The month of March is a time for spring cleaning and reflecting on items that are no longer needed. As a shameless plug for our research collections, I would like to encourage readers to think about historical documents’ value before discarding them. The following post is about a collection of funeral home records that came to the Archives and Special Collections in 2017. Blanche Nelson Goldsmith, daughter of John Herbert Nelson and Anne Keough Nelson, contacted our department head, Dennis Daily, to see if we were interested in acquiring the 15-volume set of funeral registers. The Nelson’s Funeral Home records cover the years 1935 to 1965. The Nelsons ended their career over 55 years ago, and these volumes are in near perfect condition. These records list the financial detail of services rendered for the last event of a person’s life and more information of the departed than one would expect.
John Herbert “Herb” Nelson attended public elementary school at Candia, New Hampshire before moving to Lake Valley, New Mexico, in 1905, at age 12, after his mother’s death. As an adult, Herb returned to participate in Bryant-Stratton Business College at Manchester, New Hampshire, before deciding upon a funeral director’s career. He then enrolled at Worsham Embalming School in Chicago, graduating during the influenza pandemic in 1918. He served an apprenticeship with the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes Training Center north of Chicago. Upon graduation, Nelson returned to New Mexico and became the first embalmer in the village of Hurley. He remained in Hurley until 1920. Shortly after, Herb relocated to Long Beach, California, then returned to New Mexico in 1926 and joined the Santa Rita Store Company’s staff as an embalmer and pharmacist.
In 1929, he met and married Gertrude Ann Keough, an elementary school teacher from the nearby Santa Rita Elementary School. She was originally from Illinois but was lured to the West in 1918 to seek a higher-paying teaching job. She first went to Cimarron, New Mexico, where she taught along with her younger sister, then moved to Santa Rita, where she educated the children of workers from the Kennecott Mines. These children grew up to be among those known as the “Society for Persons Born in Space.” This part of Santa Rita no longer exists; instead, there is a sizeable, gaping pit mine where the town, once populated with over 6,000 people, thrived. After the marriage, two daughters, Alice and Blanche, were born in 1929 and 1931.
In reminiscences published in the Las Cruces Sun-News in 1977, Ann recalled parking on a hill overlooking Las Cruces and discussing with Herbert the possibility of opening another funeral home in the city. At the time, there were two other funeral homes in Las Cruces. By April 1933, they decided it was worth the investment and relocated with their two small daughters, Alice and Blanche, opening Nelson’s Funeral Home at 419 South Main Street. Herbert made the trip to Sterling, Illinois, to purchase his first hearse and drove it back to Las Cruces. Meanwhile, Ann readied the funeral home that occupied a building that had once been the home of the first mayor of Las Cruces, Martin Lohman. It had 13 rooms built in a horseshoe shape around an outdoor patio constructed of traditional adobe bricks, with viga ceilings and a tin roof.
Two more daughters, Clara and Mary Jo were born to the Nelsons soon after their relocation to Las Cruces. Since the growing Nelson family also lived at the funeral home, it became necessary to add more rooms to the south side of the building and garages on the north side of the property.
Ann became the first woman in New Mexico to receive a funeral director’s license. Her business involvement prompted her to associate with other women business owners and form a local chapter of the Altrusa Club, an international service organization for businesswomen. Ann sought many opportunities to improve her community as a life member of the Woman’s Improvement Association.
As an active parishioner of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, and a Christ Child Society member of the Catholic Ladies Social Club in St. Genevieve’s Parish, Ann had many occasions to show compassionate service. When looking at the Nelson Funeral Home records, especially the early volumes, the Nelson’s provided low-cost funerals to families who financially struggled.
Herb served on the New Mexico Funeral Directors Association’s board of directors and as President for many years. Herb joined Lodge 1119 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks at Las Cruces and was a life member of Hurley Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. He also was a member of the Scottish Rite Consistory at Santa Fe, holding the 32nd degree in that rite, and belonged to Ballut Abyad Temple of the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine at Albuquerque. Locally he was a member of the Kiwanis Club. Herb was raised and remained in the Congregational Faith.
The two ran Nelson’s Funeral Home in Las Cruces from 1933 until 1965; Ann kept the books and helped dress the bodies of deceased children. When their health began to fail, they sold the business and rented the building to the new owners, William Glen and Kathleen Dennis. For whatever reason, in 1967, the Nelsons retook possession of the funeral home and sold it to Terry Getz. Getz graduated from mortuary school at the age of 21; he worked with the Nelsons in the funeral home for two years; Getz rebranded the funeral home to Getz Funeral Home and moved it to Church Street. Terry Getz and his family still serve the Las Cruces community for their funeral needs. With the arrival of the urban renewal movement in Las Cruces, the historic Martin Lohman/Nelson’s Funeral Home was among the demolished buildings in the 1960s.
Each of the 15 bound volumes of funeral records kept by Nelson’s Funeral Home, 1935-1965 contain invaluable information for genealogists. The pages list age, residence, occupation, date of funeral, place and cause of death, name of individual who ordered funeral services, name of individual who paid for services, and a ledger of payments made.
Some recorded entries have newspaper death notices, an obituary glued in, and other records, including a copy of the official death certificate. Traffic and farming accidents played a significant part in the deaths during the 1930s and 40s. Suicides, cardiovascular and renal diseases were prevalent as well.
Notations suggest Dr. Robert E. McBride and Dr. Troy C. Sexton as certifying physicians in many entries. Dr. McBride established the first hospital in Las Cruces. Dr. Sexton owned the Tuberculosis Sanitarium at Dripping Springs before his death in 1939.
John Herbert Nelson died on May 7, 1971. Ann died on January 3, 1979. They are buried side by side in the first mausoleum at Hillcrest Cemetery, Las Cruces.