Taking the Slow Road Home
It’s a sight that hasn’t been seen on the streets of Williamsport in over fifty years, and yet it’s somehow instantly recognizable. Pulled by two beautiful Percheron draft horses, the stately and somber elegance of the carriage draws the viewer into one of the universal dramas of life, and of death. For Lance Ohnmeiss, it’s been a long road back home, and a perfect melding of his experiences, talents, and love of the land with which he has brought a horse drawn hearse back into the Charles M. Noll Funeral Home in South Williamsport.
Lance had been in San Francisco for fifteen years, long gone from the little towns of Pennsylvania. He trained at San Francisco State University as a music teacher, worked training and exercising horses in California, and met the love of his life, Francis. It looked like a full, happy life in San Francisco.
But, meanwhile, back home in Pennsylvania, Lance’s Uncle John Ohnmeiss, who had worked for over thirty-five years at the Noll Funeral Home, had, by 2009, become the funeral home’s owner—and he needed help. He put in a call to his nephew, a call that would set Lance and Francis upon a new path—on the other side of the continent, where Lance would pursue his masters in instrumental conducting at Messiah College while joining his uncle at the funeral home.
Francis got busy modernizing the business, doing the critical work of computerizing accounts and streamlining the paperwork. And Lance focused on “the front of the house,” looking for new ways to serve his customers. The funeral home business was changing rapidly, with the number of people choosing the traditional funeral already in decline, and over fifteen funeral homes in the Williamsport area competing for business. What the Noll Funeral Home needed was a service not offered by anyone else in the area.
The “eureka” moment happened on a plane. Lance was reading an airline magazine article on baby boomers and their love of horses...how horses were now a feature in gated communities for folks over fifty-five, at country clubs, at golf courses. It was not a large leap for an avid horse lover to see horses in his life, and in his work. Why not use a horse drawn hearse?
It seemed like a crazy idea, but then the pieces began to fall into place. Lance’s mom, a former high school band member, was having dinner with her former teacher, Don Kuhns, and he mentioned that he needed help with his horses, Bob, Rowdy, and Major. And so Lance joined Don in livery service—Kuhns Classic Memories Horse-Drawn Carriage and Wagon Rides. They have a white vis-a-vis carriage (in which two rows of passengers are seated facing one another), used for rides in Brandon Park and weddings, a people moving wagon for events, an 1860s beer wagon from the old Koch Brewery in South Williamsport, and the elegant black hearse.
The hearse looks exactly like a late nineteenth century hearse, but it is in fact a new carriage, built in 2012 by Robert Carriages Inc. in Quebec. Lance wanted the Victorian style, but also needed total reliability for the long ride to the four cemeteries that the horses walk from the Noll Funeral Home in South Williamsport. And although Williamsport Cemetery is only a couple of miles away, they also walk the seven miles over Bald Eagle Mountain to reach Green Lawn Memorial Park in Montgomery. For funeral processions to cemeteries other than Williamsport, Green Lawn, Wildwood, and Montoursville, the horses and hearse are trailered to a procession location close to the cemetery for the walk to the gravesite. (Outside of a thirty-mile radius of Noll Funeral Home, they offer a funeral livery service, and serve much of the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, and have even done a funeral in Elmira, New York.)
Today, about 10 percent of the people buried through Noll’s take a last horse ride with Lance and Don. The first funeral the team did was in January, 2015, on one of the coldest days of the year. Linda Hawkins, who works at the funeral home, recalled, “It was below zero, and with the wind chill, it felt like twenty below zero.” The horses’ breath created a fog that rose in the air, as the funeral procession wound its way from South Williamsport to Montoursville Cemetery. Going in the other direction, the traffic can back up for quite a distance as the procession makes its slow way up Route 15 over the mountain and down to Green Lawn in Montgomery.
The funeral home itself was built in 1906 as the home of the vice president of Koch Brewing in South Williamsport, so they were thrilled that they were able to get an original Koch Brewing beer wagon. That has been lovingly restored and is in use at events. So the house began with a strong connection to horses, as the horses that pulled the beer wagons for Koch were stabled right there. Lance also has plans to get a caisson, for the funerals of veterans.
He also provides the music at the funeral home, but that talent extends well beyond Noll’s. Lance’s degree in instrumental conducting has led him to organize the Northern Appalachian Wind Symphony, a group of over forty local musicians. Last month’s concert featured traditional concert pieces, new compositions, and even a piece from a concerto written by noted local trombone player Gary Steele. “Jazz in the Concert Hall” is the program he has scheduled for November 4 in the Klump Academic Center Auditorium at Pennsylvania College of Technology, performing pieces from the earliest days of jazz to today. Like his work with the funeral home and the horses, he brings this group together and showcases the talents of everyone involved.
As for the horses, they need more than a job. For large draft animals, that means they need space to run and 100 pounds of hay and fifteen pounds of grain a day. These beautiful horses live at Don Kuhns’ farm in Slabtown. So, in addition to all the other roles Lance plays, he helps with the haying and other chores at the farm. Through this work, Lance learned a new love of farming and the land that supports his passion. And that love has led to Lance and Francis’ own farm in Morris. After all, Bob, Rowdy, and Major always need another field of hay, or two.