Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home, Lebanon’s oldest mortuary, notched its 100th anniversary in 2020 in the 192-year-old Robert Looney Caruthers house, an extraordinary structure that is the Cedar City’s oldest surviving brick residence.
The business originated in 1920 as Ligon & Son Funeral Home on West Main Street, less than a block off the Lebanon Square. C. H. (Charles Horace) and Raymond Ligon were the father and son behind the venture. For a few years in the mid-1930s, they operated from the Ligon home on University Avenue.
In 1938, the elder Ligon joined forces with his daughter, Vera, and her husband, Alex Bobo, as they bought the Caruthers house at 241 West Main Street and changed the name of their business to Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home. They added a chapel to the building in 1948. When current owners David Brooks and Clark McKinney renovated the structure in 1998 and added rooms upstairs, they increased its size to approximately 14,000-square feet.
The Federal-style home features a White Greek revival façade, two-story Doric columns, front portico, a wide, second-floor veranda and boasts walls four-bricks thick and ceilings 12 feet, 9 inches high. In its foyer a splendiferous cantilevered, elliptical staircase leads to the second floor.
Historic Lebanon executive director Kim Parks said, “The Caruthers House is one of the few remainders of the grand homes that once lined West Main Street. The home’s workmanship and style certainly contributed to Lebanon’s reputation as one of the South’s ‘prettiest little towns’ in the 1840s. Its history is important to Lebanon not only for its famous owner but also for the others who lived and worked (free and enslaved) here and saw to its care.”
Caruthers began CU, law school
The house was completed in 1828 for attorney-politician Caruthers, a Smith County native who was admitted to the bar in 1823. In 1824, he served as clerk of the State House of Representatives, then clerk of the Smith County chancery court and was co-publisher and editor of The Carthage Gazette, which he renamed The Tennessee Republican.
He moved to Lebanon in 1826 to open his law practice. That same year he won the plot of land the house stands on via a lottery that raised funds for Dr. Samuel Hogg, a Lebanon physician who was a hospital surgeon under Andrew Jackson in the Creek War.
Caruthers wed Sally Sanders, the niece of Rachel and Andrew Jackson, in 1827, the same year that Gov. Sam Houston, who once practiced law in Lebanon, named him state attorney for the Lebanon circuit. Caruthers also was a state legislator and served in the U.S. Congress from 1841-1843 and was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1852.
In “A History of Cumberland University” Winston Paine Bone noted that the attorney “had more to do with the founding of Cumberland University in 1842 than any other person.” And late Cumberland historian G. Frank Burns called Caruthers the “Father of Cumberland University.”
If not enough, Robert Caruthers and his younger brother, Abraham, co-founded Cumberland University Law School in 1847.
The law school moved to Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 1961 and since its inception in 1847 has produced more than 13,000 graduates including two Supreme Court justices and numerous Congressmen, governors and judges.
As for Caruthers’ magnificent house, which received a facelift in the 1880s with Eastlake features, its elegant staircase is quite similar to staircases in The Hermitage and Tulip Grove. After The Hermitage suffered damage from a fire in 1834, builders Joseph Rieff and William C. Hume performed the restoration.
Brooks, McKinney restored home
Current Ligon & Bobo owners Brooks and McKinney purchased the house and the business in late 1993, buying the home from Joyce Bobo Barry and Doris Bobo Newman, and the funeral home from Dalton Chaffin. The Bobo family sold the business around 1964, which then passed through a string of owners.
Smith County natives Brooks and McKinney had been friends since high school as they began working at Sanderson Funeral Home in Carthage while in their early teens. They decided to branch out on their own while in their 20s.
“Back then the national corporate chains were buying funeral homes at a huge clip, and we felt like, even though we were young, if we are ever gonna have our own place we better be thinking about it now before we were too old that we could never get it paid for,” recollected McKinney.
“We got in contact with Mr. Chaffin, who had owned it 12 or 13 years. … It was time to make a move. The place had changed hands so many times that there was no other way but for the business to go but up. It was a good opportunity and close to where we were raised. It made sense.”
