By Stephen Smoot
In 1852, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the “peculiar” Virginia Military Institute professor with the “wonderful memory,” was leading classes in natural and experimental philosophy, as well as artillery, unaware of his destiny and fate.
That same year in the month of May Benjamin Tyson Harmer, likely using the Northwestern Turnpike, made his way from Front Royal, Virginia to Shinnston. He brought with him skills with tools and woodworking that he had used to construct wagons.
When Harmer arrived in Harrison County, however, the local market called for coffins more than wagons. Equally adept at both, he built a business that provided both products. The coffin making business quickly expanded into funeral service related fields, including digging the grave and even performing the funeral.
According to Jacob Harmer this “began the process of providing a funeral service, all before the days of embalming.”
A Library of Congress article on “Evolution of Funerary Customs and Laws” notes that all over the country, the growth of cities and towns created a funeral industry. Just as with Harmers, coffin makers sold more products and services. Some also sold “mourning wear,” burial clothes, body preparation services, and more.
The article also noted that the term “undertaker” developed in the 1800s because it was said that the business undertook the arrangements.
Harmer shared that after Benjamin had six sons and two daughters, he hung a sign that read “Harmer Bros. Wagon Shop. Undertaking a Specialty.” William J. S. Harmer went on to graduate from embalming school, earning licenses in that and also as a funeral director.
Over six generations the business passed from father to son, always, as Harmer describes “with a personal family-centered touch.”
Harvard Business Review recently reported that 70 percent of family owned businesses either fail or get sold prior to the second generation taking the reigns. Long term ownership sometimes leads to the pitfalls of not adapting to change quickly enough.
Harmer explained that “business has evolved over the years and we can provide more services than in the past.” One change involved adapting to the growing desire for many to be cremated instead of the traditional burial. Harmer has also remodeled the inside to include a lounge and a full kitchen. Now patrons can enjoy the ease of presenting a funeral meal at the home, rather than theirs.
Stepping up to challenges that face the entire community goes with the territory of being “the family that other families relies on.” The year 1944 tested both the town and businesses such as Harmer’s. First in March came the fire at Katherine Number Four mine that killed 16. The fire was so hot and intense that flame so fierce that it “charred telephone poles, partially melted steel railroad cars and burned up automobiles 150 feet away.”
The entire funeral home was transformed into a makeshift morgue to handle the 16 deaths that took place.
Then came that terrible June night in 1944 when what some experts estimate was an F 4 tornado tore through Harrison County and leveled Shinnston. Harmer stated that the business conducted “78 funerals in two weeks.” He added that “thanks to that emergency set up for the mine disaster, it made us more prepared for the disaster of our own with the tornado.”
In the aftermath of the tornado, Dave Harmer ran the ambulance for 24 hours straight until he had an accident in Worthington.
Since then, Harmers remains one of the most recognizable business names in Shinnston. Its service in the past and present, as well as remaining a reliable family, will ensure its prosperity far into the future.