LIMA — Between 1910 and 1920, Lima’s population grew from around 30,000 to more than 41,000. The growing city was a great place for tradesmen, merchants, restaurateurs, hoteliers and theater owners.
And also, it turns out, for undertakers, a situation the Lima Daily News found slightly baffling because, according to the paper, the city was not a great place for dying.
“Despite the fact that Lima’s death rate is supposed to be exceedingly low in comparison with its population, undertakers seem to find a flourishing field in their line of business,” the Daily News wrote July 3, 1917. “A surprising fact has just been made known that the city is supporting nine undertaking firms each with attractive headquarters and each seemingly doing a lively business.”
Two recently arrived mortuaries were hoping for a piece of that “lively” business, the story concluded. One of these, the Lima City Undertaking Co., had “just sprung into existence on West Elm Street” across from Memorial Hall. One of the founders of City Undertaking, Aldous W. Cantwell, would serve Lima as a mortician for more than 50 years.
“Realizing the rapid growth of the city of Lima the past few years and appreciating the fact that the increase is going to be fast and continued, H.H. Hamilton and A.W. Cantwell, both former residents of Lima, have returned to the city to announce the formation of a new undertaking establishment, Lima’s City Undertaking Co.,” the Lima Times Democrat reported Aug. 3, 1916.
“The new quarters have been attractively arranged and decorated and the company has a full motor equipment and ambulance service,” the Lima Republican-Gazette wrote the same day.
A City Undertaking ad in the Daily News from Nov. 10, 1917, touted caskets at “35 to 50 percent less than other dealers” with satisfaction guaranteed.
City Undertaking wasn’t selling caskets for less for long and, in 1919, Cantwell opened a new establishment. “A.W. Cantwell, 619 W. High St., has announced that he will open his new undertaking establishment Monday, June 2,” the News reported June 1, 1919. “The room which will be occupied by the new shop is the same as was used by the War Chest and Liberty Loan committees, at 215 N. Elizabeth St. Mr. Cantwell graduated from Columbus Training School of embalming and was recently connected with W. Mack Johnson undertaking, of Cincinnati.”
A.W. “Doc” Cantwell was born Nov. 11, 1897, in Bellefontaine to William Patrick and Josephine Hennessy Cantwell. The family moved to Lima around the turn of the century where William Cantwell worked as a stone contractor.
Although Cantwell was, as his advertising describes him, a funeral director and embalmer, he also was actively involved in Lima’s civic life. He was a member of St. Rose parish, a charter member of the Kiwanis Club, a life member of the Lima Elks Lodge and served on fundraising committees for St. Rita’s Hospital. He also was a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, playing Santa Claus at a K of C Christmas parties for children.
In April 1921, less than two years after moving into the North Elizabeth Street building, Cantwell took his civic activity to a higher level. When a young burglar, prowling around in the offices of the Kief tire company next door, stepped on an alarm, Cantwell investigated.
“Peering through the windows, A.W. Cantwell saw the youth opening a cash register. He shouted ‘hands up’ and ordered the burglar to come to the door. The youth complied. At Cantwell’s orders he stood with his face against the glass on the inside,” the Republican-Gazette reported April 20, 1921.
The burglar went back out the window when Cantwell left to notify police, leaving another man to watch the burglar. The youth, who was at the beginning of a three-month spree, was captured for good in early August.
In the 1920s Cantwell moved to new quarters. On Aug. 26, 1928, the News announced that “all day Sunday Lima citizens will have the opportunity of inspection of the Cantwell Funeral Home, 318 W. North St., which has recently been entirely remodeled and rebuilt, making it one of the most modern funeral homes of its kind in Ohio.”
In the same day’s paper, an ad announcing the opening described it as “a strictly non-sectarian funeral home” which also offered “ambulance service night or day.”
A little more than 20 years later, Cantwell was again moving, but not very far. “Construction of a new Colonial type funeral home costing approximately $60,000 has been started by A.W. Cantwell, on the two lots west of the present mortuary at 318 W. North St.,” the News wrote Aug. 14, 1949. … The Cantwell firm was established in 1919 in the Parmenter Building in the 200 block of North Elizabeth Street. Later, Cantwell acquired the residence of the late C.L. Ackerman, which is the present funeral home. He subsequently purchased the Harley homestead, an adjoining property.”
In December 1949, William E. Sweet, a graduate of South High School and Navy veteran of World War II, was granted an embalmers’ license. “He now is associated with Cantwell Funeral Home, serving the capacity of embalmer and funeral director,” the News reported. By the mid-1950s, Cantwell Funeral Home had become Cantwell-Sweet.
Cantwell gained another kind of partner April 12, 1950. “Dignity and simplicity marked the wedding of Miss Nell L. Nordhaus, 777 W. High St., and A.W. Cantwell, 318 W. North St., solemnized Wednesday morning at St. Rose Catholic Church.” The News reported. Nordhaus, a native of Ottawa and graduate of St. Rita’s Hospital School of Nursing, was a longtime Cantwell employee.
Meanwhile, Cantwell continued to expand his property until, in the late 1950s, he displaced some noisy neighbors. “Twenty-thousand starlings — more or less — will be left homeless before the week is out as a huge elm tree which dominates the street and sidewalk in front of 326 W. North St. is toppled with power saws and a crane. The tree — and the 70-year-old house behind it — are coming down to make way for a new parking lot for the Cantwell-Sweet Mortuary just east of the lot where they are located,” the News wrote Sept. 22, 1958.
“They’re so noisy at times you can hear them for a block,” Cantwell told the News. “Why, it’s one of the most popular bird roosts in the city — as well as being one of the biggest trees in town.”
Cantwell died at 78 on Jan. 25, 1973. His wife, Nell, continued to operate the mortuary until August 1974. She died in 1985. Cantwell’s partner, William Sweet, died at 78 on Jan. 16, 2004.
Lima’s Elks Lodge purchased the funeral home property in late 1974.