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Monday, July 28, 2014

William R. Hamilton Funeral Home

WM Hamilton House

The William. R. Hamilton Company Funeral Home - 1855 – 2006 150 Years of History

The story of the William. R. Hamilton Co. Funeral Home has relevance to all of us here in Mount Clemens, as the Hamilton family purchased the Groesbeck Funeral Home at 226 Crocker Blvd. in 1979. This article will chronicle some details of the history of the Groesbeck family, but the beginnings of the tale are routed in Detroit.

Allow yourself to go back to 1855. The Civil War has not yet begun (1861-1865) and a young man named Jessie Farwell comes to Detroit from New Hampshire. Mr. Farwell, a furniture maker by trade with previous experience in the funeral business, establishes himself in partnership with Mr. Marcus Stevens and Mr. Samuel Zug, proprietors of Stevens and Zug Furniture Co. This funeral business lasted only 5 years, at which time the partnership dissolved and in 1863 Mr. Farwell joined forces with a Mr. George Latimer (undertaker) and Mr. Wm. R. Hamilton I (Superintendent of Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit).

The Wm. R. Hamilton Co. Funeral Home was located on Lafayette St. in Detroit in the late 1800’s. Latimer & Hamilton Undertakers on Lafayette StreetIt was from this location that two notable occasions took place. Hamilton Funeral Home had the privilege to arrange for the first funeral in the United States, or some say the world, to use automobiles in procession. The year was 1910, and a prominent Detroit automotive pioneer by the name of Henry Stevens had died. Before this time, Hamilton Funeral Home used, as did all funeral homes, a team of elegant black steeds to draw the carriages to the funeral and cemetery. The hearse team of black steeds was a particular pride for Wm. R. Hamilton IAs a matter of fact, the hearse team was a particular pride of Wm. R. Hamilton I, as he traveled the world to find just the perfect specimens for his stable. (PICTURE) As notable as this was, the family of Mr. Stevens desired the use of the automobile for the funeral. At the time, it was told that Mr. Hamilton had purchased a Grabowski Panel truck and was investigating the use of the automobile for funerals. An agreement was made to use the auto instead of the traditional horse drawn hearse. While the change to automotives in lieu of horses was regarded by most with skepticism, the rest, as they say, is history, and the modern once again took the place of convention.

The second occasion of note to happen from the Lafayette address was the handing of the death of Houdini. Mr. Houdini, world famous magician, had arrived in Detroit on October 30th, 1926 to perform at the Garrick Theater. Unfortunately, two days before, on a dare to a college student in Montreal where Mr. Houdini was performing, he was injured with a strong punch to the stomach. This punch apparently damaged Mr. Houdini’s appendix. He persevered, and even with a high temperature and feeling miserable, went on with his show on the Detroit stage. Shortly after his performance, he collapsed in pain and was rushed to Grace Hospital, where he succumbed to a ruptured appendix on Oct 31, 1926 with the final words to his brother “I can not stand the pain”. Upon the death of Mr. Houdini, the Hamilton Funeral Home was called to take care of his remains and prepare him for transport via rail to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in New York City for visitation and funeral service.

The bronze doors of the Cass location of the Hamilton Funeral Home were an architectural highlightIn 1929, the funeral home moved to what was probably the best known and most fondly remembered location. It sat at the corner of Cass and Alexandrine in what is known today as the Cass Corridor of Detroit. The hist226 Crocker Boulevard before additions (Dated  1940s)orical design of the building was highlighted by large double bronze doors adorning the Alexandrine side of the building, with 4 black marble figures depicting the four stages of man decorating over the door. This part of the funeral home was an addition built in 1930, and was a presage of what is now the common practice of visitations and funerals leaving the family home, and taking place in a funeral home. The chapel could seat 300, and was state of the art for its time. It was through this location that so very many notable names in Detroit history passed. Edsel Ford in 1937, Henry Ford I in 1943, and Henry Ford II in 1987. Other families of note were Kresge, Stroh, Dow, Dodge, and more…...This chapel closed its doors in 1980, as Detroit itself deteriorated and left the neighborhoods in a shambles.

In 1952 the Hamilton’s purchased the Bell Funeral Home in Birmingham, which is still in operation today, and in 1979 purchased the Groesbeck Funeral Home here in Mount Clemens at 226 Crocker Blvd. Which takes us to some interesting Mount Clemens history……

Clara’s Summer Cottage at 250 Crocker BoulevardThe property at 226 Crocker was owned by a George & Antoinette Howard dating back to 1899. Of note, 250 Crocker, also known as Clara’s Summer Cottage, was also owned by the Howard’s. George sold the property to Clara and Charles Smith (sister of Antoinette). George was a capitalist from New York and was well known throughout the country having held positions in advertising and sporting circles. The Howard’s and Smith’s summered in their Mount Clemens homes, as did so many notable people of the time.


As noted in the Monitor Leader in 1899“Geo. W. Howard, of New York and Mount Clemens, arrived at the Avery for bath treatments as he was afflicted rheumatic gout. Mrs. Howard is here also.”

“George W. Howard died at his home, 226 Crocker Blvd, Saturday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. at the age of 67 years….For 18 years he spent his winters in the south and his summers at his home here. The past two seasons, however, he remained in the city on account of his ill health. He is survived by his wife Antoinette and one sister Clara E. Cromwell, who were with him when he died. A short service was held at the home on Crocker. The remains were taken to New York City for Interment.”

Antoinette Howard retained ownership of the home until selling it to the Groesbeck family in 1952.

The Groesbeck Funeral Home originated in 1916 when Mr. Howard V. Groesbeck Sr. established himself as a funeral director at 105 Cass Ave (corner of Cass and S.B. Gratiot). He lived there with his family and ran the business at that site until joining with Mr. Henry LaCroix in 1925. LaCroix & Groesbeck Funeral Directors relocated to 75 N. Front (Broadway, now N.B. Gratiot) until 1930, at which time the business moved back to 105 Cass. 1946 brought a new addition to the business with Howard V. Jr. partnering with his father upon the retirement of Henry LaCroix. Both Howard Sr. and Howard Jr. functioned in the position of County Coroner for a number of years. Mr. Groesbeck Jr. purchased the business from his father in 1949 and moved the location of both the business and residence to 226 Crocker Blvd. (PICTURE).

Today I am carrying on the 5th generation of Hamilton’s to be involved in the business. I enjoyed many years of living over the funeral home with my children, learning of the history of both the home and Mount Clemens itself. While we have moved out of the apartment above the home, the love we acquired for the city itself has remained with us and kept us as residents of Mount Clemens, making our home on Beuland.

Special ThanksGoes to Carolee Schmid for providing valuable information on the buildings at 226 and 250 Crocker Boulevard.