Before the 20th century, the death of a loved one was typically a dour, private affair, held at the home.
However, the “Gilded Age” and the “Gay Nineties” (the 1890s) sparked change and progression – including how Americans handled the passing of loved ones. From corsages, to chapels, to caskets, funerals became increasingly more of an open event for expressing respect and homage.
So, when James E. Waggener left Oregon and came to Kalispell in 1905, and assumed the operations of retiring undertaker Nelson Willoughby, the original location at 134 West Second St. was quite suitable. Within a few years, however, the modest two-room location would seem crowded – and quite small for Waggener’s big ideas.
To accommodate changes in society – and suit his business ambitions – Waggener had to expand. So he commissioned one of Kalispell’s early builders, Ceasar Haverlandt (who built other buildings on the National Historic Register in Kalispell).
Haverlandt completed the building in 1913. It was designed to accommodate Waggener’s growing business, which was considerably more than just undertaking and included funeral arrangements, transportation, casket sales, embalming and more. And for its time, the building was “state-of-the-art,” with a spacious showroom and equally accommodating chapel, and the only receiving vault in the area.
In 1916, Waggener’s son Elton was awarded his embalmer’s license. That same year, Waggener would announce his candidacy for coroner promising “the best service possible for the least amount of expense.” He won and served as coroner for the next 12 years.
Waggener’s business and profession seemed to be on the up. But on August 3, 1919, son Elton “died of a toxicity resulting from his profession as an undertaker,” according to records. Elton had contracted a fatal illness while working here – working, much like his father, whose business he would have likely inherited.
Aside from the misfortune, the building served Waggener’s business quite well. Later, Waggener’s daughter Geneva would marry Harry H. Campbell. Waggener partnered with his son-in-law and their enterprise continued to succeed. They moved the business to a more modern location at 525 Main St. in 1929.
Since then, the building has been converted to accommodate other businesses. And like other buildings, as decades pass, historical structures are preserved well – or their historical elements get trounced.
Regrettably, some of the original charm of this building has been “blemished” by renovations and repairs. But overlooking things such as the electrical conduits, vents and utilities, the building still shows much of its historical pride.
Most of the original brickwork is still solid. And while other original elements may no longer be intact, they are still recognizable. For example, the original doors on the first floor were much taller (as tall as the windows), but have been filled in and set with shorter doors.
The building has long since been a dry cleaning business with apartments above – for much longer than it was a funeral home with accommodations for the funeral director’s family. Yet the coronary and mortuary work performed here are part of Kalispell’s early history.
And there’s still something about this place, its location, its stuck-in-time lingering. It’s the kind of place where standing on the corner seems to take you back in time – as far back in local history as your imagination can take you.
Jaix Chaix is a writer who appreciates history, art, and architecture. You can share ideas and historical facts with him at [email protected].
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