It seems logical to me that the oldest continuing family-owned business in Princeton is a funeral home. The Wachholz & Sons Funeral Home, 303 Harvard Street, turned 100 in 2022.
When I was in grade school here in the 1950s, Herb Wachholz Sr. and Joe Wilsey ran the two funeral homes in town. In my mind, Wachholz’s was the Lutheran funeral home and Wilsey’s was the Catholic funeral home.
We can trace the roots of the business that became Wilsey’s Funeral Home to John Koeser in 1890, and we know William Yahr in 1901 started the business at 523 West Water Street that Rudolph Wachholz purchased in 1922.
In the beginning
There were no funeral homes in Old Princeton or other small rural communities in the mid-1800s. Nor funeral directors.
Because of their woodworking skills, furniture dealers and cabinet makers often built the coffins – made from hardwood and sealed inside with wax and bitumen, for the pioneers. It seemed a natural extension for the woodworkers to undertake as a second business handling tasks such as digging and filling graves, transporting the deceased, and placing a marker, or hiring others to do so.
Visitation in larger Victorian homes was held in the parlor. Some houses, historians say, had a “death door” leading to the outside without any steps to navigate to remove a coffin. It was considered improper to take the body through a door that the living used to enter the house. In the 20th century, no longer needed for funerals, parlors were displaced by living rooms.
When the early settlers began building communities such as Princeton, families often cared for their own dead. A group of women, often from the family’s church, would usually help with laying out the deceased, usually on a table in the home. Before embalming was widely practiced and when doctors were not immediately available, bodies could lay in the home for two or three days, watched closely just in case the deceased would wake from a coma or deep sleep. The visitation by family and friends was termed a wake. Flowers helped dissipate unwelcome odors. The family would process with the body from the home to the church for the funeral and cemetery for burial.
The practice of embalming took hold during the Civil War when it was necessary to preserve bodies of dead soldiers being sent home for burial.
From the early editions of the Princeton Republic, we know David Messing and J.J. Parker were among the early furniture makers who built and sold coffins. Messing operated from a wood frame building near the southwest corner of Water and Pearl streets, and Parker mostly in the 400 block, south side, of West Water Street
Hiram H. Harmon opened his furniture-making business in the east room of the red brick building at 513 West Water (today Pastimes Books & Antiques) in November 1873. He remained there until 1881 when he moved to 508 West Water (today Loading Dock tavern) for about a year.
Princeton Republic, March 30. 1882 – “F.T. Yahr had determined to build a wagon shop on Water Street, almost opposite the American House, and nearly opposite the Republic office, but the contagious spirit of improvement took H.H. Harmon in a tender spot, and he saw it to his advantage to buy the property in question. He will immediately proceed to build a good two-story storeroom for his fast-increasing furniture trade. The building to be 30×42 feet on the ground, tin roof, and to be a very substantial building.”
Harmon moved into his new digs in the 400 block of West Water Street May 1882. (Messing remained in business two blocks away into the 1890s before selling the choice corner property in 1901.)
Princeton Republic, Feb. 14, 1884 – “H.H. Harmon has purchased a hearse to add to his business as an undertaker. It is a very proper piece of property to own, and something that has long been needed, as our facilities for transporting the remains of deceased friends to their resting place were not what they should be.”
Another competitor, Carl D. Koeser, moved from Oshkosh to Princeton in 1887 to open his furniture store at 625 West Water Street (today a residence) but was here for less than a year.
The newspaper reported in January 1888 that Koeser was in Oshkosh “engaged in making some new patterns of furniture for the company he was formerly with.” The family returned to Oshkosh in September and sold their remaining stock in Princeton to Harmon in November 1888.
Wilsey Funeral Home
When the American Funeral Directors Association formed in 1882, they decided funeral director sounded more professional than undertaker. The funeral industry in Wisconsin changed more dramatically in 1900-1901 when the state Legislature passed a law requiring undertakers to pass a test to earn a license to embalm bodies.
