Howard Funeral Service hits 100 year milestone
Howard Funeral Service of Leachville and Manila has reached a milestone few businesses achieve. The family owned business, spanning four generations, has been serving the Buffalo Island and surrounding area for 100 years.
Present owners are Earl and Martha Jo Smith, third generation, and Greg and Melinda Smith, fourth generation, of founder E.M. Howard.
The history of Howard Funeral Service goes back as early as 1911 when E.M. Howard came to Leachville as an engineer with the BLA&S Railroad. He was hauling timber for Chicago Mill Co. located in Blytheville. Howard could see a future in Leachville and decided to open a general store.
Howard General Store was located on main street in Leachville next to where the present city hall is located. In those days general stores stocked everything the early settlers would need, including caskets.
The full service funeral home was opened by E.M. Howard in 1917 and is the oldest business on Buffalo Island.
Howard passed away in 1934 at a young age. His son, Buddy Howard, was in Nashville, Tenn., attending mortuary school with plans to join the family business.
Martha Jo Smith, daughter of Buddy and Nola Howard, said her dad came home on the train when he received word of his father's death.
Buddy and Nola became the owners of Howard Funeral Service until his death in 1965. Ironically, their son-in-law, Earl Smith, was in mortuary school when Buddy Howard passed away. Nola Howard operated the business with the help of Earl and Martha Jo until 1970 when they became the owners. Greg Smith followed, making the fourth generation.
The Smiths have an older son, Brian, who lives in Van Buren. Brian grew up working in the family business and, like his parents and brother, is a licensed funeral director and worked two years with the business. He left the funeral home business to go into journalism. He has one son, Andrew.
Greg and Melinda are the parents of two grown children, Lindsey, who lives in Tyler, Texas, and Matt, who lives in Jonesboro.
Matt, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, loves flying. He is making his career in aviation.
The funeral home business is a 24 hour, seven day a week responsibility. The Smiths have spent many Thanksgivings at the funeral homes.
“It is not always easy,” Greg said. “Especially in a small town, many times we have to bury our neighbors, good friends, people we went to school with and people we go to church with."
Earl Smith said at one time funeral homes provided ambulance services. Howard Funeral Service also provided an ambulance service from 1917 to 1970. He recalls going to the hospital to pick up a new mother and baby to take them home.
“On the way home, she told me she had been in the hospital for 10 days and knew she would need food,” Smith said. “She asked me if I minded stopping by Kroger and letting her buy groceries. I was glad to do it for her.”
In those days Howard provided their customers with a burial policy and the opportunity to pay $2 a year extra for free ambulance service if needed.
“We had one fellow who had to make about 10 trips in one year but his contract was honored,” Earl remembers.
The federal regulations made it too difficult for funeral homes to continue with the ambulance service so it was phased out in 1970.
The Smiths recently received an Arkansas State Senate citation in recognition of reaching the century year of their business. The citation was made through the efforts of Senator Dave Wallace and Representative Johnny Rye. They also received a plaque from the City of Leachville in honor of 100 years.
“When I think about our company, our family being in the funeral service for over 100 years, it's a bit overwhelming, Greg said. “The responsibility to maintain what people have come to expect is very humbling. When I think about 100 years I think about the mud and gravel streets. Model T cars. No air conditioning. There have been so many changes over 100 years. I also think about the people. The awesome people that have gone before us. The tragedies we've seen friends and families endure. One hundred years of history includes World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the WTC. I think about my family and the people I've had the privilege to work with. My mom and dad have just been amazing to work with. But people like Ernest Webb and Monte Grimes were men of such integrity.
"My dad, I can't even begin to describe our relationship. It is a privilege to work with my dad every day of my life. Few people get such an opportunity. The professionalism, the sincerity, he's just amazing. But by far the most important thing about being in business for 100 years has been the people who allowed us to serve them. Without their trust, we would have been gone a long time ago. It's kind of awkward being acknowledged by the community, we should be acknowledging them. They have allowed us to achieve this milestone.
“We've always made efforts to provide nice facilities and equipment, but we also understand the value (importance) of our staff. It takes people with a desire to serve others, people with a heart for service. Our staff really has that. I believe our longevity is due in part to that mindset. Surround yourself with quality people and good things happen."
In addition to the family members, Earl, Martha Jo and Greg Smith, funeral directors, staff member Mark Wheeler is also a licensed funeral director and minister. He has been with Howard's for 20 years. He also serves as deputy coroner.
One of the newest members of the staff is Doris Willyerd, office manager. She has been with Howard for a year. She retired from Buffalo Island Central School as a high school counselor and went to work in the office of Howard Funeral Service the next day. She too is following in her family tradition as her mother, Nell Dean Blackwell, worked for Howard Funeral Service as did her sister, Judge Barbara Halsey.
Brenda Carmichael has been serving as visitation attendant for 10 years.
James Skinner has worked as funeral director assistant for 10 years.
Wheeler, Greg Smith and Skinner are all deputy coroners.
Martha Jo does a lot of family research and discovered E.M. Howard actually donated land for the Leachville Cemetery.
As far back as the first family member in Leachville, the Howard/Smith family has been part of the communities they serve.
“We appreciate the people we serve,” Greg said. “The community support is a big part of what has kept us here for 100 years. Without them, we would not have been here to celebrate that milestone."