Nearly every year, one of the Santa Rosa newspapers produced a promotional supplement on the wonders of Sonoma County: A great place to start a farm, build a factory, or just settle down. Santa Rosa itself was overflowing with churches, secure banks, Luther Burbank, and prosperous businesses; they would praise the leather tanning companies, the fruit canneries, the flour mill, the pharmacies and even the hardware stores. Yet they never, ever, boasted of the town's casket factory.
Until 1908, Kobes & Huntington provided almost everything a contractor might need to finish a building - or that a downtown business might need for repairs after Saturday night drunken revelries. The shop, which was in Railroad Square at 115-121 Fifth Street (currently the large, white warehouse across from the Last Day Saloon), sold plate glass and art glass, mirrors, bank and saloon fixtures, stairways, refrigerators and all kind of mouldings and other millwork made on the premises. But from 1908 forward, they turned out one thing only: Redwood caskets and coffins.
Almost immediately the company was the second-largest coffin maker in the state, their assembly line building up to 700 caskets a month under exclusive contract to a San Francisco dealer. It was certainly one of the most successful Santa Rosa businesses and was in the process of expanding rapidly, all good reasons for the newspapers to tout the company in their annual supplements and town boosters to point at it with considerable pride. Yet except for one small article about the changeover - which only appeared in the Press Democrat on a slow news day - locals were quiet about the busy factory on Fifth street. Quiet as a tomb, you could even say.
BIG BUSINESS AT THE CASKET FACTORY
Between 400 and 700 Caskets Are Made at Kobes & Huntington's Establishment on Fifth Street Monthly
Few residents of Santa Rosa are aware that the second-largest manufacturing plant for caskets in California is located in the city, and is turning out from 400 to 700 coffins of various sizes monthly. Such is the fact.
Kobes & Huntington, who for a number of years conducted a planing mill and cabinet shop on Fifth street, some months ago secured a contract from the San Francisco Casket Co., of San Francisco, to furnish them caskets and boxes for the next eight years, and the plant was remodeled to make it suitable for the new purpose for which it was to be used. Over $2,000 worth of additional machinery was installed and for some time past now shipments of a car of caskets has been made weekly, and two cars of boxes monthly.
The manufacture of such quantities of caskets requires 40,000 feet of lumber per month, and the firm has now on hand 250,000 feet. The lumber must be bone dry, the steps are being taken to secure a steady supply from one mill during the lifetime of the contract. A steam plant is to be installed this fall for the purpose of having a place to kiln dry lumber, and also furnish a steam room where the boards maybe bench to be used the making of coffins. In trade parlance there is a difference between caskets and coffins.
The firm makes at present four styles of caskets, the square, which is the cheapest grade; the octagon, the elliptical and the chancellor. These all take their names more or less from their shapes. The "coffin" is different from any of them in that it takes the peculiar shape given it while the material is heated by steam before being put together.
The redwood lumber to be used in the manufacture of caskets is cut into various lengths before being taken into the shop and loaded on hand trucks. It is then wheeled to the various parts of the shop where it is to be used and machinery cuts it into the desired shapes, makes the moldings, cuts holes for the various attachments, and then it is taken to the assembling room. Here skilled men put it together rapidly.
There is little or no waste. The smaller pieces are all used in making the small sections and even sticks not larger than good kindling are used in forming the rounded head board confined between two veneer boards and glued in place. In all nine men are employed in the shop and each one does only his part of the work as it passes along from bench to bench.
The caskets when completed are shipped to San Francisco where they are covered and finished into the handsome products seen in many undertaking parlors. The question is often asked what becomes of the caskets made? The State Board of Health reported 2900 deaths for June, and there had to be a casket for each body. The Santa Francisco dealers furnish a large share of the supply for the Islands and Oriental trade, so it will be seen there is a large demand.
- Press Democrat, July 28, 1908