Princeton Republic, August 1, 1901 – “J.M. Koeser will leave Monday for Oshkosh to prepare for an examination to secure a license to practice undertaking embalming in compliance with a law passed by the Legislature last winter.”
John Koeser was the son of Carl Koeser and son-in-law of Princeton wagon manufacturer August Swanke. After his father closed his Princeton shop in 1888, John worked in Rhinelander before returning to Princeton in 1890 and reopening a furniture store and undertaking business at 625 West Water Street.
Princeton Republic, July 3, 1890 – “J.M. Koeser has opened his furniture establishment. He will probably come out with a flaming ad in a few days.”
Koeser moved to 512 West Water Street (today Beer Belly’s tavern) in December 1891 and competed with Harmon. He got a little carried away on a hot summer day in 1896.
Princeton Republic, July 9, 1896 – “During an altercation yesterday, on a business matter, J.M. Koeser cowardly assaulted H.H. Harmon, striking him in the face and inflicting severe injuries. Mr. Koeser plead guilty to the charge of assault and battery before Justice Pooch today and was fined.”
The Republic published this profile of Harmon in May 1897: “About twenty-three years ago, or a little longer perhaps, H.H. Harmon commenced in the furniture business in Princeton in a little room just east of where he is now located. (I believe but cannot confirm he worked for J.J. Parker.) In a short time, he increased his business by taking larger rooms and moved into the Demell block. But his quarters here in time proved too small and he erected a storeroom where he is now located. … In the line of furniture, he is ready to furnish your parlor, your bedroom, and every room in the house to the kitchen. … In connection with the above is his undertaking department. His line of undertaking goods is very complete. … Four caskets are kept on hand. He has also a complete line of burial robes very tasty and appropriate.”
Another publication provided a profile of Koeser the same year. He was at 512 West Water at the time.
“As an extensive dealer in furniture and an undertaker of more than ordinary ability, Mr. Koeser is not excelled in the county,” the “Industrial Review of Princeton, Wisconsin” (A.I. Lord, Milwaukee) reported in 1897. “By trade he is a cabinetmaker and upholsterer and rose from the bench to the ownership of a business of which he has every reason to feel proud. Mr. Koeser uses three floors 22 by 90 feet for the display of a superior line of furniture … and as an undertaker he is thoroughly skilled.”
Harmon died in June 1898 of acute bright’s disease. His sons operated the business for a few months before selling their inventory to Koeser.
Princeton Republic, Dec. 1, 1898 – “J.M. Koeser has bought the stock of furniture belonging to the estate of H.H. Harmon. Thus, one of the oldest business places of Princeton is a thing of the past.”
Koeser sold his business to a Ripon firm, then bought half of it back and partnered with Rudolph Manthey for a brief time before continuing on his own into the 20th century. Meanwhile, he helped organize the First National Bank of Princeton in 1901 and co-owned a lumber yard in Wautoma with Frank Yahr.
Princeton Republic, Feb. 4, 1904 – “J.M. Koeser has sold his furniture and undertaking business to Chas. Herrmann & Son, of Brandon. Mr. Herrmann is to take possession March 1st. Mr. Koeser states that he will still reside in Princeton.”
(Koeser passed in 1922 in Oshkosh.)
Chas. Herrmann & Son moved to 535 West Water Street (today Sondalle Law Office) in 1907 as Koeser posted the building at 512 West Water for sale. Herrmann also operated a furniture store in Brandon. A son-in-law, Carl Dumdey, took over the Princeton business in 1908. He sold his stock to H. Warnke & Son in 1911.
Herrmann had another son-in-law, Gustav G. Krueger. He had worked with his father, G.J. Krueger, in the family’s general store on Water Street for several years and then been a traveling salesman for the Beaver Dam Overall Company. In August 1915, G.G. Krueger went to Green Bay to take the state exam for embalming and undertaking. He passed and followed his father-in-law into the mortuary business at 535 West Water Street.
