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Business older than Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 30, 2012, at 4:31 p.m.

Only one dead body ever spooked Davis Moulden, and that's saying something. Moulden sees death on a daily basis as one of the owners of the family business, Davis Funeral Chapel in Leavenworth.

Now 71, he got into the business at age 16 helping his father and mother. He's the fifth generation in the business.

Moulden's great-great-grandfather, J.B. Davis, started burying people in 1855, about six years before Kansas became a state, which makes Davis Funeral Chapel the oldest business still operating in the state or, at the very least, one of the oldest.

He runs the business with his wife, Debbie, and their daughter, Hope Hundley.

For years, one of the mainstays of the Davis Funeral Chapel business was the federal prison in Leavenworth and the state prison in nearby Lansing.

Clarence and Margaret Moulden, Davis Moulden's parents, won contracts to bury the prisoners who died, usually men who had grown old and had heart attacks or strokes. They would carry them to the funeral home, embalm them, put a suit on them, assist with a brief graveside service and put them in the ground.

Every once in a while, they carried a celebrity. In the 1950s, his father carried the 1930s bank robber and kidnapper George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and George "Bugs" Moran, the Chicago gangster who battled Al Capone in the 1920s.

Moulden said he got spooked on a misty April night in 1965 when he was summoned to an execution.

He and a helper drove to Lansing Correctional Facility five miles away and parked outside the wall, near the door to a prison warehouse.

As they waited, a car passed by carrying three men in the back seat — two guards with a hatless man between them.

It was Richard Hickock, half of the pair who murdered the Clutter family of Holcomb in 1959, a story told in "In Cold Blood."

Minutes passed. Moulden heard the sound of the trap door falling and was motioned inside. He and his partner found Hickock still dangling from the gallows. A guard cut the rope, and Hickock was loaded into the hearse for the ride back to the funeral home.

It was an unexpectedly long ride, Moulden said.

"He was on a stretcher and his feet were right behind my head," he recalled. "All the way back to town, I thought, 'Is (he) ... really dead?' "

He was. His partner, Perry Smith, was executed soon after. Moulden repeated the job.

Hickock and Smith were buried side by side in Lansing's Mount Muncie Cemetery. They lie one grave away from James Latham, an Army private who was executed two months later in 1965 for his part in a multistate killing spree.

"Back then, the state of Kansas didn't fool around," Moulden said.

Secret of longevity

It's only natural that Leavenworth is the site of what may be the state's longest-lived business. Leavenworth was the state's first official town, incorporating in 1854.

Several businesses still operating in the city hark back before statehood and many more from the early decades of the state's birth.

The city began with a bang, becoming a commercial and industrial hub because of its standing as a key jumping-off point for settlers moving west on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. It also became an early stronghold of the pro-slavery settlers in the state.

"It was a boom town," said Mary Ann Brown, a local author and history buff. "It was just like San Francisco."

Even though the boom cooled as the railroad picked Kansas City 30 miles away, Leavenworth enjoyed a key advantage: the fort and, later, the federal prison and nearby state prison in Lansing. Today, Leavenworth and Lansing host three prisons, plus a prison at Fort Leavenworth.

A stable economy, Brown said, has helped Leavenworth hold on to some of its oldest businesses, despite the ups, downs and twists of the business world.

Time brings changes

Davis Funeral Chapel doesn't handle any famous prisoners these days. In fact, the funeral home doesn't even bid on the prison contracts anymore, Moulden said. There are fewer prison deaths and too much potential for conflict with the prisoners' families.

It's one more change at the funeral home. The industry changes slowly, but over time the changes are great.

J.B. Davis came to Leavenworth in 1855, a free-stater leaving pro-slavery Kentucky, as a carpenter and furniture maker. Carpenters on the frontier often acted as undertakers because they built the caskets.

At the time, bodies had to be stored on ice or buried quickly. Embalming became a common practice in the decades after the Civil War, prolonging the amount of time a family could spend with a body before burial.

Moulden's grandfather, James C. Davis, became the first funeral home owner in town to switch from a horse-drawn carriage to an automobile.

A few years ago, the Mouldens installed a crematory in the garage because of the rising demand for cremation over regular burial.

"You have to reinvent yourself if you're going to stay in business," Moulden said.

People today don't want long, elaborate and expensive funerals. Moulden used to stock bronze and copper coffins and hire a professional organist, but not anymore.

"We used to do everything to get a body prepared and the family would sit with us for two or three days, sometimes until 10, 11 at night," he said. "Now we're seeing funerals that are one-day services: a couple hours visitation, the funeral and then the burial.

"Things are changing. If you are not cognizant of this, you better wake up real quick."

Although the funeral business is more stable than most, it remains a tiny miracle that it survived this long and that the same family — Hundley makes it six generations — has operated it. It remains an open question whether a seventh generation will go into the business.

Hundley didn't naturally make the jump into the family business. She was a travel agent for years before she decided to go to mortuary school.

It was a surprise to her father, who said he never put any pressure on her to switch. But she said she felt a pressure coming from within.

"How would you feel? Would you break the chain?" she said.

"It's not a guilt thing, but I feel like you ought to give back to the community."

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or dvoorhis@wichitaeagle.com.

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