Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date May 8, 2022
CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN by Ada Habershon and Charles Gabriel
Hey gentle readers!!! I think we’ve got a good show for you tonight!!!. We’re gonna put our heads and hearts together and resurrect Olie Thilking. We’re gonna investigate or invest in the Bank of Augusta. And then have a long-awaited conversation with everybody’s favorite grave digger, Paul Kamphoefner. But first a word from our sponsor, Pitman-Thilking Funeral Home.
Okay, that was probably a little over the top, but I do want to bring it to everyone’s attention that the name of our local funeral home includes the name Thilking. Olie Thilking was never an owner of the business, but he worked there under Morris Muschany, and when Jim Pitman bought out Muschany, Olie was retained. And because Olie was well known and liked in the Augusta area, his name was added to the name of the funeral home. But before we reacquaint ourselves with Mr. Thilking, I want to share a few more interesting excerpts from my recent conversation with funeral director, Jim Pitman.
Paul: Jim, how many funeral homes do you own now?
Jim Pitman: We have five now. There’s Wentzville, Wright City, Warrenton, and Augusta. Let’s see…and there’s Jonesburg.
P: Can you tell me the difference between a mortuary and a funeral home?
JP: Well, actually they’re really…it sort of means the same. The funeral home is where the services take place…and the mortuary is where they do the embalming and preparation of the body.
P: Preparing a body must sometimes require rebuilding a damaged head or face. Did you use to do that work yourself?
JP: I used to do it myself and there was another fellow who worked for us…his name was Harvard Kessler.
P: I guess that affects the cost of a funeral.
JP: Yes. Sometimes you would work on just the face for 2 to 3 hours.
P: I assume you do cremations also.
JP: Yes, we have a modernized crematory in Wentzville. We cremate both humans and animals. We have two separate crematories. We do a lot of pets.
P: Do you have any hobbies or strong interests beyond your business?
JP: Yes, I love to hunt. I traveled…I’ve shot in Alaska…I’ve shot in Nicaragua…Canada…and the western part of the United States. I’m not a golfer! I’m a hunter.
P: Jim, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. I appreciate your help.
Gentle readers, today is Wednesday, April 27, 2022, and I just got off the phone with Curtis Fulkerson, a grandson of Olie Heinrich Thilking, and a first cousin to Lisa Fulkerson Carmon, owner of Stone Ledge Antiques on Locust St., uptown Augusta. I was not near a recording device, so I’m using memory and scribbled notes to share the conversation with you.
But first, allow me to give you some background on Olie (3/16/1901 – 7/2/78). His wife was Mabel Holt Thilking (1904-1971.) They are buried in the Augusta City Cemetery. Paul Kamphoefner dug Olie’s grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/57844815/olie-h_w-thilking
Olie’s name has popped up in several past interviews. He worked at the funeral home under Muschany, and later for Pitman. He drove a hearse/ambulance and helped with visitation and burial as part of his job. He also delivered gas and oil to farms and homes in our end of the county. Recently, I learned he was a frequent visitor at Holt’s smithy. He was a firefighter, and Curtis thinks he owned the Whitehouse Tavern at some point. (Not really.) But Curtis was only 14yo when Olie died, so he cautioned me to be somewhat skeptical of his memories.
Curtis thinks Olie was born in Femme Osage. (That checked out right.) BTW Curtis was one of many beer-bucket couriers for Holt. He doesn’t recall getting paid for fetching, but he said Olie frequently treated him to candy at Fuhr’s store. Curtis’ mom inherited Olie’s golden 1969 Chevy ambulance; thus, Curtis has driven it. He told me it was perfect for trout fishing trips. You could fit a full-sized mattress in the back.
Curtis just now texted me with some great photos and the contact info for his older brother, Rod, so I can quiz him a bit…should be fun.
Paul: Did you ever ride along with Olie when he delivered gas and oil?
Rod Fulkerson: Oh yeah, many times. I was in grade school…up to when I was 16.
P: What are your parents’ names?