Krueger’s ads in the Princeton newspaper touted him as a “practical undertaker” and funeral director.
I’ve had trouble tracking Krueger’s store locations after 535 West Water. I believe he was at 511 West Water in 1922 (Pastimes today) when his shop was displaced by a meat market and at 605 West Water Street (west room of Renard’s bakery today) in May 1947 before he moved to 532 West Water (vacant lot today).
Following Krueger’s departure, Wilsey furniture store sites included 539 (Megow Park today), 532-536 (vacant lot today) and 538-540 (former Once in a Blue Moon restaurant today) West Water Street over the years.
After Herbert Wachholz Sr. opened his funeral home at Harvard and Clinton streets in 1940, Krueger opened his home at 129 West Water Street to funerals in 1942.
Princeton Times-Republic, July 23, 1942 – “G.G. Krueger, Princeton’s well-known funeral director, has an ad on another page of this issue of the Times-Republic announcing that his home is available to his clients for funerals. This is one of Princeton’s finest residences, well located and ideally arranged for the purpose. Opening his home for funerals is in keeping with the trend of the times and is a feature that will no doubt be appreciated by Mr. Krueger’s customers as the occasion for its use arises.”
Krueger had purchased the lot on the corner of Water and Howard streets from August Warnke in October 1936 (Deeds, Volume 99, Page 80). Warnke, who was one of the owners of the flouring mill in Germania for a time, purchased the north half of Block 1 from Ferdinand Raasch in September 1903. Block 1 had been one of the sites considered for Princeton’s new high school in 1893 before the downtown triangle site was chosen.
I believe but am less than certain that Warnke built the house we see at 129 West Water Street today sometime between 1914 and 1927 (based on Sanborn maps). I know nothing about architecture but am told the house is an example of the Regency style.
Krueger brought on a business partner in 1946.
Princeton Republic, May 9, 1946 – “G.G. Krueger announces that Joe Wilsey of Waterloo, Wisconsin, has purchased an interest in the Krueger Funeral Service and will be associated with him in the conduct of his business. The Krueger home will be converted into a completely equipped funeral home, and a complete stock of furniture, floor coverings, etc. will be carried at the store. Mr. Wilsey, who was recently discharged from the Navy, was associated with the Frantz Funeral Home in Milwaukee for four years.”
Krueger also sold the Water Street house to Travers J. and Mary Wilsey (Deeds, Volume 113, Page 460) and in 1953 retired from the furniture and funeral home business. He passed in 1961.
Wilsey built a new funeral home at 212 South Howard Street, just south of the house on Water Street, in 1958. Alvin Severson and his construction crew began work in April. An open house was held in September.
Princeton Republic, Sept. 11, 1958 – “Joe Wilsey is opening his new funeral home to the public Sept. 14 during an open house. I took some pictures of the inside of the building Monday night and can honestly say that he has done a very fine job. Most of us have seen the building during its construction stage, but now he is giving all a chance to see the completed work. I hope you all take advantage of the 14th opening. You know once we are wheeled in there it’s too late to see what our surroundings are like.” – Bill Schweinler, editor
Travers “Joe” Wilsey passed in January 1978. Mary Wilsey announced that she would continue to operate the Wilsey Funeral Home with the assistance of Jerry Marchant of the Butzin-Marchant Funeral Home. She sold the business to the Wachholz Funeral Home (Warren and Herbert Wachholz Jr.) in May 1978.
The former funeral home got new life as the local senior citizen center.
Princeton Times-Republic, Aug. 23, 1979 – “Princeton Senior Citizens Club Inc. has purchased the building known as the Wilsey Funeral Home on Howard Street in Princeton. This was made possible only by a generous donation from a friend of the club and a grant of $10,730, federal and state funding through the County Commission on Aging. It will be some time before the funding is received so at the present time a mortgage of $25,000 is now outstanding. … This was an unexpected opportunity for Princeton Senior Citizens to have a place of their own, and certainly will be an asset to the community.”
