Enduring The Test Of TimeNovember 30, 2013
Story by Tony Raap
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Sandy Troth, the third-generation co-owner of Schum Monuments, slides behind a desk near the front of the shop’s headquarters in Dale.
Family portraits line an office wall, along with newspaper clippings in which the company has been featured. On this morning, Sandy is in the mood to reminisce.
She often wonders how her family’s tombstone business has survived for 125 years.
As with any company, Schum Monuments has been through ups and downs, good years and lean years. Through it all, the business has endured, much like the slabs of granite it sells.
While tracing the branches of her family tree, Sandy’s eyes fill with tears when she talks about her paternal grandfather, Andrew Schum Sr., who founded the company when he was just 17.
“He was such a kind man,” she says.
One day, according to company lore, a family of modest means came to pick out a tombstone. Schum showed them around, pointing out the different monuments on display.
A few minutes later, another customer pulled up in a fancy car. It was obvious that he was a man of considerable wealth.
As the story goes, he went up to Schum and said: “I’m in hurry and I want to buy a nice stone. Could you help me right now?”
Schum, who was still tending to the less affluent family, stared at him for a second before saying, “Sir, you’re going to have to wait. These people think as much of their dead as you do.”
It’s unclear whether the wealthy gentleman stayed or stormed off. That part of the story has been lost over time. The point is that the family with less money was not shoved aside.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Sandy says, her voice choked with emotion. “And that’s exactly why this business is still here — because of the incredible people that have worked here.”
Schum launched the business in 1888 in his father’s barn in Mariah Hill. He learned to carve tombstones by watching a craftsman chisel limestone in Huntingburg.
In 1893, he married Philomena Heilers of Ferdinand. The couple had nine children — five boys and four girls.
The business began to take off around the turn of the century, and in 1914, Schum moved his shop to Dale to be
closer to the railroad tracks. Back then, heavy stones were shipped by rail.
At one time, all of his sons worked in the shop. But when he retired in the early 1940s, only two — Andrew Jr. and Benno, Sandy’s father — were interested in taking over the business.
Sandy speaks adoringly of her grandfather, who had white hair and wore black-rimmed spectacles. She remembers combing his long, jutting beard while sitting in his lap.
In 1950, at age 77, Schum died of a heart attack while helping build St. Joseph Catholic School in Dale.
Sandy’s father was at work when he heard the news. He trudged home and knelt on the floor in front of his wife, Sally.
“Dad’s dead,” he told her.
“And he cried like a baby,” Sandy says.
“That was the only time I saw my dad cry,” she adds. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Benno later became the sole owner, and in 1978, he sold the company to Sandy and her husband, Jack Troth.
The couple have three children, all of whom have spent time on the shop floor, learning the nuances of the family business.
Their daughter, Susan Teaford, is the office manager, and their younger son, Chris Troth, oversees the work area behind the showroom.
Jack and Sandy’s other son, Mike Troth, is not involved in the business. He works as a computer programmer for Ashland Oil in Lexington, Ky.
“Just wasn’t his cup of tea,” Sandy says. “Mike’s more of a professional type, you might say.”
Chris, though, always wanted to be part of the company. He joined the business full time 15 years ago, shortly after finishing college.
“I think of it almost as a member of the family,” he says of the company.
He puts in long hours, often working on nights and weekends. But the work is rarely dull.
One customer wanted his Social Security number engraved on his tombstone. Others have wanted a whiskey bottle or marijuana leaf etched next to their name.
“Some odd things,” Chris says with a chuckle.
But the most frustrating cases are when customers try to cram their entire life onto a tombstone.
“If you do that, then you have this stone that makes no sense,” says Susan, who has been with the company for 10 years.
Customers usually come to that realization once the lettering is sketched on an order form. The company doesn’t charge extra for a wordy epitaph, but those who do the engraving only have so much surface area to work with.
Oftentimes, customers “realize it’s not going to work,” Susan says, so they pare it down.
Jack and Sandy hope the company stays in the family a few more generations. Susan’s son, Nick, plans to work alongside his family once he graduates from the University of Southern Indiana, where he is studying business. If he had his druthers, he would drop out of school and start work now.
“I told him, ”˜Get your college education,’” Susan says.
Jack nodded in agreement.
“You can always fall back on that if something happens,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll be here another 125 years, but you never know.”
The shop, built almost a century ago, is a monument to monuments.
A records vault on the building’s west end is filled with copies of transactions dating back more than a century. The contracts are in remarkable shape given their age.
Other parts of the building contain relics from a time gone by. In the back is a wire saw, once used to cut giant slabs of stone into smaller, more geometric contours.
Machinery near the loading area smoothed and polished the stones. The old contraptions still work but haven’t been used in years.
“Really, it’s a museum piece,” Jack says of the polishing machine.
In the 1960s, the family began phasing out the equipment in the back of the building. It was more cost effective to buy stones that were already cut and polished. Engraving, though, is still done in-house.
Most business owners would toss out the artifacts and use the space for something else. But nostalgia has a hold on Jack and Sandy.
Both are sentimentalists at heart. They would consider it sacrilege to get rid of the old equipment and contracts.
Every so often, someone will come in and ask about a monument from the 1940s or earlier.
“And you pull a contract out, and they say, ”˜Look, there’s grandma’s signature,’” Jack says.
Over time, technology changes.
“But this technology,” he says, pointing to a paper contract, “if it doesn’t burn will be here for another hundred years. Stuff on that computer, what’s going to be around for another hundred years?”
Nothing, of course, lasts forever. But the words etched on a tombstone will outlive everyone at Schum Monuments and probably will outlive the business itself.
A tombstone shows that somebody lived, that somebody died and that somebody mattered. The people who work here understand this.
And that’s why, after all these years, Schum Monuments is still around.
“I feel incredibly blessed,” Sandy says as her eyes filled with tears. “And now I’ve got two kids working here and a grandson very interested in the business.
“I’m so blessed … so blessed.”
Contact Tony Raap at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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