. Most of the family's business stemmed from Gerth's Memphis location, which will continue the family's 108 years of business.

"We know we could have maintained it for many years, if we had wanted to, but it was just the right time," Behrens said.

Behrens said the family hadn't planned to sell the chapel, but when Allen mentioned buying the building, the deal seemed beneficial for the family and the town. Allen's restaurant, Froggies, will add one more daily business to Wyaconda's sparse downtown. The small town of roughly 220 people has few businesses -- among them are a bar and restaurant, a post office and a bank.

Even though the chapel will transform into Froggies, Gerth's Funeral Services will still conduct business in Wyaconda. The family has collaborated with local churches so funeral services and visitations may still continue in town.

While the Memphis chapel generates more business, Behrens said the Gerth family still considers Wyaconda home. Frederick Gerth and George Baskett opened the funeral home and furniture store in 1904. The two friends married sisters and then went into business together. The Gerths since have ushered many of the town residents into their final resting places. During the final service on Nov. 24, several residents came to say farewell to the dead and also to the chapel.

"Several people knew this was the final service, so they just came in and they were telling stories," Behrens said.

The Gerth and Baskett northeast Missouri legacy resonated as the family began cleaning out the old chapel. Behrens, who married into the fourth generation of the Gerth family, said the second floor of the chapel acted as a time capsule for the family. The upstairs preserved fragments of history including outdated medical equipment, train schedules, campaign flyers and even a diary that told of former President Harry S. Truman's visit to a Wyaconda barbershop.

Among the most treasured items, the family found a brief 1954 note from Truman to George Baskett. The two men had both been Masons, and the five lines of typed text most likely refer to a Masonic event that Truman could not attend.

The family embalmed Ella Ewing, popularly known as "The Missouri Giantess," in January 1913. Behrens said family history explains Frederick Gerth Sr. had to travel more than 8 miles in the snow by horse and buggy to reach Ewing's home. While Ewing had requested cremation, her father insisted on a funeral. The undertaker had to seek a casket large enough for the woman, believed to be around 7-foot-4, as well as find a hearse long enough to carry the oversized casket.

Just as Gerths provided for the Ewing family, they intend to continue that level of service from the Memphis, Mo., location 20 miles from Wyaconda. While the building has left the family, the family and the history have not left the area.

"It's kind of bittersweet to lose it, to let it go, because it's a neat old building," Behrens said. "But it'll be nice to have a restaurant down there."

While Allen grew up and attended school in Wyaconda, she previously owned a restaurant, also called Froggies, in Kahoka, Mo. The Allens bought a home in May the small town, and she hopes to open the restaurant in early 2012.

"I just wanted to be back in my hometown," she said.

The menu will feature steaks prepared on a charbroil grill, a selection of homemade pies, an array of home-baked meals and a lunchtime buffet. Allen hopes to accommodate the farmers, so they can come in for lunch and quickly return to the fields during the harvest and planting seasons.