The senior citizens club, which had organized in 1974 and previously met in the Legion home at 867 West Main Street (Bill Zamzow home today), moved in in September. It remains active in 2023.
Wachholz Funeral Home
After F.T. Yahr moved to Milwaukee to run a large drug company in 1894, two of his sons, Frederick and William, took charge of the family’s hardware store at 525 West Water Street (today daiseye) in Princeton. Fred departed for the big city in 1900.
Princeton Republic, Feb. 1, 1900 – “Notice is hereby given that the firm during business under the name of Yahr Bros. has been dissolved by mutual consent, F.E. Yahr retiring. The business will be continued by W.R. Yahr. F.E. Yahr will remain here until the 15th of Feb. to collect book accounts. Fred will work for his father in Milwaukee after traveling to St. Paul, Duluth and Kansas City.”
William Yahr in 1901 built a 30-by-70-foot two-story brick building at 523 West Water Street, just east of the Yahr hardware, filling a vacant lot created by a fire in 1897 that destroyed two buildings. Yahr’s new building had two rooms of the first floor. He planned to stock one of the rooms with furniture and rent the other.
Princeton Republic, Oct. 31, 1901 – “When the three buildings in course of erection are completed Princeton will have one of the finest business streets that we know of in a place of its size. W.R. Yahr has the plate glass front in his building and will have the handsomest show window in the city. The interior of the building is about completed, and he advertises to open up with a complete line of furniture and caskets November 10th. “
Yahr hired an undertaker from Milwaukee in 1901, replaced him with a man from Oshkosh in 1902 and sold the business in 1903.
Princeton Republic, Sept. 10, 1903 – “George H. Harmon & Co. have purchased the furniture and undertaking business of W.R. Yahr and will conduct the business hereafter at the same place of business.”
Harmon lasted less than two years.
Princeton Star, February 8, 1905 – “Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Warnke were arrivals Thursday evening. They will hereafter make their residence in this village. Mr. Warnke has rented the vacant room in the W.R. Yahr block and will install a furniture and undertaking business in the near future. Mr. Warnke has had considerable experience in the undertaking line, having been with G.M. Probst & Co. of Beloit for some time.”
Warnke went into business with his father, Herman, who previously owned a lumber yard in Princeton as well as a couple of saloons, doing business as H. Warnke & Son.
Princeton Republic, March 2, 1911 – “Carl Dumdey, who has been in the furniture business the past three years in this city, sold his stock of goods to Herman Warnke & Son who will conduct the business. Mr. Warnke is well known to our citizens as a dealer in furniture and will give one and all the best of treatment and service in this line.”
Alfred Warnke bought out his father in 1917, a few months after the U.S. entered World War I, and sold the business a year later so he could enlist.
Princeton Republic, Sept. 27, 1917 – “The furniture and undertaking establishment which has been conducted under the firm name of H. Warnke & Son since the opening of business in February 1905 has changed its name last Monday afternoon and is now conducted by Alfred F. Warnke, the junior member, who through a deal has become sole owner.”
Princeton Republic, May 9, 1918 – “Alfred Warnke, who has been conducting a successful furniture and undertaking business in our village for the past fourteen years, recently made a deal with Alfred Sommerfeldt whereby the later took over the ownership. We understand Mr. Warnke has an inclination to enlist and to join the Grave Registration Corps.”
After “Shorty” Sommerfeldt, who had also started in the furniture/undertaking business in Brandon working for Charles Herrmann, decided to enlist, his brother, William, operated the furniture and undertaking business in his absence.
The brothers sold the business to Rudolph Wachholz in 1922.
Princeton Republic, Aug. 10, 1922 – “Last week Friday, Sommerfeldt Bros., universally known under the firm name A.A. Sommerfeldt, sold their furniture and undertaking store to R.G. Wachholz who took immediate possession. Sommerfeldt Bros. have conducted the business successfully for the past number of years. … Mr. Wachholz, formerly a resident of our neighboring village Neshkoro, but of late in business at Westfield, comes here as a man of most excellent business qualifications. He has conducted a business of same nature while at Neshkoro and Westfield and has met with splendid success. It is his intention to continue the business in the former manner, namely, furniture, upholstery, undertaking and funeral director.”
