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The largest Casket Company in the world.

World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic helped the Owosso Casket Company rise to the top of its industry. But the firm also suffered more than its share of tragedies.

Nineteenth-century Michigan was a land rich in natural resources. The abundance of trees made it a prime spot for the establishment of lumber mills and, by extension, wooden furniture manufacturers. Though Grand Rapids became the epicenter of the furniture industry in the state, Owosso made a special contribution as well.

In 1865, a trio of brothers William, Henry, and Warren Woodard--moved to this mid-Michigan city and acquired a lumber mill. The Woodards were soon joined by their elder brother, Lyman, who planned to stop in Owosso for an overnight visit. Instead, he partnered with his family at the mill, and later bought them out. Over the years, he also broadened the business to include the making of doors, sashes, and blinds as well as bedroom furniture--the latter available in basic finishes or more high-end choices.

It wasn't too much of a stretch to move from wooden beds to wooden caskets, an addition to the product line that Lyman introduced in 1882.

Fire-Prone Factory

In 1885, Lyman commissioned a two-story addition to the mill to accommodate his growing wood-products business and had a separate factory constructed on South Elm Street just to produce caskets. Business boomed for three years. Then, tragedy struck.

In May 1888, the casket factory was touched by the first of many fires. The flames were initially detected in the finishing department, where highly flammable materials such as varnish could be found. (The cause of the fire was eventually attributed to a stack of rags that had ignited.) Two hours later, the building was lost, with damages amounting to approximately $50,000--$1.2 million in today's money.

The next day, Lyman ordered replacement materials and, four days later, leased a building to continue the company's operations. The fire occurred on a Thursday, and all the workers were back to work on Monday.

The casket factory was eventually rebuilt, but in a different location: at the corner of rim and Genesee streets. The new structure was five stories high, and consisted of two buildings linked by a connecting corridor through which caskets could be moved back and forth. However, tragedy followed the workers to their new location, and this time the cost was even greater.

On December 8, 1897, night watchman Frank Wilcox noticed a strange light in the evening sky and set off the alarm. The factory was on fire again. This conflagration caused $60,000 in damages to the south building and to the connecting corridor. It also claimed the life of Wilcox, who suffocated while trying to help extinguish the blaze. His obituary made mention of the handsome coffin in which he was buried.

Rapid Expansion

In 1901, the casket-making operation was spun off as its own entity with an initial investment of $100,000. Three years later, it lost its founding father, Lyman Woodard. His sons Frank, Fred, and Lee stepped in to continue the enterprise.

World War I was good for the casket business. So was the influenza epidemic of 1918, when the Owosso Casket Company produced 150 coffins a day and still could not keep up with the demand.

Through the years, the Owosso Casket Company had many firsts associated with it and acquired many patents for improvements to casket design.

By the 1920s, the firm had become the world's largest casket maker.

Variations on a Theme

The traditional line of Owosso caskets included models made of walnut, oak, or mahogany. These were available in a variety of finishes, shapes, and sizes, up to 7 feet 3 inches long. One exception to the size restriction occurred in 1891, when workers built what was then the world's largest casket to accommodate a Grayling man who weighed 390 pounds.

Starting in 1925, the company also produced caskets made of metal, including bronze, copper, and an iron alloy. A third category was manufactured from cypress wood and covered inside and out with fabric. Choices included velour, satin, broadcloth, or crepe in a variety of colors. In 1933, a selection of metal burial vaults was added to their line of merchandise. The 1930s also saw the establishment of a third family business: Lee L. Woodard and Sons. This firm, founded by Lyman's son and his children, focused on the design and manufacture of wrought-iron furniture.

Tragedy Strikes Again

1933 would mark another change for the company. Fred Woodard, the casket company president, ended his own life in October with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had been active in the community, serving on the boards for the Owosso Memorial Hospital and the local school system. He died in the same hospital that he had helped bring to fruition.

1939 would also prove to be a trying year for the firm. On January 19, a group of employees walked off the job and formed a picket line. The police were called in to help non-striking workers safely enter and leave the business. They also served as protection for undertakers who came to pick up caskets they had ordered.

The strike was called by Local 216, associated with the International Upholsterers Union, which lobbied for a closed shop, a minimum 10-cent-per-hour wage increase, and sole bargaining rights for their union. The strike was settled on February 11, when Governor Frank Fitzgerald stepped in to help end it. Under the terms of the new contract, the closed-shop option was rejected. However, the work week was fixed at not more than 44 hours per week, with time off for weekends and legal holidays. Additionally, wages were increased for all employees to 53 cents an hour, far surpassing the national minimum wage of 25 cents an hour.

Despite the strike, the Owosso Casket Company was ahead of its time in labor relations. It made a point of constructing apartments for its workers as well as hiring and promoting female employees. One example was Anna Small, who--for 20 of the 40 years she spent there--was likely the only female casket salesperson in the United States.

Changing Gears

In May 1947, the factory was once again touched by fire, thought to have been ignited by an explosion in a barrel of lacquer thinner. Employee Lawrence Demmers sufered burns on his arms and face. The blaze activated the ceiling water sprinklers and the fire department arrived on the scene promptly, which probably saved the structure from significant damage. The plant closed for a couple of days, but business resumed as usual the following week.

Repeated fires and changes in leadership couldn't bring the company down. But the depletion of good-quality hardwoods in the state as well as competition for workers from the burgeoning automobile industry did take a toll. By the end of 1948, casket production ceased. So did the construction of wooden furniture.

The Woodard family then focused all of its resources on its metal furniture entity. (After changing hands several times, that firm still operates in Owosso, in a modern factory west of town.)

In 1980, the Owosso Casket Company building and related Woodard structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Then, in 2004, a local developer presented plans for the renovation of the complex. Today, the renamed Woodard Station contains modern loft apartments on the top floor and a variety of retail shops, restaurants, and offices on the ground floor. Attached is a rehabilitation center for Owosso Memorial Healthcare.

The Owosso Casket Company lives on, in service to its community.

PREFERRED BY PRESIDENTS

There's no question about who were the most famous people buried in the products of the Owosso Casket Company. Both men died in 1901 and both were presidents of the United States.

The first to be interred was Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president. Harrison died on March 13 from complications of influenza and was buried in an Owosso-made coffin in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The second President to be put to rest in one of the city's products was William McKinley, our 25th president. He was assassinated on September 14, 1901 in Buffalo, New York, while attending the Pan-American Exposition.

McKinley's flag-draped coffin was paraded through three cities--Buffalo, Washington, D.C., and Canton, Ohio-before being interred in its final resting place: Canton's West Lawn Cemetery.

The most famous local person to be buried in an Owosso casket was author and conservationist James Oliver Curwood. Curwood was born in Owosso and spent most of his life there. He wrote in the vein of Jack London, producing 33 books including several that were made into movies. Curwood was a family friend of the Woodard family during his lifetime and often traveled with and entertained them.

Denice Grace is currently employed by the Owosso Historical Commission and serves as a board member for the Shiawassee District Library.
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Title Annotation:Owosso Casket Company
Author:Grace, Denice
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Article Type:Company overview
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Words:1481
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