For a time, funeral services were bartered
It didn't take long for the story about the Sept. 8, 1934, disaster that destroyed the ocean liner Morro Castle off the coast of New Jersey to ring a bell with Mary Beth Rabe Menzler of Donora.
In reality, she heard chimes – a symphony of poignant gongs that will forever tie her family to the tragedy that claimed the lives of 137 people, including a Donora physician, Dr. Henry J. Strauch, and his wife, Mrs. Ruth C. Strauch, a registered nurse.
“I had read only the first few paragraphs of the story in the Tribune-Review and immediately ran to our living room to look at that grandfather's clock,” said Menzler, owner/funeral supervisor of the James A. Rabe Funeral Home in Donora. “It is an integral part of our family's history and also that of the families of Dr. Strauch and his wife.”
The towering timepiece, believed to have been produced by the world renowned Elliott of London grandfather clock company, was given to Menzler's grandfather, the late James A. Rabe Sr., as part of the settlement for Dr. Strauch's funeral.
The Rabe Funeral Company was in charge of arrangements for Strauch and his wife. The couple was laid out for viewing at their home at Tenth Street and Meldon Avenue in Donora. Services conducted by the Rev. Frederick E. Will, pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, were held there on Thursday, Sept. 13 of that year, and interment followed at Monongahela Cemetery.
“My father, relating stories told to him by my grandfather, and others in town recalled that hundreds of people came to the Strauch home to pay their respects and that the funeral was one of the biggest in the community at that time,” Menzler said. “Dr. Strauch and his wife were well-liked and highly regarded.”
The physician and his wife, the daughter of E. Verner and Marie Lindroom Rose, of 604 Castner Ave., Donora, were returning to New York City from a weeklong cruise to Havana, Cuba, when the Morro Castle, the pride of the Ward Steamships Line, caught fire and was destroyed near Asbury Park, N.J. Their bodies were recovered from the ocean and taken to the Jersey City Mortuary. They were identified by Mrs. Strauch's father; her brother-in-law, Regis Schmidt; and Dr. Strauch's brother, Joseph Strauch, of Pittsburgh, who had traveled by automobile to New Jersey. The bodies, accompanied by Mr. Rose, were returned to Donora via the Pennsylvania Railroad's Fairmont Flyer on Sept. 11.
Menzler has her grandfather's ledgers containing the Record of Funeral for Dr. and Mrs. Strauch. The itemized account of expenses shows a cost of $686.30 for each. While Dr. Strauch, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Strauch of Pittsburgh, had a Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. policy that paid for part of his funeral, a line on the summary clearly indicates that a “grandfather clock” was included in the settlement. The record also shows that Attorney Dwight M. Anderson of Donora, who later became a Common Pleas Court judge in Washington County, was the executor of Dr. Strauch's estate.
Menzler said it was not unusual for professionals such as funeral directors, doctors, lawyers and accountants to barter for payment for their services.
“Obviously, that wasn't the case with Dr. Strauch,” she said. “We've been told that my grandfather really liked the clock, which was one of three owned by the (Strauch) family, and reached an agreement with the estate to accept it in lieu of money. My aunt (Mary Jane Helfrich of New Stanton) said it has been in our family for as long as she can remember.”
Similar stories about trading goods for services have prevailed over the years in the Mon Valley.
“This was particularly true during the Depression era,” Menzler said. “Money was tight or nonexistent for some people, so they met their (debt) responsibilities by giving the provider such things as fresh, homegrown produce (fruits, vegetables), fresh eggs and milk and chickens. My grandfather said one couple even offered him a cow.”
The grandfather clock, which appears to be in mint condition, stands well over 7 feet tall, and the mechanisms are encased in a handsome mahogany cabinet. The two sets of time — Westminster and Whittington — are put into operation with a traditional wind-up key. Completing the timepiece, which is estimated to be more than 100 years old, are one large chime and seven smaller chimes.
“It keeps perfect time — all we have to do is wind it up and set the wheels in motion,” Menzler said. “It certainly is a conversation piece, and our children and grandchildren love it.”
Menzler and her husband, Robert, a native of Monessen who works for Fairmont Supply Co., a division of Consol Energy, at Southpointe, are the parents of three children.
Menzler isn't certain about the value of the grandfather clock on today's market but is quick to point out that “it is not for sale.”
“We have not had it assessed for several years,” she said. “But I'm not really interested in that. There's no way you can put a price tag on something that is more valuable in sentimental terms, something that is so much a part of our family's legacy. It's been with us for nearly 79 years and will remain that way for many years to come.”
In addition to the clock, Menzler has myriad memorabilia and artifacts regarding her grandfather and father. These include a solid marble baptismal font her grandfather had made in 1929 for the Methodist Church in Donora. When that house of worship closed, the sacramental bowl was transferred to St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church. It reverted to Menzler when the Pittsburgh diocese closed St. Dominic three years ago.
“They were going to give it to the diocese, but we requested to have it returned to us because of the historic significance,” Menzler said. “There is the link to my grandfather, of course, and my sister, Denise Rabe Fronzaglio, who also is employed at the business, my aunt and I were all baptized at the font. It is very meaningful to us.”
Menzler has a large shadow box display of items that belonged to her grandfather and her father. Most prominent are a top hat and a derby worn for many years by her grandfather.
“He was handsome man and dressed to the nines for funerals, hence the top hat,” she said.
Pictures of the elder Rabes are prominent at the funeral home. One from sometime at the turn of the last century shows three horse-drawn carriage-style hearses in front of the original funeral home in downtown Donora.
“That was the travel mode of the day in those years,” Menzler said. “You can imagine what the funeral processions were like compared to the automobiles and hearses of today. The picture certainly takes us back in time.”
As does the grandfather clock once owned by Dr. Strauch.
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.