150 years of Perham — The legacy of a funeral home

The Schoeneberger Funeral Home, established in 1881, was one of the first businesses in the city. As many residents know, it still exists to this day.

The first motorized hearse was used in 1926 by the Schoeneberger Funeral Home. (Submitted by the History Museum of East Otter Tail County)
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Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series on the history of Perham as it marks 150 years.

Perham wouldn’t be the bustling town it is today, 150 years after its formation, without its early businesses. The Schoeneberger Funeral Home, established in 1881, was one of the first businesses in the city. As many residents know, it still exists to this day.

The carpenter Martin Schoeneberger, who created the funeral home, started with his furniture store in 1878. In the 1800s, it was quite common for carpenters to handle creating caskets as well as furniture, which is how the Schoeneberger Funeral Home came into existence as an addition to Martin's furniture store.

Martin Schoenberger was then succeeded by Ben in 1904, whose health began to fail in 1934. Ben’s son, Al Schoeneberger, had just graduated with a degree in architecture, but, because of the Great Depression, he couldn’t find any work.

“(Al's) dad said, ‘please would you come home and help your brother,’” Joan Happel, Al’s daughter said. “And he came back.”


Not long after that, Ben died in 1941. Al, along with his brother, Martin, operated the funeral home from there. Joan, born in 1947, grew up watching her father, constantly busy with work and helping build Perham's community.

"The death call comes at four in the morning or two or whenever," Joan said. "And I answered the phone calls because my bedroom was at the top of the steps, and I could take two, three steps at a time to make that darn phone quit ringing at that hour of the night."

Joan said that, because Perham was such a small town, everybody knew her father and how to reach him, so he was always very busy.

When Joan was a freshman in college, she often told friends her family made furniture to avoid the weird questions that often came with knowing her father's work in a funeral home. One day, Al drove up to where she was studying with a hearse, because he needed to take a body to the area.

"When he was finished," Joan recalled with a smile, "he drove right up to the front door of my hall. The cat was out of the bag, so all the wild questions came."

People would ask Joan questions such as: "If the body doesn't fit, do they cut off a limb?" and "What if they're too tall to fit into a coffin?"

While Al didn't often play tricks himself, Joan said, he had a good sense of humor. Several times, tricks were played on him.

"He would laugh until his face would go purple," Joan said. Someone called Al and told him that an elderly lady in the area had passed away. He got called out of church, got in his hearse and drove to the front door.


He rang the doorbell, and the elderly lady who was supposedly dead answered the door. She'd been making pie dough, so she had dough and flowers on her hands. She looked at Al and didn't think it was funny one bit.

"I would've liked to have heard my dad's explanation," Joan smiled. "He had to wait until he got home, and he started laughing. He really started to laugh."

Al Schoeneberger (back row, second from the right) is pictured in the Perham School Class of 1929 playcast's photo. (Submitted by the History Museum of East Otter Tail County)

With a combination hearse and ambulance, Al worked as an EMT along with his funeral and furniture business, but that didn't stop him from finding other ways to contribute to Perham's community. Every year, the furniture store would give graduating high school seniors a small cedar box. Joan said you knew you were a real graduate when you got one of those.

Al also helped contribute toward some of the other businesses residents and visitors will still see around town.

Matt Winkels, the founder of Interiors by Winkels (formerly Winkels Carpet Center), used to work at the the Schoenebergers' furniture store.

"My dad kept saying, 'Matt, you know how to lay the linoleum and the carpeting, you should do your own store,'" Joan said. "And my dad said, 'I'll show you how to do the books,' so for about a year, every month, my dad would sit down and show him how to do this or that."


Whenever Matt was struggling with anything, Al would make sure to lend a helping hand. And Winkels Carpet Center came to fruition.

"My dad liked to help new businesses," Joan said. "One that he helped that turned out to be the most important: Tuffy Nelson."

Al went for a cup of coffee, and Tuffy came in. They just happened to meet, and Tuffy told Al about some of his future aspirations. Yet, Tuffy didn't quite have the funds to chase them.

"(Al) went over to the store, and he took out $500 worth of cash and gave it to (Tuffy) and said, 'pay it back when you can,'" Joan said. "Very few people know that story." With Al's help, Tuffy's Pet Foods was able to become what it is today.

Al did this with a number of businesses in the Perham area, and it wasn't important to him for other people to know about this. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, Al also made food boxes he and his family would deliver around the Perham area. Not many people know this story either.

"He didn't feel that he had to be known or thanked," Joan said. "It's just what you do for your fellow man." He did good for the sake of good.

Al also served on the school board for over twenty years. A lot of students couldn't participate in extracurriculars because they lived out in the country and would have no way to get home. A lot of these students would come over to Al's house after practice, and he would pile them all in his car and take them home.

Al tended to push himself. He always had horrible reactions to poison ivy, yet, when a job called for it, he still went near it. One time, he had a horrible reaction on his neck, hands and arms. He ended up in the hospital.

"And of course, there was a funeral," Joan said. "So my mom took a clean t-shirt, and a second one just in case, and packed his neck with real soft wet washcloths and put his shirt on and didn't tie the tie too tight. And he just went out. And he did the funeral."

When Joan was still in school, her father drove down to the Mayo Clinic because his blood pressure was high. When he returned home, he didn't bring good news. He was told that, within five years, his heart would likely blow. Yet, true to his dedication, Al stayed quite busy, which wasn't good for his heart.

"Sure enough, at the bottom of the fifth year, he had a very, very bad heart attack," Joan said. Soon after his heart attack, he had to retire, and Martin and Al separated their partnership.

In 1968, Al passed away from colon cancer. Since then, Joan's family hasn't had anything to do with the Schoeneberger Funeral Home for more than 50 years. Yet, Al and the Schoeneberger Funeral Home's legacies continue to show throughout Perham.

Martin later sold the funeral home to Tom Vertin, and he's still the owner to this day. Steve Sheets, who started as a manager of the funeral home in 1971, became part-owner in 1981. He retired in 2020, leaving the home entirely in Tom's name.

Hans Larson replaced Steve's position as funeral director in 2020, and the Schoeneberger Funeral Home continues to offer its services to the public today.

Funeral Director Steve Sheets at the Schoeneberger Funeral Home on Third Avenue in 1997, which is now St. Henry's preschool. (Submitted by the History Museum of East Otter Tail County)

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