As the roadway through the village’s historic district, Waterford’s Main Street creates a sense of time and place when life was not so fast paced.
The Downtown Heritage District and all its amenities makes Waterford feel like home. Scooping up old-fashioned ice cream at Uncle Harry’s and casting a line in the river are enough to bring anyone back to the comforts of the good old days. But it’s the “moms and pops” whose businesses keep the downtown alive that truly evoke community pride and hometown coziness. John Kojis, a third-generation Main Street business owner, is one of those friendly faces.
For nearly 150 years, undertakers have laid loved ones to rest from the site now known as Mealy Funeral Home, which Kojis has operated for more than 15 years.
Dubbed an early landmark by Racine County Historical Society, the site at 225 W. Main St. is noted as the oldest commercial building in the village, dating back to 1864, when it was the first store and post office in the pioneer community.
Originally, the business was known as Wallman & Steinke, and manufactured furniture and coffins using lumber from the logs that floated down the Fox River from local saw mills.
In early years, it was not uncommon for furniture stores to also arrange burials since they also built and supplied coffins, just as undertakers were the first to provide the first ambulance services to many municipalities.
Owner F.C. Wallman was a German immigrant and skilled carpenter. In 1867, with the help of iron workers and other woodworkers, Wallman built the first horse-drawn hearse used in Racine County. The hearse, drawn by a single, black horse, was also used by other neighboring towns, including Rochester and Burlington. In the winter, a light sleigh was used.
In 1884, Wallman’s son George graduated from the Clark School of Embalming to become one of the first four embalmers in the state. An 1893 Wallman receipt book that remains on the premises reveals the cost of a full burial in Waterford with a casket was $10.96.
In 1909, Wallman’s son-in-law John Steinke joined the furniture and undertaking business, adding plumbing and heating to the services offered. A decade into the 20th century, the horse-drawn hearse was replaced by a motorized “handsome auto-funeral car.” The car marked the fourth hearse owned by the business, with about 2,400 funeral services provided to families up until that time. Since its establishment, the business switched hands only once.
In 1923, Harry W. Mealy and Dena (Hoppe) Mealy took over the business which has continued with the family into the present.
According to Kojis, the current funeral director and president of Mealy Funeral Home, Harry Mealy grew up in Town of Dover but lived in Milwaukee while attending Marquette University where he graduated with an Embalmers and Funeral Directors degree at a mere 16.
“He used to get on the electric train from Milwaukee with a fishing pole and travel to what is now The Rail Stop on Main Street and get off, walk to Foat’s bait shop, and fish along the banks,” Kojis said.
“After fishing, he would stop at the Zimmer’s soda fountain or the old hotel and get a treat – that is where he met Dena Hoppe from Hoppe Homestead and fell in love. It wasn’t long before grandpa (Harry) bought a house on Third Street where he did undertaking until he moved to the 225 West Main Street location.”
“When my grandpa took over the building,” Kojis continued, “He sold furniture made by Wallman furniture guys who apparently built furniture in a building across the street from the funeral home, which has since been torn down,” he explained. “Grandpa Mealy also sold and serviced Maytag washing machines.”
According to Kojis, the first-generation owner also added an ambulance service to the business in the late 1940s, which lasted about two decades. His was the first ambulance service in Waterford. He later donated the 1949 Chevy panel truck used for rescue calls to the village. Today it still has a place in a Waterford garage, Kojis said, owned by “the Foat boys – Grant, Gary and Greg.”
In the ‘60s, the Mealy’s ceased furniture sales to focus solely on the undertaking business. With the help of their kids, Harry Jr., Thomas (“Spud”), and Ione (Mealy), the Mealy’s professional reputation in Racine County grew.
Spud and Ione eventually took over the business, running the funeral home until Spud’s untimely death in 1978 at the age of 49. Harry “Dudu” Mealy Jr. passed away in 1996.
The late Ione Kojis continued working with grieving families until August of 2000, when her son John Kojis took the reins. She died peacefully on May 16, 2005 after a five-year struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Kojis takes great pride in operating one of the area’s longest running businesses and is quick to share a bit of local and family history with those who show interest.
“I have a “receipts book” in my office that shows that Wallman sold 2-by-4 lumber in 1893 to W.H. Noll – 12 for a penny – very interesting stuff.”
Kojis also likes to show off an empty well pit on the property that’s stamped “F.C. Wallman Company.” He believes it to be 150 years old.
“Mealy Family is the longest-running business in Waterford,” he said. “Only Foat Bait Shop could say they were running longer, however they are no longer open. The Foat family had many types of fishing supplies in a Main Street shop in the late 1800s and set up a fish, tack and bait shop for many years after.”
“It is a proud honor to have served this fine country community and surrounding areas for nearly a century,” he said.
The business now operates under the name Mealy Funeral Home.
Lead Researcher: Maureen Vander Sanden
NOTE: Should the reader have further documentation to enhance the content of this web page, please contact the Lead Researcher through Absolutely Waterford. We are particularly interested in pictures or historic artifacts that may be shared. Credit will be given.
Waterford: Stories of Our Village and its Busy Life, unpaginated.
Online interview with John Kojis, April 2014.
Racine County Historical Society / One hundred eighteenth anniversary of Waterford Wisconsin: 1836-1954 (1954), unpaginated.