139 Years: Brookings-Smith Funeral Home – After a Camden entrepreneur relocated to Bangor, a community cornerstone was born
This story is part of the Maine’s Progressive Business 2013 series. To read more historical retrospectives, click here.
The Beginning: Abel Hunt
“Death is something which, in the natural course of events, must come to all sooner or later,” says a write-up in “The Leading Business Men of Bangor” (1888). “It is well to know of an establishment where every preparation is made to render the last sad duties in the most prompt and efficient manner, and so we make no apology to our readers for calling to their attention that conducted by Mr. Abel Hunt.”
The story of Brookings-Smith Funeral Home, the oldest of its profession in the Bangor area, begins with Abel in Camden, Maine, where Hunt was born in 1835; after finishing his schooling at Gorham Academy, he worked at his father Simon’s harness business at Chestnut and Elm Streets, dealing in all types of sadlery supplies: blankets, whips, brushes, curry combs, trunks, valises, and more, as well as hardware and supplies for carriages.
About 1860, Abel got the idea to order ready-made coffins and caskets from Cambridge, Mass. He bought a small stock; he and his father, also reportedly the local undertaker, delivered using a wheelbarrow.
After Simon died June 20, 1865, Hunt and his brother Thomas took over the business. It was that, not the casket business, that likely connected Abel with his business partner, Spencer Mero. “He early developed an enthusiasm for progressive ideas, and, in company with another young man, took hold of a patent right, and in endeavoring to push it upon the market he gives his experience quite laconically: ‘We made some money and traveled some; but it paid more in experience than money,’” reports “History of Penobscot County” (1882).
While Abel and Thomas ran their father’s business, Abel also ran Hunt & Mero’s on Mechanic Street, advertising their “patent carriage-curtain fastener” which made attaching and detaching curtains easy, and solved problems of shrinking curtains splitting or bowing.
Despite their innovative device, the business apparently didn’t pan out. In December 1873, ready for a new adventure, Abel left his brother and their father’s business and moved to Bangor.
A New City
In 1874, he partnered with Enoch H. Tebbetts, a casket maker in the business since about 1849. The partnership dissolved after just two years, with Hunt buying Tebbetts out and taking a 10-year lease. “They had an agreement in regard to the business which has been the cause of a controversy in which considerable money has been spent,” HoPC reports, although there’s no further information given. It might be the buy-out; Tebbetts continued selling caskets and coffins for another 14 years.
Whatever Hunt’s relationship was with Tebbetts, the two occupied adjacent storefronts in East Market Square on Park Street, in a spot called “Undertakers Row” due to the large number of casket retailers and undertakers doing business there. Hunt and Tebbetts were competitors in the sale of caskets and coffins at least through 1890, although Hunt was also a funeral director and “practical embalmer.”
By 1888, Hunt had expanded to operate a funeral home in Bar Harbor. The story goes that there weren’t any funeral homes between Bangor and MDI, so he took advantage opportunity. But in Bangor, business was big. Hunt’s Bangor location was in all six floors of a building 20 feet by 50 feet, employing four assistants to fill orders for customers statewide. Hunt provided all sorts of undertaking supplies, from wooden and metallic caskets to casket handles and trimmings, for retail and wholesale.
As a furnishing undertaker and practical embalmer (reportedly the first undertaker in Maine practicing arterial embalming), he would travel to the home of the deceased, bringing with him all the furnishings and embalming equipment. He’d set up curtains, transfer the deceased to his portable table, and conduct the embalming; when he was done, he’d return the deceased to the bed. Funerals were held at home; later, he’d transport the deceased to the cemetery for burial.
By 1891, after Tebbetts had died, Hunt had separated his casket business, creating the Star Casket Co., of which he was president and his son was secretary and treasurer. For the funeral home, he was now only using four floors of that building at East Market Square, but was also using five floors in the Granite Block adjoining it, plus two floors in the rear of the Central Engine House.
Changes in Ownership
Hunt died in 1911, but immediately Galen S. Pond took over his business. He moved it farther up Park Street, probably because of East Market Square being destroyed in the Great Fire of 1911. From 1925 through 1930, an odd change occurred to Pond’s advertisements: In his ad as a funeral director and practical embalmer, he also advertised “Complete Auto Service” — a strange complement to his other business.
