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The Smith family

Freeman Station Baggage Room and baggage cart sponsorship by the Smith family

Two historical aspects of the Burlington Junction Station have been sponsored by the Smith family, Don and Wendy Smith and Doug and Jayne Smith, in honour of their parents, Wilbert and Kay Smith, their aunt Jeanette Smith, and uncle Stan Smith.

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The Smith family is in the midst of determining a fitting name for the Baggage Room, while its  associated antique baggage cart stands alongside, restored to original condition.

These historic features of the restored “Freeman Station” hold special significance to the Smiths; especially as related to their services to grieving families since 1938.

 

wilbert-jeanette-smithFuneral services in Burlington date back well into the late 1800’s (Edward Williamson, a cabinet and furniture maker, also made coffins as early as 1877 and son Edgar operated a funeral parlor from 1906 until 1937).  It was in 1938 when Wilbert Smith and his sister Jeanette, both licensed funeral directors, chose Burlington for their life’s work.

Very few know of the difficulty of that journey.

 

 

The story begins on the Southwestern Saskatchewan prairie.  The Smith family’s hardscrabble farm went bust in the mid-1920’s leaving Archie and Jessie Smith with the difficult decision to send their children, Wilbert and later Jeanette, back East to live with an uncle and aunt – the Campbell’s – in Chatham, Ontario.  There they worked in his funeral service over the next ten years, and both became licensed funeral directors.

Burlington’s exciting economic growth in the late 1930’s attracted their attention, and in 1938 they came here to become part of the very fibre of the Burlington community for the next 78 years.  Wilbert purchased the E.W. Williamson funeral chapel, then being operated by Mrs. Williamson and G. William “Bill” Johnston (later to become Doug’s father-in-law).  Jeanette sold her car to help with the down payment, and they established Smith’s Funeral Service on Brant Street next to the Coronation Hotel (now Wendell Clark’s Restaurant).  “It was the beginning of a long and mutually-rewarding relationship between the Smiths and their newly adopted community,” they later wrote.

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Navy recruits march on Brant Street in front of Smith’s Funeral Home

During World War II, Jeanette left the business and served in the British Secret Service office in New York City under Sir William S. Stephenson, Britain’s intelligence chief for the Western Hemisphere (known by the code name “Intrepid”).  Sworn to secrecy, she never spoke of her duties.  After the War she returned to Canada and pursued a career in Vancouver and Seattle, eventually retiring in Burlington.

 Back in Burlington, by 1942 the business was outgrowing its original location.

Seeking a more “tranquil” setting, Wilbert purchased a property at 485 Brant Street on what was then the “outskirts” of town and relocated the funeral business there.

 

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485 Brant Street, as originally seen, and later after expansion

picture9In the original location until 1956, the family continued to  operate Smith’s furniture and appliance store with a Frigidaire franchise, one of the first in the area.

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February 3rd, 1941 saw Wilbert marry Kathleen (Kay) Little and in November 1942 he and his new bride took up residence on the second floor of the new funeral home.  They remembered peeling “layers and layers” of wallpaper to remodel!  Renovation and expansion has taken place over the years, including provision for better on-site parking accomodation on the adjacent Macdougall property, and to this day the 485 Brant Street location continues to serve the needs of Burlington families.

 As Burlington grew, so also did the need for funeral services on a 24/7 basis.  Before the days of answering machines and answering services, 634-2351 would ring at all times of the day and night, so someone always had to be available to answer.  The first Bell Telephone operator, Marion Snodgrass, was also their “backup” and when sons Don and Doug came along and grew up in this environment, she “baby-sat” them, too.  Later they would laughingly recall five members of the family:  “Mom, Dad, Don, Doug, and ‘the business.'”  Everyone was involved — Wilbert and family, joined in 1948 by his brother Stanley — and Ray Robinson, who has been with them since 1964.  It was a time consuming venture:  there were many personal sacrifices.  Needs of the public ruled their personal lives and schedules.  Decorum, quietude, and respect were watchwords in the household, juxtaposed as it was with the public area of the funeral home.

burlington-junction-june-1971-colour-correctedAs they grew older, the Smith brothers came to know the Burlington Junction railway Station and Stationmaster Stan Roskovitch very well.  With Wilbert, Uncle Stan, and Ray they’d go up Brant Street to the hamlet of Freeman to meet the trains, often but not always at night.  The freight books record receipts of new caskets and other supplies, unfortunates returning to Burlington for interment, and deceased being repatriated back East or out West for burial in their home communities.  So, many an hour was spent in the Freeman Station baggage room (pictured above) waiting for the next train, and many fond memories linger from those days.

Wilbert took careful, respectful pains with the outgoing shipments.  The caskets were cradled and protected for transit in specially rigged protective pine shells  (“roughbox”) shipping containers.  He pioneered the practice of mounting handles low on the roughboxes to facilitate lifting them onto a baggage cart and thence into the train.  He specified special strapping and baggage car floor anchors to ensure that nothing would shift during transit.  To ship overseas, special metal outer containers sealed with a unique screwdriver were used, and he always made sure to send along one of these special tools to facilitate opening at the destination.  A stickler for detail, he made sure that all the accompanying documents were always attached at the head-end of the casket, the roughboxes having been respectfully marked “H” accordingly.  Often with the help of railway baggage car personnel they were carefully loaded, with dignity, into the baggage railcar head-first and secured to the floor with special nails and wide straps.

