The old Windham town hearse getting ready to be placed into storage. Contributed / Penny Loura, Windham Historical Society

In late 19th century rural America, death was a constant companion. Both children and adults were stricken with serious illnesses and communicable diseases that often resulted in their dying. Windham was no exception to these unfortunate circumstances and so, in 1885, the town of Windham purchased the Windham town hearse.

The vehicle was manufactured by the George L. Brownell Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts, an award-winning dealer of carriages, harnesses, hearses, robes and blankets. Windham’s town hearse was state of the art at the time of its purchase. Its features included curtains on the windows, carriage lamps and wheels that were interchangeable with snow skis for the cold weather months.

It came at the considerable cost of $400. To store the valuable vehicle, the town also purchased plans from the Brownell Company for a hearse house costing $300. A plot of land in Windham Center was purchased from William G. Morrell for $5 and this was where the hearse house would be built.

A photo of the original hearse house. A replica will be an upcoming project for the society’s Village Green. Contributed / Susan Simonson, Windham Historical Society

The materials for the building came from a number of local merchants and townspeople. Alley Hawkes, Mrs. A.J. Morrell, Thomas Varney, Legrow Brothers, Goff & Plummer and CN Morrell Lumber provided lumber and the other necessities for the house. A harness for the hearse was purchased from J.A. Hammond and nails were provided by Charles Jones. The structure itself was built by Albert Rogers, who was paid $45 for his labor. He was assisted by William Varney, who was paid $3. Charles Nichols, the town undertaker at the time, provided hearse pedestals for $4.50.

During the Victorian era when the town hearse was brought to Windham, there were many customs and superstitions regarding death and the souls of the departed. It was common for the loved ones of the deceased to open their doors to family and friends for a wake. During these events, many felt it necessary to cover all mirrors with black cloths. This prevented the dead person’s soul from becoming trapped inside the mirror. Some families stopped all clocks inside the house at the time of death to prevent anyone else in the family from dying and to show reverence for the person who had just passed. The clocks would be restarted once the body was buried. And if there was a clap of thunder during the burial service, it was taken as an indication that the soul had passed through heaven’s pearly gates.

In Windham during summer burials, some were frightened to see liquid dripping from the hearse on its way to the cemetery. They thought it was the blood of the dead. The coffin was placed on ice inside the hearse to keep the body cold. In reality, the dripping liquid was melting ice.

The horse-drawn hearse remained in operation in town for nearly 30 years, until 1914 when undertaker John Nichols, son of Charles, purchased a hearse of his own. In the 1920s, Nichols purchased the town’s first motorized hearse, but the old hearse still remained safely stored in its hearse house for years.

In October 2004, the town gave the hearse to the Windham Historical Society, and on Oct. 23 of that year, it was moved to the annex of the Old Grocery Store at the corner of Windham Center Road and Route 202. Last fall, the Old Grocery was moved to the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green and the hearse was moved one more time to a safe storage place where it awaits future renovations. The society plans to build a replica of the hearse house for the vehicle on the Village Green when it is fully refurbished. Then, Windham residents will enjoy seeing it looking as splendid as the day it arrived in town way back in the 1800s.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and an active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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