Polk County’s oldest business marks 100 years

Published 11:22 am Monday, May 2, 2011

The horse-drawn hearse McFarland’s used in 1911, shown here in a parade held during Polk County’s centennial celebration in 1955. (photo submitted)

McFarland Funeral Chapel celebrates its centennial

When families contact McFarland Funeral Chapel to help them after the death of a loved one, they may not realize they are tapping into 100 years of local history.

The McFarland family has served the families and community of the Carolina Foothills for a century. Continuously owned and operated by the McFarland family since its founding in 1911, the business is the oldest still operating in Polk County.

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Over the years, McFarland’s has handled funeral services for thousands of people, from ordinary area citizens to well-known celebrities. According to Darlene McFarland, some of the more notable clients have included Ken Lackey, one of the original Three Stooges when they were on radio; actor Pat Hingle’s aunt (Hingle is best known for his recurring role as the commissioner in “Batman” movies); Harold Lilly, founder of Frito-Lay; and Robert Wagner’s aunt and uncle (Wagner played roles in “Hart to Hart” and “It Takes a Thief.”

The business got its start when, as a young man, Frank K. McFarland Sr. took a salesman’s position with the W. D. Ballenger General Merchandise Store in Tryon. He soon realized his niche had become the furniture department, which included the sale of caskets. Along with the familiarity of casket sales he became accustomed to consoling families when deaths occurred. He expanded on this knowledge, working briefly with a funeral home in Columbia, S.C., and attending Brown’s School of Embalming in Raleigh, N.C.Following his graduation and completion of the state examination, Frank McFarland Sr. became Polk County’s first licensed embalmer on May 2, 1911.

The F. K. McFarland Funeral Home, Polk County’s first funeral home, opened in 1911 on North Trade Street in Tryon. It was located on what is currently the Tryon Federal Bank property. In l9l3, Frank Sr. married Flora Fisher of Saluda, N.C. Flora became the receptionist, secretary and face of the funeral home, handling much of the business while Frank embalmed and directed funerals.

It wasn’t hard to find Flora or Frank in the early years of the business, when telephones first became common in the area. If the McFarlands were going to be away from their home and business for a while – for example, visiting a friend – they called the local telephone operator and told them where they would be. If someone called the operator needing the McFarlands’ help, the operator knew where to direct the call. Frank Sr. and Flora had four children, three daughters and a son.

Their son, Frank K. McFarland Jr., worked at the funeral home with his father beginning in his early teens. Frank Jr. completed his education at Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, passing the N.C. State Board of Embalming examination in September of 1943. He received his license on his 21st birthday in April of 1944. In October of l943, Frank Jr. entered the U. S. Navy, serving aboard the U.S.S. Dolphin as a pharmacist mate during WWII. Upon his return from service, he joined his father full time in the funeral home.

Working in the funeral home was a demanding job in the 1950s and early 1960s. The McFarlands not only had to be ready to help families whenever funeral services were needed, but they also had to provide emergency medical services. At that time, funeral homes typically offered an ambulance service in addition to their funeral services. When someone had an accident or needed medical care, the McFarlands would bring the ambulance and transport the injured to a doctor or hospital. As car traffic became heavier and accidents more frequent, the need for such services became overwhelming. Eventually, in the mid-1960s, the county took over ambulance and other emergency services.

In l955 Frank Jr. and a brother-in-law, Woodrow Hague, opened Polk Memorial Gardens, which remains the only perpetual care cemetery in Polk County. In l962, the current facility was completed on Hwy. 108 just outside the city limits of Tryon. Cremation facilities were added to the property in l979, allowing McFarland’s to be one of the first providers of cremation in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina. F. K. McFarland III began his career in the family business following his graduation from Wofford College and Gupton Jones College of Mortuary Science in Atlanta, Ga. His wife, Darlene Grigg McFarland, joined the firm in l984, receiving her funeral director’s license in l988 just after the birth of their only son, Frank K. “Keen” McFarland IV.

Keen graduated from Wake Forest University in May of 2010, and will complete his apprenticeship at the funeral chapel in July. He will enter Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science in September 2011 to continue the family’s commitment of service to Polk County into the future. To celebrate its centennial, McFarland’s will hold an open house later in the year.