After Wachholz also purchased the former Yahr building, he used the second floor for his stock of furniture and coffins. He operated a general store on the first floor until 1930 when he sold that stock and decided to focus solely on furniture and undertaking. “They intend to carry one of the most complete and largest furniture and coffin stocks in this section of the state,” the newspaper reported in July.
Wachholz moved from Princeton to Westfield in 1930, leaving his son Herbert (Sr.) to conduct the business here. Herbert was youngest licensed embalmer in the state when he graduated from a school of mortuary science in 1927.
According to a 1987 newspaper article, Rudolph Wachholz purchased the lot at the southwest corner of Harvard and Clinton streets in 1930 and moved a house there from the country. The 1914 and 1927 Sanborn fire insurance maps, however, show a house already onsite, and, according to the property deeds, Wachholz bought the east 66 feet of Lots 1 and 4 in Block N from fellow undertaker and funeral director G.G. Krueger for $1,000 in August 1922 (Deeds, Volume 85, Page 24).
I included the following note because it’s the first mention I’ve found so far of a local ambulance, and Martin Bartel was my great-grandfather.
Princeton Republic, Feb. 11, 1932 – “R.G. Wachholz and Walter Bartel drove to Fond du Lac in the former’s ambulance last Monday forenoon and on their immediate return were accompanied by Mr. Martin Bartel who had been at the hospital taking treatments for an injured hip.”
Herb Wachholz (Sr.) bought out his father (Deeds, Volume 102, Page 224) in 1937. He created Princeton’s first funeral home in 1940.
Princeton Times-Republic, Aug. 29, 1940 – “Princeton is to have a new funeral home in the near future. Work has begun on the Herbert Wachholz home to convert part of it into a modern, air-conditioned funeral home. Additional rooms facing Clinton Street are being built for the use of the Wachholz family, while the two large living rooms, the den, a hallway, and the enclosed porch will be converted into the funeral home.’
Princeton Times-Republic, Nov. 14, 1940 – “The formal opening of the new Wachholz funeral home located at the corner of Clinton and Harvard streets will be held Saturday and Sunday, November 16-27. This modern and convenient funeral home is surely a credit to our community as well as to its owner. … The main chapel is located in the portion of the home formerly used as living quarters by the Wachholz family. A new addition provides a residence that is completely separate from the funeral parlors except as the occasion may require additional room which is available by throwing open curtained French doors. A glass-enclosed porch also provides additional space. Soft Mohawk Axminster rugs, indirect lighting, a complete air-conditioning system, and an electric automatic record changer to play pipe organ music are some of the features that contribute toward making this new funeral home modern and complete.”
Herbert Wachholz’s son, Herbert Jr. and Warren, joined the business fulltime in 1954 and 1959, respectively. The family built an addition in 1963 that included a 20-by-52-foot east wing and 15-by-23-foot north wing for a new chapel, offices, and display room. The basement of the new section served as a casket display room. An open house was held in March 1964.
Over the years, the Wachholzes also operated funeral homes in Markesan, Ripon and Montello.
The furniture store closed in 1999. John Castino opened Mimi’s Italian restaurant at 523 West Water Street (today Green 3) on July 1, 2000.
Rudolph Wachholz passed in 1966. Herbert Wachholz Sr. retired in 1971 and passed in 1990.
Herbert Jr. and Warren continued the funeral home business through the 20th century before retiring. Herbert Jr. passed in 2011 and Warren in 2020.
The business today is operated by Todd Wachholz, Warren’s son, Herbert Sr.’s grandson and Rudolph’s great-grandson.
Please let me know if you spot any errors or can fill any gaps in my timeline.
Thank you for caring and reading about local history.