Pond died in 1926, and it was through an interstate grapevine that found its new owners, Irving Trufant and Wilmot Brookings. Brookings was born in Gardiner, Maine Nov. 14, 1897; after school there and at Kents Hill School, he served in the U.S. Navy. He worked various places after that: in the wholesale leather business, as a shipping clerk in Boston, and then the Doutee Casket Company in Boston for two years. In 1923, he moved to Houlton, Maine at the Dunn Furniture Company’s undertaking department, but the following year returned to Massachusetts to work for the Boston Burial Case Company. It was there that he met Trufant, originally from Harpswell, Maine, who had attended the Massachusetts College of Embalming and worked in the undertaking and casket businesses in Bath, Skowhegan, and Portland in Maine, and at a casket company in Webster, Mass. before working at Boston Burial Case. When word of Pond’s death came, Brookings and Trufant went quickly to Bangor and bought the business, renaming it the Galen S. Pond Co.
The partnership seemed like a good one. Brookings was a quiet, reserved man, while Trufant was extroverted and charismatic — but Trufant reportedly lived large, eventually so large he filed for bankruptcy. When he did, the newspaper erroneously indicated that it was not Trufant but the Galen S. Pond Co. that had filed for bankruptcy. In that era, bankruptcy was a black mark on one’s reputation, but Brookings hung in there, built a solid reputation, and in 1957 changed the business name to the Brookings Funeral Home, now located at 133 Center.
The Modern Era
Meanwhile, a young student named Gary Smith, who had learned the funeral-directing and embalming trade at the New England Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences, completed courses at the University of Maine and began working for Brookings. Brookings took Smith’s work seriously, soon listing Smith as his assistant. In 1960, when Smith bought into the business, it became Brookings & Smith, and in 1962, when Smith attained sole ownership on Brookings’ retirement, it became Brookings-Smith.
Funeral directing had changed with the times. In Abel Hunt’s day, everything had been done at home, but by the late 1950s it was about fifty-fifty and on the wane towards the modern norm of everything happening at funeral homes.
Smith had bought into the business, and when Brookings retired, he owned the whole business, and that meant long hours for him and his wife.
It was a lot of work for Smith and his wife. “We worked 60, 70, 80 hours a week and didn’t think anything of it, seven days a week,” he recalled. “For seven years, I never knew what a vacation was. Never went to the movies; in those days we didn’t have pagers and ways to get a hold of us. I’d go downtown and think, ‘I’ve got to get back, because the phone might be ringing — somebody might need us.’”
The business slowly grew, with Smith buying the Harvard Clark Funeral Home in 1975 and the Joseph R. Labeau Funeral Home in Orono in 1983. In 1988, Smith added a new chapel to the Center Street location, and in September 1993 bought the former Koritzsky’s Garage next door, which had most recently been owned by the Darling family for use as a parts warehouse and motorcycle-repair garage. After much renovation, Smith eventually opened the Family Reception Center in 1992. It was expanded later to become the Family Reception & Life Tribute Center, giving families a place to gather following funerals to mourn and to celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones.
Cremations used to be done at the only crematorium in the state, in Auburn. This was due to an old statute that said a crematorium had to be in a cemetery that was at least 10 years old and at least 20 acres or larger. The law also said that crematoriums could not be operated for a profit.
Still, Smith, invested $1 million to build the Pine Grove Crematorium in 2007, creating a perpetual easement on the land adjacent to the Pine Grove Cemetery to satisfy the legal requirements.
In 1982, Smith’s daughter, Holly, entered the business. In 1999, she married Jim Fernald, a fifth-generation funeral director working at his family’s business, Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home in Ellsworth. Jim later came to Brookings-Smith.
“[Holly] has been a major asset,” Smith said. “She’s done everything from the ground up, and I feel truly fortunate that she married a guy like Jim that has been committed also… I couldn’t be here and run it today without Jim and Holly.”
And then there are the 12 full-time and 18 support staff — many of whom have worked there more than 20 and 30 years — who have made it possible to serve the public so well.
“It’s all about our people,” said Smith. “The success and growth of this business… is totally related to the commitment that my family has made, and more especially the people who have been associated — they’re the true reason why this company has grown.”
In his time in the business, Smith has seen many changes, and he says his business will continue to change with the time. He predicts that the importance of memorializing will become even stronger.
“People are going to realize, more and more, the value of memorializing or celebrating the life of someone that has died, more than they do today,” Smith said. “[Today] the young people want to be involved. They want to say something, they want to bring something that’s meaningful… I think it’s wonderful — it’ll bring tears to your eyes to see how they do feel. My sense is it’s going to be better than it’s ever been, because they’re going to realize there’s value to doing this.”
What won’t change is the company’s commitment to serving.
“It’s all about serving people — they come first,” he said. “You have to have a passion and a commitment to serve them.”