Pixley’s Rochester Roots Run Deep

The Pixleys Come to Rochester

In 1831, a farmer from New York State named Jonathan Pixley decided to move his family westward to Michigan. He settled near what we know today as the corner of Avon & John R roads, just 14 years after James Graham founded the first non-native settlement in Oakland County. Today, his descendants operate one of Rochester’s longest-lived family businesses.

Vern Pixley feels privileged to run Pixley Funeral Home in association with his son, Andrew. Together, the two men represent the third and fourth generations of Pixleys to be involved in the family business. They also represent the sixth and seventh generations of their family to live in the Rochester area.

Don Pixley (left) and his father, Vern Pixley, shown at the groundbreaking for the present Pixley Funeral Home building in 1963 - Photo Courtesy of Vern A. Pixley

Don Pixley (left) and his father, Vern Pixley, shown at the groundbreaking for the present Pixley Funeral Home building in 1963 – Photo Courtesy of Vern A. Pixley

Furniture and More

In 19th- and early 20th-century America, funerary services were usually an adjunct offering of the local furniture dealer. When a death occurred, family and close friends lovingly washed and dressed the body, laid it out for viewing, usually in the front parlor or bedroom of the deceased’s home, and received the mourners there. The only service that the family might not be able to provide from its own resources was the building of the coffin, and for that, the bereaved turned to the local cabinetmaker or furniture dealer. Thus could be found in most small towns at least one Main Street storefront that advertised “furniture and undertaking.”

Such was the situation in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Rochester. In 1906, a local man named Edward Tuttle partnered with William Sullivan of Royal Oak in the furniture and undertaking firm of Sullivan & Tuttle. Sullivan, who also owned a funeral business in Royal Oak about the same time, left the Rochester concern in his partner’s hands in order to devote his attention to his other company. (That company, William Sullivan & Son, is still serving families in Royal Oak and Utica today).

Furniture and Undertaking firm of Sullivan & Tuttle - Photo Courtesy of the City of Rochester

Furniture and Undertaking firm of Sullivan & Tuttle – Photo Courtesy of the City of Rochester

Eventually, William Sullivan sold his interest in the Rochester business to Thomas E. Nichols, and in 1910, Tuttle likewise sold out, leaving Nichols as the sole proprietor. Eight years later, Vern Pixley’s grandfather (also named Vern Pixley) entered the picture when he began working for Nichols as a jack-of-all-trades assistant, doing every odd job from washing cars to pulling weeds. In 1920, Nichols offered his young employee a stake in the business, which eventually was renamed the Nichols-Pixley Funeral Home.

In the 1930s, the furniture and funeral business split into two distinct locations. The furniture store remained on Main Street in the building that houses O’Connor’s Pub today, while the funeral home moved to a converted house on the corner of Fifth (now West University Drive) and Oak streets. A few years after Thomas Nichols’ death in 1942, the senior Vern Pixley changed the business name to Pixley Funeral Home.

When the Hearse was also an Ambulance

Rochester’s older residents will recall that – as in many small towns – the two funeral homes provided the local ambulance service. Vern Pixley remembers that the hearses did double-duty as ambulances. When the funeral home received an ambulance call from the police dispatcher, the driver and assistant quickly donned white coats. Then the hearse had to be converted: the landau panels were removed and replaced with red cross panels, and a bubble light was placed on the roof of the car. The attendants had no medical training and the vehicle did not carry any life-support equipment beyond oxygen. The service simply provided transportation to the hospital, and little more.

Police dispatchers alternated assignment of the incoming ambulance calls to the two Rochester funeral homes. “At the police station there was a little card that had ‘Pixley’ printed on one side and ’Potere’ on the other,” Vern Pixley recalled in an interview with Rochester Media. “After they sent one of us on an ambulance call they’d flip the card over so the other home would get the next call. As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time hanging around the police station, it was sort of my playground because we lived so close by, and I used to flip that card over all the time.”

Pixley Funeral Home in Rochester

Pixley Funeral Home in Rochester

Focusing on the Core Business

The 1960s were a time of transition for Pixley Funeral Home. Having outgrown the house that had been its location for nearly 30 years, the company broke ground for a brand new Colonial-style building on the opposite corner of Oak Street and opened it to the public in November 1964. In that same year, the family decided to get out of the furniture business and sold the Main Street location to the Mitzelfelds. In 1966, the Pixley and Potere funeral homes jointly announced their intention to discontinue ambulance service in order to devote their full attention to their core business. The village government was advised to seek coverage by a professional ambulance service, and Frank St. Onge took over the runs that Pixley formerly made.

Today, Pixley Funeral Home has locations in Auburn Hills and Keego Harbor in addition to the Rochester home. The family-run company continues to serve Rochester residents with distinction, 98 years after the first Vern Pixley started working for the funeral home and 185 years after Jonathan Pixley settled here. Jonathan Pixley would surely be proud.

Also Read: Pixley Funeral Home Featured in Television Series

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Ilene Hyder says:

    That was very interesting Debbie, I remember the old funeral home and that is probably the way the ambulance service was like when I was a kid. Don’t remember that though. I enjoy your history of Rochester. Keep up the good work.

  2. Sally Bromley says:

    Really enjoyed your piece. My family has been in Rochester since the early 1830s. I’d like to know more about my family members who were early settlers in Mount Clemens. Could you help me locate some vital records? Thank you.

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      Hi Sally! I certainly recognize the Bromley surname from early Rochester history. If you’d like some help with your Mount Clemens connections, please call me at Mount Clemens Public Library, 586-469-6200, and I’ll put you in touch with someone who can help.

  3. Chad Johnson says:

    Do the Pixleys still own the funeral home, or just manage it? I’d heard they sold it some time ago.

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