Pondering the Past, Tales Lost in Time: Enterprising Undertakers

Recently a post on the “You might be from Marengo, IL if…” Facebook page generated some comical comments about a business practice that was common in Marengo’s days gone by. The post was a photograph of a thermometer bearing an advertisement for the Pinnow Funeral Home. What caught the eye of this particular post was what appeared written underneath the business’ name - “Deluxe Ambulance Service.” These two services being offered by one enterprise; a funeral home whose revenue is generated by death; and an ambulance service whose revenue is generated by the mission to save life present somewhat of an irony to say the least. As unusual as this may seem today this was a common practice in the United States at one time; and prior to the funeral home ambulance era another complimentary business to “undertaking” was selling furniture.

Over the last century plus Marengo had its share of furniture store and funeral parlor operations; some of these were J.W. Usborne and Son, W.S. Swonguer Furniture – Undertaking, F.J. Tanner Furniture – Undertaking, W.F. Abbott Furniture and Undertaking, and even Union got in on the game with J.W. Gilbert and Co. Two of these businesses, J.W. Usborne and Son, W.S. Swonguer Furniture – Undertaking eventually went into the ambulance business as well. Throughout the decade of the 1930’s numerous newspaper articles mentioned the Usborne and Swonguer ambulances rushing patients to a hospital, or responding to an accident.

Now back to the Pinnow Funeral Home. In 1945 Edward Pinnow and his wife opened the business at 305 E. Washington St. with a two day open house. The July 19, 1945, edition of the Marengo Republican - News reported that over 400 people toured the various rooms in the house that contained the funeral parlor, chapel, and associated facilities. Visitors were entertained with a musical program which included singers. The Pinnows never did take the complete step into a furniture sales business, but they came close - for many years advertisements appeared in the local press for a Venetian Blind Servicethat was offered by the funeral home.

It was in an advertisement in the June 12, 1947, edition of the Marengo Republican – News that the Pinnow Funeral Home informed the community that they were expanding their business with the addition of an ambulance service. The bold face type advertisement announced, “To Better Serve You…A Complete Ambulance Service.” Included in the ad was a photograph of the recently purchased Henny Straight Ambulance, and it was described as being “dark cream colored with tan top.” The vehicle’s list of equipment included “red flicker lights, siren, electric heaters and fans, hospital utensils, gauze and bandages for the injured, water containers, also red flares in case of accidents.”

Also included on the ambulance was what was described as “the newest of comforts” – a pneumonia blanket. This contraption “entirely encased” the patient, and was meant for situations, or conditions where the patient couldn’t come into contact with “draughts or cold” during transport. The ad also reminded readers that “this ambulance is strictly for the sick and injured, and will not be used for anything but that purpose.” I suppose that many people then experienced the same creep factor that many people experience today – being transported in a vehicle designed for the dead.

 After a run of 25 years plus of being in business, in 1971 Edward Pinnow announced in the newspaper that because of health problems he had sold the “equipment, stock, supplies and goodwill of the Pinnow Funeral Home to Ken Cooper.”