“We took over the Friday after Thanksgiving and did not get a call until Christmas Eve, and the next call came on New Year’s Eve. From there the business grew every year,” said Brooks, who met his wife-to-be at the funeral home while directing her grandmother’s funeral.
Bobo grandkids share memories
When Vera and Alex Bobo joined hands with Vera’s father in 1938, the couple made the upstairs of Caruthers’ house their home while the funeral business occupied the bottom floor. From the early 1950s until they moved out in the early 1960s, the building became a playground of sorts for their six grandchildren, who enjoyed occasional overnight stays.
“None of us were ever afraid because our grandparents lived there,” said Janice Lloyd, the daughter of Joyce Bobo Barry. “We played hide-and-seek when there was nobody there, and we were all over the place in the casket room. We loved it. It was just like a home for us because we loved our grandparents so much.
“We had to be careful and mind our manners if there was a body there. We pretty much kept upstairs, but I can remember us racing up and down the staircase. My grandmother embalmed the women. Mother and Aunt Doris would prepare the hair and cosmetics. I remember my mother drove an ambulance while she was in high school. They did it all. She and Aunt Doris did floral arrangements in the flower shop that was there.
Her cousin, Jenny Lynn Newman Brewer, daughter of Doris Bobo Newman, holds similar sentiments.
“I remember as a little girl going to spend the night with Mema and Papa Bobo. We knew about funerals but never really connected that building with them. I never spent the night when they had a body there,” said Brewer.
“We would sleep upstairs. Mema and Papa would go to sleep, and we grandkids would be awake and we sort of wandered at night. There was a door that went to the mortuary and the only rule we ever had was not to open that door.
“We would creep down that curvy stairway. They snored really loudly, and when they paused in their snoring, we would freeze. When we got into the chapel area, it was our little game to see who could touch the podium at the end of the chapel.”
Lebanon’s Jane Elam Hundley, a niece of Alex and Vera Bobo, remembers spending time in their home in the early 1950s.
“I moved to Lebanon in 1950 when I was six years old. I was in the first grade and that year there were so many children we only went to school a half day each, some in the morning and the others in the afternoon. After class I would walk from McClain School to the funeral home because was my dad was teaching classes all day. I would sit in there and never felt the least bit uncomfortable in the funeral home,” said Hundley.
“My mother was a Bobo and was very close to my Aunt Vera. I remember they had an embalming room, but I never went in there, and I stayed upstairs where there were beautiful rooms. Doris had a gorgeous canopy bed. One of things I loved the best was the winding staircase. It made the most beautiful sound when you walked on those steps.
“Aunt Vera and Uncle Alex were so good to people who were in distress. Joyce told me once ‘My mother was so good to the people who come to the funeral home. Some were so poor and didn’t have the kind of clothing to wear, and I would look around and they would have on my clothes.’ Aunt Vera was an inspiration to me. You might have thought it a sad place or a hard place to be, but I never felt that way at all. It was always a pleasant place to be.”
Directors began careers as teens
As for Brooks and McKinney, in a similar sort of way they grew up in a funeral home three decades later, except it was no playground; it was where as teenagers they learned the science of mortuary.
Carthage native Brooks, who graduated from Smith County High School in 1986, began working at Sanderson Funeral Home when he was in the eighth grade.
“Even before then, I was always intrigued by it. I always felt that was what I supposed to do, like a calling of a minister. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was working 40 hours a week. My first jobs including carrying flowers, washing cars and working visitation and greeting people,” said Brooks, who graduated as valedictorian of John A. Gupton (Mortuary) College in Nashville in 1988.
McKinney, who grew up in the Elmwood community, graduated from Smith County High in 1988 and began doing chores at Sanderson at the age of 14.
“I did things like running the vacuum cleaner and helping the housekeeper with the flowers. They paid us with cold drinks and lunch. Back then you couldn’t be on payroll until you were 16,” said McKinney, who, like Brooks, always wanted to be a funeral director and followed in his steps to Gupton College, graduating in 1989.
“I remember in the first grade, the teacher asked us to bring a picture in of what we wanted to do when we grew up. Back then funeral homes had ambulances. I clipped out a picture of an ambulance.”
