CENTURY OF SERVING
Bryan Hugeback would love to go back in time — just for a day — to see where the funeral home that has been such a huge part of his life all started.
On July 20, 1917, a funeral home owned by Bill Larkin, helped put a retired farmer named Nat Hilsman to rest, and 100 years later, that funeral home is still going strong.
“A lot of things have changed,” Hugeback said, “but the one thing that hasn’t is our job is the same as Bill Larkin’s was. We help families through the grieving process. How we do that may not exactly be the same as it was in 1917, but that is our No. 1 job.”
Over the course of 100 years, the funeral home’s name may have changed a time or two, but it has been a model of stability.
Larkin owned the funeral home until 1961, when he sold it to Emmett and Mary Martin. In 1979, Leon Hugeback became the owner, and 17 years later, his son took over the business.
That’s four owners in 100 years.
“To me, that may be the most striking thing,” Hugeback said. “To have only four owners in all that time, that just hits me.”
The “fifth owners” — Hugeback’s son, Andy, and his son-in-law, Drew Johnson — are waiting in the wings as Hugeback-Johnson enters its second century of serving families, some of whom are going through the toughest times in their lives.
ON JULY 17, 1917, Nat Hilsman died at the age of 84.
Three days later, with Bill Larkin’s new funeral home handling the arrangements, Hilsman’s funeral was held at St. Mary’s Church and he was laid to rest at St. Mary’s Cemetery.
The cost of the funeral was $166 — $125 for the casket, $15 for the embalming, $1 for the carriage and $10 for the hearse.
A business — one that continues to carry on 100 years later — was born.
HUGEBACK-JOHNSON is a family affair.
Bryan Hugeback has owned the funeral home for 21 years, and his wife, Gayla, has been by his side the entire time.
Andy Hugeback and Drew Johnson, who is married to the Hugeback’s daughter, Maggie, are funeral directors.
There are other employees to be sure. Gary Olson, who was a longtime funeral director in Nashua, joined the firm in 2003 and works as a part-time funeral director. Donna Karnik helps around the office.
Jordan Holthaus, a New Hampton High School student, takes care of the grounds. And there are a number of other part-time staff who perform various functions at the funeral home.
But, at its core, this is a family business, and the Hugebacks have a family reunion virtually every day.
“It works because even if we don’t always agree, at the end of the day, we’re still family,” said Andy. “I know people say some families shouldn’t work together, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
While Andy and Maggie figuratively grew up around the funeral home, Johnson began learning about the business when he started dating the Hugeback’s daughter in high school.
“I think one of the things that hit me was how Bryan and Gayla made such a difference for people going through a difficult time,” he said. “The more and more I thought about it, the more and more I wanted to do this.”
Granted, these daily family reunions come with plenty of grief.
As the family sat around a conference table at the funeral home on a recent day, Gayla was asked what her role was at the funeral home.
Before she could answer, both her husband and her son — almost in unison — said, “Anything creative and artsy.”
“That’s mom’s andMaggie’s job,” Andy added. “If they left that to us, we’d be in a world of trouble.”
NO TWO FUNERALS are exactly alike, especially in today’s world.
There are countless changes that have occurred in the business since Bryan Hugeback entered it in the mid-1980s.
Take cremation, for example. Years ago, it was almost unheard of; today, his son and son-in-law own a crematory in New Hampton.
Technology and, yes, creativity, mean that beautiful canvasses can be made to celebrate a life. Programs are in full color and life videos are made. The number of options for families who are saying goodbye to a loved one are almost limitless.
Empathy, just as it did 100 years ago, remains a characteristic of every good funeral home director.
Some funerals are tougher than others, too, especially those that are needed when a young person dies.
Asked about making those arrangements, the conference room grew silent.
“I think everyone in this room will tell you how hard it is to go through that,” Bryan said quietly. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s hard. ... But our job is to help a family walk through that process and try to bring them some comfort.”
Across the table, Andy agreed.
“When you watch a parent standing over that casket, if you don’t get a lump in your throat, you shouldn’t be doing this,” he said.
SOMETIME EARLY NEXT year, Hugeback-Johnson will pack up and move from its location on the city’s south side to Main Street. The business will move into the old K&W Motors building that has undergone extensive renovation this year. And this month, construction on a new addition began.
The new facility will have a large viewing area and a luncheon hall and will encompass about 11,000 square feet, more than double the space the current funeral home offers, and once its completed, an open house, which will include tours of the funeral home and crematory, to celebrate 100 years in business and the new location will be held.
“It’s really a community building,” Gayla Hugeback said. “We’ve already done some things — like RAGBRAI and things like that — and it’s really our investment and our belief in New Hampton.” The funeral home Bill Larkin started 100 years ago has grown by proverbial leaps and bounds.
Today, Hugeback-Johnson has locations in Fredericksburg, Nashua, Lawler, Protivin and Waucoma.
“I wonder what Mr. Larkin would think if he could see what he started,” Gayla said. “I think he would be fascinated.”
So much has changed in 100 years.
Back in 1917, the hospital in New Hampton was brand spanking new. Cars were a luxury. Heck, the “new school” at the corner of Main and Linn was just 4 years old.
The men and women of Hugeback- Johnson have been serving — as they say — “the family for generations.” And as they sat around that conference table this fall, they talked a lot about family—theirs and those they serve.
“That is really what we do,” Bryan said. “We serve families, and I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else than the people we work with here.”