The Oswalds of Oswald-Hoskins Funeral Home have had a lasting impact on Lebanon and continue to add to the town’s notoriety. Founded in 1860 as a cabinetmaking business, the funeral home is the third oldest business in Warren County, behind The Golden Lamb (1803) and The Western Star (1807).
John N. Oswald was born on May 12, 1826 in Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Prussia, a former province in what is now the state of Baden-Wurttlemberg in southern Germany. He was the second son of Peter and Apolonia Oswald. The family originally came from nearby Switzerland, but had, for the past three generations, lived in Prussia near the Danube River. John’s father died at age 44, in September, 1831,when he was only five, and his mother at age 47, in October 1845, when he was 19. He was educated in Prussia and apprenticed with a furniture maker who is said to have worked for the royal Prussian family. He traveled throughout Germany and worked for seven years in Vienna, Austria.
In 1853, John booked passage to America, arriving in New York City on his 27th birthday. That year, he worked for a furniture manufacturer in New York. He made his way to Cincinnati in 1854, and — after a brief period of practicing his trade there — moved to Warren County. He joined his two brothers in Foster, in the southern part of the county, and contributed to the cabinetmaking business they had started three years earlier.
John set off on his own around 1859, opening a cabinetmaking business in downtown Lebanon at what is now 9 N. Broadway. He moved his business along Broadway a couple of times before settling in 1866 at 110 S. Broadway, where it remained for nearly 100 years.
Soon cabinetmaking led to undertaking, because John could make his own caskets. The first recorded burial performed by John was of one Henry Seiger, age 64, on March 3, 1867. Beers’ The History of Warren County, Ohio, published in 1882, states:
“In 1868, Mr. Oswald commenced the business of undertaking, and has since buried 1,700 people, mostly citizens of ‘Old Warren.’ He was the first in the county to introduce the new styles of caskets and the process of preserving bodies. He has conducted his business with much success, and, by his untiring energy, is constantly increasing his extensive establishment.”
For much of the late 19th century the business was advertised as “J. N. Oswald, Furniture and Undertaking.”
On May 9, 1865, three days short of his 39th birthday, John married Fredricka Bobe (some sources say “Bope”), daughter of Philip and Mariah Bobe. The family was originally from the same area of Prussia as the Oswalds. John and Fredricka would have five children: three girls and two boys. They were: Maurice, born in 1866; Louisa, born in 1872; Marietta (or Mary Etta), born in 1877; Lena, born in 1878; and Lorenz, born in 1880.
On August 4, 1900, John N. Oswald died at the age of 74. With his death, the family business was taken over by his oldest son, Maurice H. Oswald. Maurice’s son, Ernest, born in 1889 and known to his friends as “Dutch,” began working in the family business while still attending school. In 1909 he received a diploma from an embalming school in Cincinnati, and began working full time with his father.
In 1916 the Oswald family stopped its manufacturing of furniture and devoted itself full time to the funeral home.
Maurice H. Oswald died in 1942 and the operation of Oswald Funeral Home was placed in the hands of his son, Ernest. After a few years, Ernest was joined in the business by his son Kenneth. Born in 1912, Kenneth E. Oswald was a graduate of Lebanon High School and the Cincinnati College of Embalming.
Kenneth died at the relatively young age of 45 on October 12, 1957. He suffered a heart attack while conducting a burial service in Westerville, Ohio, just northeast of Columbus. His daughter, Diane, is the mother of Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, who graduated from Lebanon High School before making a name for himself in film and television. Woody is John N. Oswald's great great great grandson.
By the late 1950s the location at 110 S. Broadway had become less than ideal for a funeral home. Because of traffic on Broadway, funeral processions could no longer line up safely. So Ernest moved the business to 329 E. Mulberry, and announced the grand reopening of Oswald Memorial Funeral Home in the February 23, 1961 edition of The Western Star:
“We wish to announce that ... we are ready to serve you again at our new location opened in the memory of J. N. Oswald, M. H. Oswald, and K. E. Oswald — a fitting climax to a century of service.”
Despite the grand opening, the operation of the family business was getting to be too much for Ernest. A year or so later, he turned over the funeral home to William W. Walker from Charleston, W.Va. On February 20, 1964, Ernest “Dutch” Oswald died at age 75.
By early 1970 the 110 S. Broadway location was become a problem for the city. Vacant for three years, it soon became a target for arsonists. Four fires alone were set in March of that year. In April, 1970, the old house, with nearly 100 years of service to the people of Lebanon, was demolished.
On March 17, 1993, The Western Star published an article announcing that the funeral home was being sold to James and Joanne Hoskins. The owners of the newly named Oswald-Hoskins Funeral Home were no strangers to the business. Joanne’s grandfather had established Vale Funeral Home in nearby Morrow, Ohio.
Like the Oswalds, the Hoskins-Vale family made the funeral home business a family affair. Jim and Joanne’s daughter Jennifer Hoskins Long became a certified funeral director in 1994.