RF: My dad’s name was Wallace. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/emissourian/name/wallace-fulkerson-obituary?id=19776541
He was an older brother to Bob Fulkerson (of Defiance). Mom’s name is Lois Thilking…Gramps’ daughter. Mom was a twin, but her twin sister died…it was some months later…after birth.
P: Did Olie ever live in Defiance?
RF: No, but I did. I spent a lot of weekends with Gramps and Granny. He’d get me on a Friday after school.
P: I guess you met Holt, the blacksmith.
RF: I used to make some beer runs for him when I was a kid. He’d give me a dime to get a bucket.
P: Different topic…do you know who dug graves around here before Paul Kamphoefner?
RF: I’m thinking me and Pauly are the same age. We played ball together one or two years when dad managed the team. (See photo attachment. Rod is second from left, bottom row. Paul is all the way to the right, bottom row.) I guess I didn’t even know he was digging graves. (Turns out, Paul dug Olie’s grave.)
P: Back on topic…tell me more about Olie.
RF: He was the director of the funeral home. And my mom (Olie’s daughter) was a beautician…she had a beautician’s license, and she would fix the women’s hair at the funeral home. I remember one time, I was down at the Whitehouse and got an ice cream…I didn’t know where mom was at…so I ran up to the funeral home…and I went into the back…and there was this naked, dead lady laying there on a table…and mom was fixing her hair…and I did an about face with that one, dang quick. That part…I’ll never forget.
P: Did your mom have a shop?
RF: No, she just went house to house. It wasn’t a moneymaker. I guess it was more-or-less a hobby.
P: I guess Olie had to do the embalming.
RF: Yes, he had the license to do that, but we never talked about it.
P: What do you remember about Olie’s immediate neighborhood? (Olie lived in the house just south of Gallery Augusta and just east of the post office. It’s now the home of Becky Natoli.)
RF: If I’m looking out the front door of Gramps’ house…there on the right there was a garage where Gramps kept the gas truck. On the other side of that (garage) was a gas station (Gallery Augusta). (I suspect Olie’s garage is now part of Gallery Augusta.) Across from his house was the jailhouse.(Now the post office.)
P: Did you ever see a prisoner?
RF: No, but when I was a little guy, I used to take a hard rubber ball and play ball up against the back of the jailhouse…there was a gutter running diagonally…and I’d use that gutter to try and hit it. It would give me a flyball or a groundball or maybe a line drive. I’d play my own baseball games while I was up at Gramps and Granny’s.
P: Someone told me that the fuel tanks were down by the railroad tracks where the brewery is now.
RF: Yes, I spent many hours down there filling that gas truck up…and from the train car itself to fill the tanks…from the train to the tanks and to the truck as we needed it.
I always remember…when I was a little guy riding with Gramps in the oil truck. He’d go to these farmhouses…and they had these little kids running around…he’d always find a nickel to give every kid. And I thought that was so cool.
P: That’s going in the story.
RF: And Gramps would give me a quarter and I’d run to the store downtown, and I’d get 5 packs of Topps baseball cards.
P: They were fun, weren’t they?
RF: They had bubblegum with them too. (Chuckle.)
P: Say, Rod, what do you do for a living?
RF: I’m retired, but I’ve been working at Walmart now…for four years…in Lake St. Louis.
Gentle readers, when I learned that George Miller was Lisa Reed’s dad, and that George and Olie were friends, I decided to dig deeper.
Lisa Miller Reed: Olie and dad hung out quite a bit. I know that they also, with Mr. Bacon, who lived there across from Augusta Wood (Gallery Augusta) …they did a lot of stuff together…Cardinal ballgames…they did a lot…I was so young I don’t remember that much…but I know that at the time, Olie was involved with the funeral home. We moved here in 1965, and it was Pitman-Thilking then. I don’t know when it stopped being the bank (1931) …that was way before my time. I wonder what they ever did…there had to be a vault or a big safe…I wonder whatever happened with that…
Dearly beloved, I often wonder what the ethical limits are to my revealing what I know. In my capacity as a town handyman/painter I’ve seen so much of this town, and I know more than I’d ever admit. I mean, when a person frequents attics, cellars, crawlspaces, and outbuildings, you learn things even the homeowner doesn’t know. But the bank… this is town history were talking about, so I’m gonna sing. There is, indeed, a concrete vault within the funeral home. It has an arched ceiling, safety deposit boxes, a strong steel door, an alarm system, and all manner of old financial and funereal accoutrement. But it’s well hidden and you’ll probably never see it, so I’ll share a few photos in the attachments. And if you enlarge the picture of the rear of the funeral building, you can just make out the words, Bank of Augusta. Enough said.
