History & Staff
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One would have to go back in time more than 100 years to
find the name "Olmstead "missing from a storefront in Heber Springs, AR.
As a matter of fact , the Olmstead name has been part of Heber Springs
longer than the name Heber Springs (the town was still called Sugar
Loaf back in 1896).
Needless to say, plenty has changed in the past 100 years. The population of Sugarloaf in 1896 was only about 500 with less than 4000 residents in the entire Cleburne County. (Today the town has a population of about 6000 while the county has grown to more than 20000.) The town had yet to see its first bank, hospital, paved road - not to mention its first automobile.
When Thomas Edward "T.E." Olmstead opened a business to provide the
community a wide range of services in 1896, little did he know he was
creating a business that would be run by his family into the 21st
century. This year (2014) Olmstead Funeral Home is marking 118 years of
service to the community. In this era of acquisitions and mergers, it
is quite remarkable that the business is still a family-run operation,
now run by the fourth generation of Olmsteads.
In the Beginning...
A mysterious illness that hit Mary Elizabeth Olmstead caused her husband T.E., to make a journey to Cleburne County a 100 years ago. At that time, T.E., worked for the railroad, doing what was known as trade embalming. "If there was a death in the town where the railroad passed through and the body needed to be shipped, he would do the embalming and put the body in a coffin and put it on the train," said Thomas D. Olmstead, grandson of the founder and president and chief executive officer of Olmstead Funeral Home. "He always carried his portable embalming equipment with him to take care of it."
What motivated T.E. was the legend of a medicinal mineral springs in Sugar Loaf, a spring that was known for its "health-giving" qualities. In the spirit of Ponce de Leon and his search for the fountain of youth, people would come from all over to drink this water.
T.E. had hoped this spring would help his wife. So the Olmsteads packed up and moved there by wagon. as it turned out, Mary wasn't ill at all, she was pregnant with their fourth child, Ralph Wayne Olmstead. The young family liked the town and never left.
The business first opened at 108 S. 4th St. The operation included a funeral service which did embalming and undertaking and had its own wooden horse drawn hearse. The building also housed T.E.'s hardware store, the Heber Post office, and a livery stable. They sold building materials, paint, wallpaper and furniture. When T.E. became mayor, that facility aslo became the mayor's office. "He was pretty much a one man town," says Tom.
A fire destroyed the original building in 1909. It was rebuilt by T.E. the next year. (The cut stone building still stands as a legacy to the business. In fact it is now a museum that includes funeral home and embalming memorabilia dating back to the turn of the century.)
T.E. and Mary had two more sons Cloyd E. and Vern L. All three sons started working earily at their father's business.
Ralph graduated from Worsham College of Embalming and Funeral Directing in Chicago in 1916. Upon graduation, he became director of funeral affairs and held that title untill T.E.'s death in 1923. Then Ralph assumed ownership of the family business.
The Olmstead's began to branch out into other businesses. As automobiles came into vogue, Ralph and Vern established Olmstead Brothers Chevrolet Company in 1921. The business lasted intill 1941, when it was forced to close due to World War II. No automobile parts or workers or fuel were available. Vern then went to work for the goverment as head mechanic in defense plants throught the war.
In 1935 Ralph Established the Olmstead Burial Association, which is still ne of the strongest associations in Arkansas boasting a membership of more than 22,000.
The fourth street building was used until 1939 when the funeral business became a full-time job for Ralph. He sold his share of the auto dealership to Vern, and built a larger funeral home at 601 W. Main Street.
Later, Ralph founded the Olmstead Ambulance Service, which served the entire county and surrounding areas. It provided both emergency and transport ambulance services.
In 1957 Ralph became a stockholder in Memorial Insurance Company of America, an Arkansas based funeral insurance company. The company still exists today and lists Olmstead Funeral Home as one of the top three funeral companies in Arkansas.
Ralph's wife Julia became a licensed funeral director as well and worked with her husband in every aspect of the funeral business.
By age four, Ralph's son Tom, began working at his father's side. "I started as a child and my job was to keep my dad awake at night when we'd have to drive out to the country," Tom recalls. "The drive might be 30 miles but it would take him an hour and a half because of the roads."
There were some advantages to running a small business in a small town. "When I was a freshman in high school I'd wear a coat and tie to school and I'd only go half a day because I'd come down and help my dad in the afternoon. I had special permission from school to do that."
Because of his early start, Tom embalmed his first body when he was 14 years old. At the same time he directed his first funeral by himself. "I've done a little bit of everything, from digging graves to directing funerals," Tom says. "I grew up under my dad's shadow."
Tom was sure he would follow in his father's footsteps. "I knew that's what I was going to do since the day I was born, I just didn't tell anybody then," he says with a laugh.
Tom's younger brother, Wayne, also grew up in the business. He became a minister and is presently the Episcopal priest for St. Edmund's Episcopal Church of Elm Grove, Wisconsin.
Tom completed his formal training in 1950, the same year he married his wife JoAnn, who continued the family tradition by becoming a licensed funeral director. "My grandmother and my mother both worked with their husbands," Tom says. Speaking about his wife: "We're partners in life and in business."
Tom continued to work by his fathers side until Ralph died in 1971. Tom became sole owner of the business and assumed the titles of president and chief executive officer of Olmstead Funeral Home, Inc., which he holds today.
In the past 25 years Tom has accomplished quite a bit. First, he (and JoAnn) insured a fourth generation in the business by having their sons - Russ and Waren.
The business's current funeral home was built and opened by Tom in 1972. Over the years, services have expanded to include a chapel, staterooms, casket selection, embalming, a visitation facility, hearse and limousines for family members, burial insurance, pre-arrangement and pre-need trust program, and a full monument selection.
In 1980 the Olmstead's opened Woodland Memorial Park in the western part of Cleburne County near Edgemont. A funeral visitation facility and chapel were added to the park in 1984.
Tom's son's, the fourth generation of Olmsteads, are licensed funeral directors. Russ and Waren work as partners in close cooperation but with seperate duties. "They all have diversification but they can do just about anything in the business," Tom says.
Waren's son Waren Thomas who is 14 years old and daughter Sarah Grace who is 8 are also very excited about someday joining their father and grandfather in the family business. So there could very well be a fifth generation of Olmsteads running the family business.
"We've had a number of firms over the years that have come in and talked to us about purchasing the business," Tom says. "I guess you can say I'm to proud of our heritage to sell. Right now, as long as we can hang in there and do a good job and service to the public the way we have all these years, we'll just go ahead and maintain this under the Olmstead name."