Like the memorial stones they’ve sold for 100 years, one Mitchell business has stood the test of time and generational change.

For Shafer Memorials, that’s taken place all in one location and all in one family. At 1023 N. Main St., the Shafer family has operated a gravestone, monument and memorial business since 1919. The business is now owned by Kim (Shafer) Swank, her husband, Rick, and middle son, Jeremy. On July 13, the Swanks and Shafers will have an open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to celebrate 100 years.

“It’s something that just makes you so proud and so excited to be able to celebrate,” Kim Swank said. “To make it to six generations and 100 years, just makes me so proud.”

Her parents, Gary and Kay, bought the business in 1971, when the name changed to Shafer Memorials.

At that time, the business office was located in their home with the sandblasting and shape work done in the garage at the back of the house. Gary and Kay converted the porch of the home to an office and moved the sandblasting rooms out of the garage to a shop they built one house down the block.

The couple had four girls, and initially thought their retirement meant the end of the family-run business. Until then, in the Shafer family tradition, one of the sons took over after their parents retired. But in 2011, Kim and her family stepped in, keeping the Shafer family business running smoothly.

Kim and her sisters grew up helping in the family shop, lending a hand whenever needed.

“When I was a kid, I helped pull stencils for sandblasting and helped them set the stone on occasion,” she said. “If there was something that needed to get done and it wasn’t too big, I was there.”

A family tradition

Harry and Cora Shafer opened Shafer Monument Works in 1919, after Harry left his job at the Mitchell Marble and Granite Company. Together they ran the business with their son Clyde, until Clyde was killed in a tragic work accident at the Delmont Cemetery. Harry died a few years after Clyde, leaving Cora to run the business by herself with the help of a hired man.

Soon, her grandson, Clyde, and his wife, Nora, returned to Mitchell to run the business. Clyde and Norma changed the name to C.N. Shafer Memorials and ran the business until Clyde died in 1969. Their oldest son, Gary, and wife, Kay, purchased the business in 1971 and changed the name to Shafer Memorials, a business they ran for 40 years until the most recent ownership change in 2011.

Running the family business was not Swank’s initial plan. After marrying her husband Rick, the two moved around a lot due to Rick’s job with a retail company.

“I remember as a kid thinking, ‘I don’t know if it has to be a guy that runs the business,’” Swank said. “I didn’t really think about it at the time.”

Kim and Rick Swank, front, and their son Jeremy Swank are the fifth and sixth generation owners of Shafer Memorials, a business that has been operated at the same North Main Street location for 100 years. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Kim and Rick Swank, front, and their son Jeremy Swank are the fifth and sixth generation owners of Shafer Memorials, a business that has been operated at the same North Main Street location for 100 years. (Matt Gade / Republic)

It wasn’t until the couple decided to have kids that the thought of returning to the memorial business was considered. After speaking to her parents, the Swank family moved back to Mitchell to learn the family trade.

“It was a big deal, and a lot to learn,” Rick said. “The retail I was in initially was totally different from this retail.”

Not only was selling memorials different, but the couple also lived next door to their office, with their inventory displayed across the front lawn. Memorials of all shapes, sizes and colors still fill the front yard to this day. Rick’s first instinct when he saw people browsing the memorials on the lawn on a Sunday was to greet and help them.

“I was always told when someone is in your store you go and help them,” he said. “It didn’t matter what time it was, but here that’s totally different.”

Kim, who grew up in the house and business, was more than familiar with everything that came with living among the business’s inventory. Some of her fondest memories were out among the 127 pieces of granite.

“The Easter egg hunt is always by the monuments,” Kim said. “I’m sure we looked a little silly to some people, but there’s lots of memories out there.”

Change with time

The memorial business as a whole has changed immensely since Shafer Memorials first opened, from the tools to the product demand. The first and second generations used chisels and mallets in different sizes and shapes to work the granite, and had mules that helped put them into place. Memorials typically contained the names of the deceased and small flowers or crosses in the top corners.

The third generation made use of metal letters which were then copied onto a rubber stencil. From there, each line needed to be cut by hand. For the fourth generation of owners, the company switched from the hand-cut stencils to a pneumatic press that used plastic letters and numbers. When the business transitioned to the sixth generation in 2011, a computer-assisted design program was purchased allowing even more precise cuts true to the size.

With the evolution of tools has come the demand for more artistic and intricate memorial designs.

“It eventually progressed to where people are more artistic and open to looking different than the stone next door,” Kim said. “All of a sudden, it was more personalized.”

The business works like a well-oiled machine; every member of the family has his or her speciality. Kim is the leader in the office with design, finances, advertising and sales. Jeremy works in the shop with shaping, sandblasting and delivery and Rick is the all-around rover, filling in when each area needs help.

The company has an employee, Mike Caylor, who has been with them for more than 20 years, and another son Alex and his wife who help out whenever they can.

In total, around 150 memorials come out of the shop’s doors each year, with six to seven memorials in progress at any one time.

“When there is a bunch of little things, there will be a lot being worked on at a time,” Rick said.

The shop contains two sandblasting rooms and space for the detail shaping to be done. An automatic sandblaster outlines the lettering and artistic designs. Once the stencil is removed, flowers and other three-dimensional artistic designs are shaped by hand. The staff delivers the memorial to the cemetery and places it appropriately.

“We handle them from start to finish,” Rick said. “There is never a memorial done without a family member being part of the sale.”

Twice a year, the staff travels to cemeteries across the region placing final dates on memorials. Seventy percent of sales are sold “pre-need,” meaning the memorials are bought before the death of the individual.

“People have a to-do list and come and take care of it so the relatives don’t have to worry about it,” Kim said. “Customers buy stones ahead of time, so that they make all the choices.”

The process of purchasing a memorial takes between 60 days and six months from start to finish, depending on the choice of granite color. With the office attached to the family’s home, the business is also able to accommodate appointments on weekends and holidays.

“It’s very easy to take a meeting with a person on the evening or Sunday because we’re right here,” Kim said. “Customers are always very appreciative.”

The family plans to continue providing artistically-crafted memorials to the southeastern region of South Dakota for generations and years to come.

“Hopefully in the future we’ll celebrate our 200th anniversary,” Rick said. “That’s the goal.”