LMR: They (George and Marie Miller) bought the Whitehouse Tavern in ’65 and had it until ’75 when they sold it to Floyd and Jane Leesmann. My family bought it from my dad’s sister and her husband, Roland and Elene Jacobsmeyer. When I was 4, 5, 6yo, we were coming out to Augusta, even then, to visit them.
P: Where were you coming from?
LMR: We lived in Creve Coeur. Dad’s family farmed…settled there in the 1880s.
P: Lisa, are you retired now?
LMR: Yes, I was a nurse. I worked at Mercy in Washington for 36 years.
P: Most people know you’re married to Jimmy Reed, who is a builder and a developer. But maybe not everyone would know your children.
LMR: Douglas, my oldest, is 45. Jarrod is 42.
So…Lisa had plenty of interesting things to say about living above the tavern, and I think I need to do a full interview with her someday. As a bonus I could interview some of her living relatives who lived above the tavern before her. But here I am, already on page 4 of a Word document, and I’ve yet to share my interview with Paul Kamphoefner.
Paul Kamphoefner: Originally, it was just Defiance and Augusta, but if you do a good job at something…then it expands. I dig in a lot of different cemeteries now…from here to St. Charles… Wentzville, New Melle…I dig about 60 a year. Although this year is running way above that.
PO: Why so? Are other people dropping out of the trade?
PK: I just don’t know. Some people would say Covid, but…it’s just the way things happen sometimes.
PO: When a person’s digging, you never know what you’ll find. Have you had any surprises?
PK: Yeah…I probably wouldn’t elaborate…to get anyone in trouble…but I’ve dug up bones, for sure.
PO: Tell me about the different types of soil you run into digging at various cemeteries.
PK: That’s a big factor. If you stay along the river and dig those menfro soils, you don’t have much trouble with water in the grave, or cave-ins, but if you dig up in New Melle…plastic dirt and a lot of water in the grave… It’s a lot bigger job. I don’t dig any place where there’s rock or gravel to any extent. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menfro
PO: Do you ever use a backhoe?
PK: No. I just don’t do it…like Assumption Cemetery in O’Fallon, there’s an area in the cemetery where you know you’re going to hit rock, and they seem to understand when I say hey…get someone else. My wife just reminded me…I had a grave in New Melle once that I dug 1 or 2 days prior…came up the morning of that funeral and water was running out of the top of the grave. Luckily, the fire department came and pumped it out.
PO: I was about to ask you if you ever carry a pump with you.
PK: Somehow, I just do everything the hard way. I bucket it out.
PO: I’m curious what a person might be thinking when they dig graves…not just because of mortality issues, but the problem of overcoming boredom and fatigue.
PK: I like to listen to the radio. I listen to a lot of talk radio…and sports talk. If the Cardinals are on…yeah, that’s a good day for digging. I guess because I’m 73yo I think more about mortality, but not because I dig graves.
PO: How do you feel about the weather when you’re out digging?
PK: I’ve had some tough weather, but I can actually take the heat better than I can take the cold. When I was younger it didn’t bother me that much. I think there was only one grave that was postponed because the weather was too rough…the ground was frozen too hard…just for a day. It was Dan Kemner’s sister, Hilda Tuepker.
Does anyone remember the scene in Northern Exposure when Holling, who runs the Brick in Cicely, Alaska, has the civic responsibility of determining how many graves Cicely will need for the winter before the ground is too frozen to dig them? Sorry. That’s what came to mind.
