LIMA — When Thomas R. Chiles bought the J.W. Bowersock Funeral Home in 1928, he laid the foundation for a business which had a bright future in a profession with a colorful past. Today, the funeral home is in its 87th year and third generation of ownership by the Chiles family.
In 1908, Bowersock was in partnership with Floyd Whitley in an undertaking firm which also offered a horse-and-buggy ambulance service. In November of that year, Bowersock sold his interest to Whitley and “is now back as mail carrier, where he was previously engaged,” The Lima News reported Nov. 23, 1908.
Whitley, the Lima Sunday News reported March 10, 1918, “embalmed all unidentified bodies which came into his possession with a peculiar fluid which he invented. The result of the use of this fluid is almost identical with the results which were achieved by the ancient Egyptians more than 3,000 years ago …”
In 1912, Whitley tested his “peculiar fluid” on “Old Mose” and “Silent Smith.” “Old Mose” was found naked in a south side barn with what the newspapers described as an “Italian stiletto” driven firmly into his heart. His murder was never solved. “Silent Smith,” meanwhile, was a vagrant who, according to the News “died very suddenly in the county infirmary after persistently refusing to talk or in any way reveal his identity in the two months he was an inmate of the home.”
“Silent Smith’s” silence, of course, led to some spectacular conclusions being jumped to. “It was suggested at one time,” the Sunday News wrote Feb. 11, 1917, “he might be Captain Smith, who after being picked up by one of the Titanic’s lifeboats and landed in New York disappeared and never has been heard from since.” Captain Edward J. Smith is thought to have gone down with the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, although his body was never found.
Whoever they were, “Old Mose” and “Silent Smith” were soon in show business, being displayed at fairs and carnivals, ostensibly in the hope someone would be able to identify them. “Mose is credited with having made more money since he was murdered than he did while he was living — and as he was unidentified he might have been a millionaire,” the News noted. After several years of legal wrangling, both men eventually were buried in Lima.
Whitley, who died in 1916 of a kidney ailment, actually went to his grave before “Old Mose,” who wasn’t buried until the summer of 1918. “Mr. Whitley is supposed to be the only man in modern times who even approached the ancients in the embalming art,” the News wrote. “That Whitley divulged his secret upon his death-bed to his family has always been the understanding of people who are supposed to know, but if such was the case, the formula never has been extensively used.
Perhaps, a News story in March 31, 1918, contained the answer. At the end of an article detailing the efforts to get “Old Mose,” who was languishing in a local mortuary after spending four months in a shipping box at the Pennsylvania Railroad station, buried, the News noted, “Old Mose is not a perfect mummy, he must be treated once in a while and he has had no treatment for nearly five months. Something must be done in the case soon, health authorities agree.”
By 1917, Bowersock, the erstwhile mail carrier, had his name back on a funeral home first as Kuhn, Krebs & Bowersock and then as Kuhn, Long & Bowersock. A May 19, 1918, ad in the Lima Daily News touts Kuhn, Long & Bowersock, 674 S. Main St., as having the “best equipment and first-class management of all funerals entrusted to them. They guarantee to save you money.”
Over the next few years, the names of Kuhn and Long disappeared from the funeral home’s name. Webb Kuhn became a street railway conductor while William Long, who was married to Bowersock’s sister, moved with his family to Cleveland.
A Feb. 26, 1923, News ad announced that “J.W. Bowersock is now in his new funeral home, 116-118 N. West St.” The funeral home, the ad said, offered “ambulance service — lady attendant — chairs and tables for rent.” It also offered the services of Thomas R. Chiles who had joined Bowersock, his brother-in-law, in the business.
When Bowersock died in July 1928, Chiles bought the funeral home from his widow, Harriett E. Bowersock. Chiles, “will continue to operate it as a modern funeral home …,” a Sept. 9, 1928, ad in the News promised. “Mrs. Bowersock will be actively interested in the new management and the business will be continued under the name of the Bowersock Funeral Home at 131 North West Street in Lima, Ohio.”
T.R. Chiles was born July 26, 1881, in Auglaize County but was living in Hardin County in 1904 when son, Harold S. Chiles was born to him and his wife, Dessie C. Keith Chiles. Another son, Russell M. Chiles, was born in 1916.
Russell Chiles, who graduated in 1940 from the Cleveland School of Embalming, joined his father in the family business in 1941, which by then had moved to the corner of West Wayne and Washington streets. Older son Harold Chiles joined the business in 1948. Howard R. Laman, who married T.R. Chiles’ daughter, Mamie Belle, joined his father-in-law in 1947.
As 1951 ended, Chiles & Son Funeral Home billed itself in a News ad as “A Family Dedicated to Service.”
That family’s second generation started joining the business in 1961, with Harold Chiles’ son, Donald S. Chiles, coming on board, followed in 1964 by Russell Chiles’ son, James R. Chiles.
The business, too, was growing. Despite remodeling and expanding the Wayne Street site, more room was needed. On Dec. 11, 1960, Chiles & Son announced the purchase of the Lewis Funeral Home at 828 Bellefontaine Ave. Harry Lewis, who had established a funeral home at 129 N. Metcalf St. in 1931 and moved to Bellefontaine Avenue in 1953, stayed on as a consultant. The funeral home became known as the Lewis Memorial Chapel of Chiles & Son. In 1967, the Shawnee Chapel was constructed.
The first generation of the funeral home family, Thomas R. Chiles, died Feb. 14, 1964. Howard R. Laman died Aug. 5, 1980. His son, H. Robert Laman, a member of the third generation, joined the firm in 1990.
In 1986, Chiles & Son purchased the Basinger and Diller funeral homes in Bluffton and the Haas-Diller Funeral Home in Pandora.
Russell M. Chiles, by then president of Chiles & Sons-Laman Funeral Homes, died Sept. 6, 1990, followed on Feb. 16, 1991, by Harold S. Chiles, who was chairman of the board of the funeral homes. Donald S. Chiles, who spent 52 years with the firm, died Nov. 24, 2012.
Today, the staff includes H. Robert Laman, who serves as president, as well as James R. Chiles, who has been with the company for more than 40 years. Scott Chiles is a funeral director and embalmer with the company. Chiles-Laman Funeral and Cremation Services operate the Eastside Chapel, which formerly was known as the Lewis Memorial Chapel, the Shawnee Chapel and the Bluffton Chapel.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.