Burlington was a small town in the 1940’s and 50’s — a self-contained community.  Don and Doug attended Central Public School and Central High School and knew the Pridmore youngsters, the Filman’s, the Davidson’s, the Thorpe family, the Norton’s, the Lindley’s, and the Houghton’s.  They bought gas from the pump behind Harris Armstrong’s store (later Pridmore’s) and shopped at Tinning’s Grocery.  Everyone knew everyone.

1966 marked Don’s graduation from the Canadian  smith-family-compositeSchool of Embalming, Banting Institute, in Toronto, whereupon he joined his father Wilbert in the firm.

In time he would own and manage the family business and continue the tradition of Smith’s Funeral Home service to the community.

In 1973 Don was acclaimed as Alderman for Ward 5, and devoted five years on Burlington City Council before retiring in 1979.  Wilbert’s brother Stan passed away that year.

Don’s brother Doug joined the Smith Funeral Home staff in 1982, and together they would continue to provide dignified and caring funeral services to the community for more than 34 years.  Facilities were renovated and expanded, culminating with

 “… one of the most enterprising events of 1994… when Smith’s Funeral Home announced it had purchased the old fire hall on Guelph Line with plans to update the building and open it as a second location…” *

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Doug Smith, left and his brother Don, flank father Wilbert outside the old fire hall on Guelph Line, soon to become their new funeral home.

Given the unique floor plan of the building, this was an opportunity for Smith’s to completely renovate the structure and open a beautifully appointed funeral home in a second location North of the QEW, opening in January 1996.

With patriarch Wilbert’s passing early in 1995, Don assumed the role of company president and sole owner of the business, assuring continuity of services for the community.

“In 1991 Smith’s became the first Canadian funeral home to receive the prestigious… award from the National Funeral Directors Association.  Presented each year, the Pursuit of Excellence Award recognizes funeral homes that are committed to providing outstanding service to the families and communities they serve, and are dedicated to achieving the highest professional and ethical standards.  Smith’s also became the first Canadian funeral home to retain a full-time bereavement coordinator on staff.

“Don was presented with the Mayor’s Community Service Award for the City of Burlington in 1997, and was further honoured with the Rotary Harris Fellowship by the Rotary Club of Burlington.” *

“Service to the community” came in the form of public service as well.

“When Wilbert and Jeanette Smith settled in Burlington in 1938, they set out to make a difference in their newly adopted community.  Over the years, that commitment to community service has been a hallmark of the Smith family.  That includes Don Smith serving as Co-Chair of the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital “Tomorrow is Here” campaign in 2000-2001 as well as donating generously with brother Doug to help launch the Burlington History Room at the Central Library, providing a central archiving facility to keep Burlington’s history alive.  In recognition, the room was named in honour of their parents.

“Smith’s Funeral Homes was named Company of the Year in 2000 by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.  Further recognition followed in 2008, when Don Smith was named Philanthropist of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.  In 2009, he was presented with the Burlington Community Foundation’s First Philanthropist of the Year Award.” *

In 2009 Smith’s Funeral Homes became the first Canadian funeral business to be certified by the Green Burial Council (GBC), an international non-profit organization that works to ensure funeral and cemetery practices are eco-friendly and meaningful.  “The Green Burial Council is a non-profit organization working to make burial more sustainable, economically viable, and meaningful.  Its certification program has emerged as the gold standard among consumers, funeral, cremation, and cemetery professionals, land trusts, park service agencies, and product suppliers.  There are approximately 300 certified funeral and cemetery providers in the GBC network.” *

“‘Running an ecologically responsible business is important to us,’ says Don Smith, Owner of Smith’s Funeral Homes.  ‘This certification demonstrates our strong commitment to high environmental standards and fulfilling the wishes of the families we serve.’

“Smith’s employs environmentally-friendly suppliers and practices in order to minimize the firm’s carbon footprint, including supplying biodegradable caskets that have no metal, plastics, or harsh chemical finishes;  offering containers for cremated remains that are biodegradable and made of 100 percent recyclable materials;  using recycled paper products, including register books and acknowledgement cards;  using plant-based embalming fluids;  and embracing environmentally responsible business practices, such as recycling and energy-efficient lighting.” *

Noting long service to Burlington families, in 2013 Smith’s sponsored the publication, Celebrating 75 Years of Burlington. *  It is a compendium of significant Burlington people and events over the past century, and so fitting of the Smith family’s dedication to have underwritten its publication.  Its last pages pay tribute to notable names who have called Burlington home.

Adding to that list, we note the sad passing of Doug Smith in August 2016.  Loved and fondly remembered by family, cousins, extended family and great friends, his dedication to the families of Burlington now forever written on the sands of time.

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* Celebrating 75 Years of Burlington, Craig Ritchie, Compass Media Group, Burlington, Ontario;  no ISBN (copies available free through Smith’s Funeral Home).

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Video by Kevin Davies; photography by Bob Chambers, Bob Miller, Nikki Wesley, John Mellow, Joel Waterman, Denny Williams, Alan Harrington, Al Pettman and others (by permission)