PO: Can you give me a rough estimate of how long it takes to dig a grave?
PK: Well, you know, I’m just getting slower all the time. When I was younger, I could dig…in good soil, like Augusta…I could dig one in 4 hours. Now it takes me at least 6. My wife just reminded me I have dug 2 in one day. On occasion I’ve dug double deep graves where the husband or wife goes on the bottom. That gets 8 feet down in the ground. You have to use a step ladder to get out.
PO: For sure, but what’s the normal depth?
PK: The requirements are 4½ feet. Sometimes I’m closer to 5…it depends on how new my shovel is. (Chuckle.) Also, I dug both my mom and my dad’s grave. My grandfather said that in his day, the people were laid out in the home, and then they would ask neighbors or somebody to stay up all night with the body.
Gentle readers, according to Reference.com: The practice of holding wakes originates from a combination of two ancient Anglo-Saxon traditions. Early Christians held annual celebrations in commemoration of the completion or dedication of a new church or parish. These celebrations were known as “wakes” and involved feasting, sports and dancing. The following day would be recognized as a holiday by that parish and the night in between would be reserved for overnight prayer and meditation in the church.
Alongside the religious wake was the tradition of “waking the corpse,” which has its origins long before Christianity. This practice of holding an all-night vigil over the body of the deceased involved mourning chants and sharing the life story of the deceased. The practice has its roots in superstition, suggests the Encyclopaedia Britannica, citing a fear that evil spirits might harm or otherwise steal the body. These superstitions, coupled with practical concerns about rats and other vermin disturbing the body as it was prepared for burial, met with the above Christian tradition and soon the all-night vigils over the dead began to involve prayer, effectively combining the two forms of “wakes” that were practiced at the time.
PO: What’s the cost of digging a grave around here?
PK: Most graves, I get $800. I still charge only $700 for the locals here.
PO: Does your work give you a better scope on who is related to whom, and do you retain much of that?
PK: I think I do. I always read the obituaries…see if it’s anybody I know…and when you read who the survivors are…
PO: Can you tell me about local gravediggers before you jumped in?
PK: I think maybe one person dug at each cemetery. I don’t know who dug the Catholic cemetery, but I think Leslie Nadler dug the town cemetery. The Lutheran Church…at different times was Orville Welker and Gottfried Knoernschild…and Leland Nadler. And there was a black guy from Wentzville who dug for Pitman. I think his name was Charlie Wolfark. Raymond Fuhr (father of Bob Fuhr, building contractor) is one more person who dug graves locally.
PO: Tell me more about yourself. Where did you go to school?
PK: I went to the Lutheran school in Augusta for eight years…one room school. Then 2 years of high school in Augusta…then the school closed, and I went 2 years in Washington. And I have a bachelor's degree in economics from Central Missouri State.
PO: Tell me a little about your family.
PK: My wife’s name is Mary. Her maiden name was Carnelia; she’s from Kansas City. I have 5 kids: Matt, the oldest at 45yo, Jennifer, Angie, Mark and Joe, the youngest at 35yo. Joe is here with me on the farm. And Mark will do weekend jobs for me. He has an engineering degree from Rolla, and he works for Ameren. But he does jobs on the weekend. He likes to do it; he likes to earn the extra money. He went back to school when he was 30yo, and financed it, helping me to dig graves. But I probably still dig 3/4ths of them.
There you have it, the Grim Reaper has interviewed the Grave Digger and a good time was had by Paul. Enjoy the bank vault photos which include the alarm and safety deposit boxes. You might also enjoy seeing Olie operating a steam tractor. That came from Curtis Fulkerson, and so did the photo of a Mobilgas train car parked below Augusta. You might also enjoy the photo of Paul and his grand-daughter, Eva Kate Kamphoefner.
In the upcoming part 3, there’s a chat with Eric Pitman, some funereal writing from Ida Gerdiman who once lived in Schluersburg, and I’ll talk with a friend who held an at-home wake for his mother in the not-so-distant past.
Stay curious and stay alive.