McKinney said that he and Brooks began hanging out at Sanderson Funeral Home at about the same time. There they were shown the ropes by mentors Jacky Carver, Ted Stallings and Draper Jenkins.
He says the reason the duo has made such a good team is because, “We think a lot alike and we’ve been around each other so long we can almost read each other minds. Growing up under the same mentors, we had had that mindset hammered into our head.”
They share equal responsibilities for the most part, while Brooks has served more as the office manager, kept the books and done the paperwork. Also assisting them are funeral attendants Wayne Foster and Claudine Bissinger and funeral director/embalmer Jason Ligon.
Making home shine anew
When they purchased the home and lot in late 1993, both men moonlighted a bit as handymen taking down old wallpaper, painting the chapel, putting up new drapes and painting the brick exterior.
“We spent weeks working in the house that first year we were here,” McKinney said. “We hung some new doors. I did the yardwork. And then as business increased, in 1998 we began our huge remodel and redecorating project.”
About that 18-month project, Brooks added, “We did a total restoration on the outside of building and wallpapered and painted the entire inside. We added a section upstairs by building on what was a flat roof and moved the casket and embalming rooms upstairs. We added an elevator and made the building more accessible. We put pews in the chapel and built a carport on the side.”
While the building has seen major additions since Caruthers had it built 192 years ago, Brooks and McKinney have seen several major changes in the funeral business they entered more than 30 years ago.
“One thing is that families do not sit up with the deceased family member any longer. When we started over half the families in Smith County spent the night at the funeral home. Even when we came to Lebanon, probably a third of our families wanted to spend the night,” McKinney recalled.
“And the big thing in the last 25 years is the rise of cremation. The South used to have the lowest cremation rate in the nation but now it’s gaining in Southern states just like all over. What once in this area was not accepted has become accepted, but it’s different times and different generations. Change is to be expected.”
Delight is in the details
A quick tour of the funeral home today showcases a blend of old and new. Displayed in the casket room are 20 contemporary caskets, all American made and some hand built, crafted from woods like mahogany, walnut, willow, cherry, magnolia, oak and poplar and such metals as bronze, copper steel and stainless steel.
In contrast the bark from cedar logs cut nearly 200 years ago continues to cling to the loft ceiling, while unseen beneath the carpet downstairs rests the original poplar flooring. The transom window, bearing a dove, that visitors pass beneath while entering the chapel came from the extinct Nave Funeral Home and previously had been rescued from a stained-glass window out of the old Methodist Church on West Main Street.
And on a wall near the back of the house hangs a law degree awarded from Cumberland University in 1878 that bears the signature of the original owner, Robert L. Caruthers. Perhaps most interesting and easiest to escape the eye is the mother-of-pearl brag button, the size of a dime, inlaid in the top of the wooden rail at the bottom of staircase, which signified the house had been paid for in full.
While C.H. Ligon and his daughter, Vera, carried the family business from the 1920s into the 1960s, Mr. Ligon’s son, Raymond, made a name for himself in the funeral and cemetery business in Nashville and beyond.
In 1938, he established Woodlawn Memorial Gardens, today known as Woodlawn Park and Mausoleum. By 1958, when he became president of the National Cemetery Development Corporation, he and his sons owned controlling interest in Woodlawn Memorial Park, Mt. Olivet Cemetery and Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens.
Raymond’s son, Ronald Ligon, who was born in Lebanon in 1937 and lived there into his early teen years, started Christus Gardens in Gatlinburg in 1960. Today known as Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens, it is one of the nation’s leading inspirational attractions as it boasts 3D dioramas with more than 100 life-size figures, dramatic lighting, music, special effects and a massive Face of Christ sculpture to tell “the greatest story ever told.”
More recently, in 2003, Brooks and McKinney created a tribute to Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home with Fiddlers Grove Chapel. Set in Fiddlers Grove, the building features a viewing room and embalming room that displays funeral and embalming equipment that was used by C.H. Ligon and Vera and Alex Bobo, possibly some of the same tools the elder Ligon began with a century ago.