Long-standing family businesses can influence a community for generations. This proved true in the case of Edward Knell in Carthage. Knell’s strong business acumen, work ethic and community service created a legacy that was carried on by his children. The fair he created rivaled the state fair for a quarter of a century.
Edward Knell was born to Fred and Rosalie Knell in Bayfield, Ontario, Canada, in 1854. The family lived in Canada for 10 years before returning to Switzerland. His older brother, Albert, had moved to Davenport, Iowa, where he had a furniture and upholstery business. When Edward was 15, he immigrated to the United States to live with his brother and work in his business.
Over the next four years, he worked at upholstery companies in Chicago and Cincinnati, Ohio. At 19, he returned to Davenport to start his own furniture and upholstery business. Her brother had moved to Moline, Illinois, in the meantime. Edward’s reputation for honesty and quality work was a hallmark of his craft.
Settles in Carthage
He married Susan Wheelock of Moline in 1875. After a series of harsh winters in the Upper Midwest, the family moved in 1882 to Carthage, where he purchased the Hurley & Dingle Furniture Co. with George Howenstein. Their partnership lasted two years, with Knell taking full control of the business in 1884.
Furniture stores of this era often offered funeral services on the side. Making and selling caskets was a variety of furniture that was always in demand. Hurley & Dingle had offered this service.
When Knell took over, he decided to improve the quality of funeral services he provided. To do this, he enrolled in the Clark School of Embalming in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1887, he graduated and applied for a Missouri embalming license. His license was #7 in the state. He was the first licensed embalmer in Jasper County.
In 1897, he had the Glas building built, in Carthage stone, at the north-west corner of the streets of the Third and Lyon. It was designed as a funeral chapel, the first in the county. The morgue’s horse and buggy shed occupied the northern half of the block.
His devotion to duty, hard work and empathy for the unfortunate established his reputation in the city. He also offered an ambulance service. Around this time, he had brought his daughter, Emma, into the family business. She had obtained her embalming license in 1899 and took care of the funerals of women and children.
But business was not his only passion. Part of the funeral service was to transport the casket to the cemetery in a hearse. Well-groomed horses and hearses could be quite elaborate. Knell was a great horse connoisseur. The horse teams for his hearses and ambulance were top notch.
Not all of his horses were used for funeral processions. He reportedly bought a horse named Ben McGregor for $3,000 in 1882 ($86,000 in 2022). He had six remarkable horses that raced in competition. In 1908, he bought a racehorse for $10,000 cash ($317,000 in 2022). In the same story, it was reported that a Russian emissary had set sail to negotiate the purchase of one of Knell’s horses. Historian Joel Livingston has written that “the finest horses now possessed by the county came from his farm or were sired by a horse he brought here”.
With a stable of racehorses, Knell needed a place to exercise and train his stock. His racehorses have won awards throughout the Midwest. The Knell Farm was located on the northwest side of Carthage along the Spring River near where Interstate 49 and Missouri Highway 96 intersect today. The trail of a half a mile to train his horses was known as Knell Driving Park.
He had the idea of starting a Jasper County Fair in 1902, but couldn’t interest enough backers for a stock company for that purpose, so he decided to do it himself. He spent $21,000 ($714,000 in 2022) to build the fairgrounds. The track, complete with grandstand and judges’ platform, was the core around which the fair was built. The fair offered agricultural, livestock and household exhibitions and competitions in addition to horse racing in 1902.
Knell began as an organizer and director of the fair in addition to his mortuary business. His daughter Emma was his secretary. For three years, he managed the fair alone with great success. By 1905 it had become more than he could handle on his own. Although he called it the Jasper County Fair from the start, it was known by the nickname “Knell Fair”. He relented and his published catalog, over 100 pages long, bore the name “Big Knell Fair”.
He advertised the fair in local newspapers. Tickets for the four-day event originally cost 25 cents. The Missouri Pacific Railroad offered special passenger fares to Carthage during fair week. Harness races and foot races took place daily. New horse races were held, such as a five-horse relay race with the four changes “done while the horses are rolling at full speed”. Additional attractions included hot air balloon drops, exotic animals such as ostriches, aircraft displays, car and motorcycle races, and contests of all kinds.
As at most fairs, prizes were awarded to livestock and poultry. But other prizes went to people who traveled the furthest distance in a four-passenger automobile, the cutest baby, and the strongest lumberjack team. A five-seat, 4-cylinder, 25 HP Hudson automobile was donated in 1910. A competition for the fair’s most popular lady awarded the lucky winner a piano, a Victor Talking machine and a gold watch. As one ad said, “Where can you see more for 25 cents?”
His success persuaded others to join him when he finally incorporated the fair in 1905. He continued to run the fair for three years, but in 1908 the workload was too heavy and he resigned. He was replaced by Frank Boland. Emma Knell continued as secretary. She quickly becomes the true director of the fair, while retaining the title of secretary. The fair grew to rival the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, with many entrepreneurs, such as car racers, appearing at both venues.
The family morgue continued as Emma and her brothers, Fred and Frank, took on more responsibilities. Edward suffered from a debilitating illness for several months which led to his death on December 24, 1910, at the age of 56.
The funeral of a famous funeral director was elaborate. Livingston wrote, “Carthage had not seen a larger or more impressive funeral than that held over the remains of this distinguished citizen.” Morg and Prince, one of his favorite teams in service for 16 years, pulled the hearse all draped in black. Hundreds of people accompanied the procession to the cemetery to pay their last respects.
He is remembered as a defender of Carthage. His panegyric, the Reverend Van Wagner, said: “He devoted time, money and energy to anything that could improve the public good. He originated, founded and brought to success, single handedly and with one hand, our current successful and valuable county fair. In many ways, he made this city known everywhere. … He loved this city and made sacrifices for it.