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Peterson Brothers marks 125 years in business: Once also a furniture store, funeral home now operated by fifth generation of family

Described as a “funeral coach” from 1889, this historic hearse from Peterson Brothers is on display at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum on North Highway 71 in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Rand Middleton) 1 / 2
Lance Peterson stands next to portraits of his great-great-grandfather Andrew, left, and great-grandfather Elmer at Peterson Brothers Funeral Home in Willmar. The business is celebrating its 125th anniversary with an open house Thursday. (Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf)2 / 2

WILLMAR — Peterson Brothers Funeral Home of Willmar is marking 125 years in business this week.

An open house from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday will celebrate the five generations of the Peterson family that have owned and operated the business at 700 Becker Ave. S.W.

Visitors will be able to tour the funeral home and visit with family members and staff.

Lance Peterson, the current leader of the business, is following in the footsteps of his great-great-grandfather Andrew, great-grandfather Elmer, grandfather Ralph and father Rolf.

The business began as a furniture store/funeral business in 1889, started by Andrew Peterson and a partner with $400. Andrew Peterson later became the sole proprietor. His sons Elmer and Alfred later joined him.

Elmer’s son Ralph joined the business later, joined by brothers Algene and C. Howard after their service in World War II.

The funeral home also operated the Willmar Ambulance Service from 1947 to 1962 before handing it over to the Willmar Police Department.

The fourth generation, Ralph’s son Rolf, joined the business in 1964. Rolf’s wife Caryl joined soon after.

Rolf Peterson said this week that the business’s motto is still the same as it was when Andrew Peterson opened the doors: Treat the public fairly, and let the Golden Rule be the yardstick.

The fifth generation, Lance Peterson, began working in the family business in 1994. He is the current operator of the funeral home, and his parents are semi-retired.

Lance Peterson talked earlier this week about the many changes seen in the business over the years.

In the past, all preparations were handled in a family’s home. That later moved to churches and then to funeral homes.

Changes continue in the business, Peterson said.

Baby boomers want funerals that are events and celebrations, he said, and there is no such thing as a “cookie cutter” funeral.

As new populations have moved to Willmar, the business has accommodated many different customs.

Many cultures have different rituals, he said, and it’s a funeral director’s job to learn about and respect them, to provide families with the services they need.

“All people mourn, just in different ways,” Peterson said. “You can adapt, and learn and understand different ceremonial rites.”

Peterson said he and the other funeral directors in the business are required to attend continuing education classes to maintain their licenses. “I always encourage more” than the minimum, he said.

The continuing training can give them new ideas so they can better serve families, he said, and it’s necessary to keep up with changes in technology.

Since the state started licensing funeral directors, family members have all attended the University of Minnesota Program of Mortuary Science, Peterson said.

Peterson’s children could be the sixth generation in the business, but there will be no pressure from him to go into the profession, he said.

Peterson said the family business was never forced on him, but he found that he had a feel for it.

“You have to have that right personality,” he said. A funeral director needs to be sociable and outgoing, a good listener and a leader.

In the current generation, Peterson’s two sisters are in different fields. Tiffany Garzone is a chiropractor in Rocky Mount, N.C., and Tamara Bates is a pediatrician in Lee Summit, Mo.

The next generation could include Peterson’s children, Blake, 14, Ari, 11, and Ellary, 9.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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