The old hearse is still sturdy, although the glass sides reveal faded velvet through threadbare curtains. The driver’s box is no longer swagged and several of the flame-shaped finials are missing from the roof. It’s a beautiful carriage nonetheless, elegant and sleek, reminiscent of an older time. The Sticklin hearse is more than one hundred years old and an important part of Lewis County history. Finally, after many years in dark storage, it will be restored and shared, once again, with the local community.
Daniel La Plaunt, Centralia resident and manager of Sticklin Funeral Chapel, is the new owner and proud conservator of the historic vehicle. “The Sticklin Hearse is an irreplaceable part of local history,” he says. The exact date of the vehicle is unknown but can be inferred through association with a companion carriage, a hack or Pall Bearer’s Coach, currently in the collection of the Lewis County Historical Museum.
“The hack has a date written in chalk under the seat which says 1884,” says La Plaunt. “I’m very tempted to think that the hearse might be close to that date or even earlier. We know that it’s an East Coast style hearse.”
The hack can seat up to eight passengers with drop down seats to accommodate even more. Hacks were used to transport people from railroad depots to hotels. They were also used in funerals and called, “Pall Bearer’s Coaches.”
Most of what we know about the Sticklin hearse is limited to oral history. “The hearse belonged to Whiteside Mortuary in Olympia before the turn of the 20th century,” La Plaunt says. “Hugh Sticklin later bought out Whiteside and the coach came to Centralia.”
At one time, both hack and hearse were on display at the Lewis County Historical Museum. “It was a wonderful time when both carriages got a lot of public exposure,” says La Plaunt. But their time there was brief. A new museum board decided to send the carriages back to storage.
“I never dreamed that the hearse would return to Sticklin’s one day; my only thought was to get it out of cold, dark storage,” La Plaunt explains. “It was obvious to me that decades were going to roll around without proper curation of these vehicles so I made an offer to buy the hearse from the city.”
The Centralia City Council agreed and awarded the coach to La Plaunt. “I thought it was wonderful,” he says. “The Sticklin hearse means the world to me and I am delighted to undertake its restoration.”
But such a restoration is no small task. “There’s considerable expense involved, not only in the restoration but also getting the equipment needed to display, showcase and to parade it safely,” La Plaunt says. “These are all things I hope to do.”
The first steps in the hearse’s restoration include finding replacement finals for the roof. These flame-like wooden ornaments are typical to funeral vehicles of the period. A complete set of the original finials can be seen in a photo of the hearse from 1946. The draped, fluted wooden decorations are located on each corner of the roof, with one in the direct center. When La Plaunt first saw the carriage in 1984, it had just returned to Centralia after a twelve-year loan to a funeral home in Lacey. He noticed it already needed repairs. “The finials were still intact but they were detached and one, badly broken.”
Fortunately, La Plaunt has already located three vintage finials identical to those originally on the hearse. Replacing missing parts and repairing damage is his top priority. “It’s about curation and conservation of the vehicle,” he says, “about correcting older, ‘insensitive’ repairs and replacing or restoring for conservation – not for perfection.”
Despite some damage and age-related wear and tear, the hearse is still in remarkably good shape. “People lose sight of the fact that horse drawn vehicles are very hearty vehicles,” La Plaunt says. “They’re incredibly tough and amazingly designed. They’re meant to be used on rutted, dirt roads.”
Many early pioneers of Centralia and Chehalis, some born in the latter part of the 18th century, were carried to their final resting places in the Sticklin hearse. Thanks to new owner, Daniel La Plaunt, the old carriage will remain an important part of Lewis County’s living history for many years to come.