By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – In the Oct. 26, 1906 edition of the Tupelo Journal – the predecessor of today’s Daily Journal – an ad for W.E. Pegues proudly describes the company’s new hearse.
“It is massive and elegant, eight elaborately hand-carved columns,mosque top, plate glass, latest design of insider drapery. … am (sic) ever ready and willing to serve the public in the best possible manner.”
The company, today known as W.E. Pegues Funeral Directors, celebrates its 120th anniversary as a funeral business.
But the company actually got its start a few years earlier.
Greg Pegues, who represents the fourth generation of the family business, said a $10 privilege license dating back to 1885 shows the company got its start as a furniture company.
“So I suppose we’re actually older than 120 years, but since we started the funeral business in 1891 and that’s what we still do, that’s how we’re celebrating our anniversary,” Pegues said.
As to why a furniture store also sold caskets, Pegues said it wasn’t a unique idea.
“Back then it wasn’t unusual for funeral homes to be part of a furniture store,” he said.
In fact, it was common practice throughout the country, with furniture craftsmen doubling as casket makers.
The company was founded by Walter E. Pegues, who had wrapped up a two-year term as Lee County’s first Superintendent of Education. Along with partner W.C. Baskin, who once served as the city’s mayor, Baskin and Pegues Furniture Company and Undertakers was founded.
The furniture side of the business continued downtown and in a second store in Shannon until 1952, when McClure Furniture Co. bought the company’s furniture operations.
John Reed Pegues, a son of Walter, said at the time, “We want to concentrate our entire efforts on our funeral profession. We feel that we can better serve our friends by using all of our personnel at our funeral home.”
W.E. Pegue’s first location was on Main Street between Spring and Front streets, a site later occupied by the Tupelo Theater. In 1900 it moved to 203 Main St., next to the old Bank of Tupelo building. It later moved to the Pegues’ family home at 535 Jefferson Street, where it remains today.
And Greg Pegues represents an unbroken chain of family ties with the company his great-grandfather founded.
“My grandfather and great uncle were in business together, my uncle and father worked together until my uncle retired in 1979. … I helped during my junior and senior years of high school and worked while I was at Ole Miss, so I guess I really started working here around 1979 or so,” he said.
A fifth generation is a distinct possibility. Greg has three children, including a daughter in New York “who has shown some interest.”
“But she likes New York a whole lot,” he said with a smile. “However, I’m not going to push them into anything they don’t want to do.”
Last week, Greg Pegues, his uncle Len, Willis Swain, Sammy Landsell and J.C. Robbins got together for a photo and shared many stories and memories about their time. Together, they represent some 200 years of experience in the funeral business. Len Pegues and Swain have retired from the company,
Among the biggest changes the men said they’ve seen is the funeral service itself.
“Funerals used to be held in the home or the churches or at the grave sites,” Len said. “That’s not the case any more.”
Swain also said cremations were rare.
“The first few times, I didn’t know what to say to people about them,” he said.
Today, cremations are no longer the exception.
“The last two years alone, we had 50 cremations each year out of about 280 funerals,” said Greg Pegues.
And while the company got out of the furniture business, it picked up another business along the way – providing an ambulance service.
Funeral homes often were the only businesses that had a vehicle large enough to recline patients. So, a hearse could serve a dual purpose. When it was needed as an ambulance, a flashing light was place on the rooftop; when it was needed for a funeral, the light went away.
The ambulance was strictly functional. It carried an oxygen tank and minimal medical supplies.
“We just transported people to the hospital and let the experts take over,” Len Pegues said.
The company got out of the ambulance business in the 1960s.
“I couldn’t have been happier,” Pegues said.
Having served thousands of families and friends since 1891, W.E. Pegues Funeral Directors has evolved over the years.
But, said Greg Pegues, the one constant has been its commitment to its customers.
“People you know serving friends” has long been the company’s motto, and Pegues said that the company won’t waver from it.
“We’ve been blessed to serve the people of Lee County and the surrounding area for 120 years, and we hope to be doing that another 120 years from now,” he said.
Many firsts for Pegues
• First in the area to provide horse-drawn hearses before 1900
• First motor-drawn hearse in 1916
• First in region in 1918 to offer embalming
• First funeral home to have air conditioning, in 1951
• First funeral home to have a chapel, in 1963
Did you know
• Pegues coordinated the burial of many of the victims of the 1936 tornado that killed 225 people.
• Pegues was featured in Ripley’s “Believe it or not” collection of out-of-the-ordinary events for burying 13 members of the J.M. Burroughs family in a single 35-foot-grave. They were victims of the 1936 tornado.
• In 1935, Pegues conducted the funeral service for Jesse Garon Presley, the twin brother of Elvis Presley. Jesse was stillborn.