December 1, 2017

Undertakers and undertaking in Windham from 1867 – 2017. The legacy of two families by Walter Lunt

Horse-drawn hearse
“Windham: Then and Now” - The sixth in a series of historical topics about Windham’s unique history and heritage

For nearly 150 years, only two family names were associated with the undertaking business in Windham - Nichols and Dolby. 

Charles Nichols brought his family from Lynn, Mass. to Popeville in Windham in 1849. In addition to being a master mechanic, Nichols was a skilled cabinet maker and carpenter. He was hired by the Popes to do maintenance on the Pope’s mills at Pleasant River, which included a saw mill, grist mill and a small woolen mill (remains of the old Pope dam are still evident on the upstream side of the bridge). 

The Nichols family moved into quarters on the second floor of the Pope store on the westerly side of the road near the river. During his tenure with the Popes, Nichols distinguished himself as a coffin maker. The wooden caskets were made of pine and stained with lampblack (a sooty pigment used in paints, ink or blacking). More than a half century later, Nichols’ grandson, John C., would tell the Portland Evening Express, “ . . . there was nothing pretty about them, (but) people came from all around to have coffins made.” the Pope mills were wiped out by the surging flood waters of Little Sebago Lake following a dam break in 1861, Nichols moved to South Windham and by 1867 had established the town’s first undertaking business. Here he began producing a higher quality casket, according to John C., “. . . made out of white wood (that) permitted a better finish and were much more attractive.” The lack of undertakers in the area helped make the new enterprise highly successful.

Nichols died in 1887. His son, Charles A. Nichols took over the family business, carrying on with his father’s progressive ideas. Two years earlier, town voters had approved the purchase of a horse-drawn hearse, an idea that had been voted down twice in previous years. Hand-crafted by the Brownell Co. of New Bedford, Mass. at a cost of $400 (a princely sum for the times), the modified carriage was adorned with side columns, draperies and ornate hand-carved wooden urns. A typical “country undertakers” wagon at the time, it was supported by large wooden-spoked wheels with steel tire rims. 
Brass kerosene lamps were mounted high in the front on each side of the driver. Rear doors provided access for the coffin. This hearse would not accommodate a modern-sized casket.

Today, the so-called Windham horse-drawn hearse is stored and preserved (in moderately good condition) at the Windham Historical Society’s Old Grocery Museum at Windham Center. Before 2004, it had been locked in its original carriage house near the entrance to Smith Cemetery on Route 202, near Foster’s Corner. The aging structure was only recently torn down.

Charles A., the second generation of Nichols Undertakers, utilized the hearse and further expanded the business, having attended the first ever embalming school in Boston. Popular and well-respected in the community, he was also a much sought-after Master of Ceremonies for various functions, especially golden wedding anniversaries.

The third generation Nichols, John C., assumed proprietorship in 1908, following the death of his father. By this time, the South Windham location had been enlarged three times and now included a thriving furniture business. In 1914, John C. bought his own hearse, a much newer “horseless carriage.” The town-owned vehicle was relegated to its storage facility where it would remain for many decades, due largely to community indecision. Intense arguments ensued at town meetings over what to do with “old hearse.” Some citizens wanted it dismantled for fear it would be used disrespectfully in town parades. Others preferred selling it. And still others felt it belonged in a museum. Ultimately, one year, it would be put in a parade. Presently, it awaits a special place within the historical society’s Village Green historical museum, now under construction.

In the early 1920s, John C. would introduce the first motorized hearse to the community. He told a reporter, “. . . I still consider myself a ‘country undertaker;’ I still keep a horse for use in the winter, but in the summer, I use (the) auto hearse. I have modern equipment, a small funeral chapel and a good salesroom for the display of caskets.”

In addition, John C. carried on the family tradition of community involvement. Prior to retirement in 1949 (he died in 1951), he would serve as a Windham Selectman and a school board member, organizer of the local fire department, overseer of the poor and member of the state legislature.
Following World War II, a new family name would enter the undertaking business. From 1946 to 1949, Robert Dolby would work along side John C., and by 1952 build a new funeral chapel on River Road, only the second location in 85 years. Dolby’s Funeral Chapel earned a highly respected place in the community. In 1973, son Timothy would join the business, carrying on the long tradition of care, trust and involvement.

In 2016, Dolby employees Kristin and Eric Segee purchased the funeral chapel, and in August of 2017 acquired the Blais & Hay Funeral Home in Westbrook. In October, a new name emerges:  Dolby, Segee & Blais.

Reflecting recently on the long and esteemed history of the Nichols/Dolby service, Ernie Nichols, Windham resident and grandson of John C., shared that he is prideful of the generations of his family for their contributions to the growth and prosperity of Windham. Ernie and his wife, Laura, live in South Windham, almost within sight of the 1800s house where Charles Nichols established the first undertaking business in the mid-1860s.

Ernie’s son, Donald, is a building contractor – familiar to many by the red trucks bearing the family name. He too, Ernie points out, carries on the tradition of Don’s great, great, great grandfather Charles, the carpenter/cabinet maker. 

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