A History of Oakey’s
A scant year after the last shot of the Civil War had reverberated through the hills at Appomattox; and, just seventy miles from this historic site of General Lee’s surrender, John M. Oakey, Virginian, founded in Roanoke County the business which is regarded as one of the foremost mortuaries in the entire South, if not the nation. It was in 1866, when the ill-starred Andrew Jackson Johnson had succeeded the assassinated Lincoln in the White House, that John Oakey opened his cabinet making and undertaking business in the town of Salem — then the largest trading area in the Roanoke County countryside.
Young Oakey was born in nearby Lynchburg in 1839. At the age of fifteen, he moved with his parents to Salem, where he became apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. He completed his apprenticeship, but ill health compelled him to abandon his trade. During the widening commercial traffic of the antebellum period however, telegraphy was the major form of speedy communication and offered both opportunity and adventure. The opportunity for lucrative employment as a telegrapher appealed to young Oakey, so he enrolled as a student and soon became a full-fledged operator.
Young Oakey’s career as a commercial telegrapher however, was terminated by the advent of war between the North and the South. As a Virginian, his allegiance was naturally to his southern homeland, and he enlisted as a telegrapher with the Confederate forces. Subsequently, he was transferred to Dublin (in Pulaski County, Virginia), where he was placed in charge of the telegraph lines leading to the headquarters of the Confederate forces in Southwestern Virginia. With cessation of hostilities in 1865, John Oakey, then in his twenties, married Emma L. Woolwine (of Dublin, Virginia) and the following year he founded a coffin and furniture making business in Salem. In those days, local coffin manufacturing was linked with funeral services and John Oakey soon turned his talent and aptitude to the public service feature of his business. He possessed rare business acumen and a natural fitness for his chosen work. These qualities, no doubt, were to serve him steadfastly through the years that followed and they accounted largely for his victory over early hardships and the subsequent expansion of his enterprise. In those early years, founder Oakey most likely never envisioned the present day size and scope of the business he initiated on Old Main Street, Salem in 1866.
The business in Salem grew steadily with the years, and in 1882, a branch establishment opened in Roanoke under the name of Oakey & Woolwine. A brother-in-law, C.W.C. Woolwine, who died in 1901, was placed in charge of the new venture.
Subsequently, the branch was moved to larger quarters and again in 1891, erected one of the first buildings in the 100 block of West Campbell Avenue. This site saw many improvements and enlargements over the years. The three-story, red-brick structure with its art glass front and huge, cascading fern inside was a familiar site. The words “Funeral Directors” may still be seen near the roof.
It is interesting to note Founder Oakey’s eagerness to adopt improvements in service, features or merchandise as they developed over the years. He was said to have been one of the first funeral directors in the South to introduce metal caskets. The second motor ambulance in the South was purchased by Oakey’s in 1910 (the same year the business was incorporated), and it was the twenty-fifth such vehicle built by the Cunningham Company. In 1914, the firm motorized its equipment, but for a time it was necessary to retain a horse-drawn hearse for those families who had not yet become accustomed to automobiles. Stables were located in a two story brick building across Kirk Avenue (behind the funeral home) and later were converted into a large garage. Directly behind the parlor in 1911, was erected the city’s first funeral chapel — a small church noted for its Gothic archways on the north side of Kirk Avenue.
In January of 1921, Founder Oakey’s friends and colleagues in the profession were saddened to learn of his death at the age of eighty-two. Thus ended an outstanding career, marked by a steadfast devotion to professional competence and advancement. Mr. Oakey was one of the best known members of the profession in South. For two years he served as president of Virginia’s State Association and for a period of ten years, he was a member of the State Board of Embalmers. In appreciation of his character, the local press wrote, “Doubtless, it will be a long time before the people of Roanoke forget the almost daily ceremony in which Mr. Oakey played the part of Santa Claus in the stores of our city. The gifts this Santa Claus gave were flowers grown in his own garden, some of them by his own hand. Once in a while the appreciative girls would say: “Oh, but Mr. Oakey, you must let us pay something for them,” to which the usual answer was “All right, if you insist on paying, you must do it with a kiss.” And sometimes they accepted. Certainly, at the end, there must have been gratification in the heart of the founder when he realized that the success of his long service to his community would be safe in the hands of his sons, grandson, great grandsons, etc. Robert W. Oakey, son of the founder, succeeded to the presidency of John M. Oakey, Inc. upon the death of his father in 1921. William Oakey, a second son, became vice-president. Upon the death of Robert, Samuel G. Oakey, a third son, took over the management of the business and was president and treasurer. Henry A. Oakey, a fourth son, was vice-president, and Clarence M. Oakey, a fifth son, was secretary.
Probably the greatest civic contribution performed by the Oakeys over the years was support of the pioneer Roanoke Life Saving Crew, to which it donated equipment, garage, living space, and even personnel under the regimes of Samuel and Henry. Samuel helped Julian H. Wise organize it and served as president. For decades, Oakey’s operated ambulances, an unprofitable venture, as a public service.
In 1937, the funeral home made its final move in downtown Roanoke, constructing a $150,000 location at 318 West Church Avenue. A crowd of 16,000 attended the opening ceremonies during the first week of March, 1938. The Oakey mortuary on Church Avenue is a fitting memorial to the founder and his principles. It is a memorial to him and dedicated to serving the Roanoke Valley. The structure, with connecting office quarters, represented a new era in funeral service. Its architectural design, room arrangement, and equipment are the result of a careful study of the needs of the business and the community. The thought of a new home naturally had been considered for some years. Samuel G. Oakey, in his travels about the country, for years had availed himself of every opportunity to observe ideas and service methods successfully developed by other leaders and pioneers in the profession. With the advent of chapel funerals (as opposed to funerals at a family’s home), the chapel at the new Church Avenue location was designed to seat 200, with overflow allowing double that. Directly over the chapel, a spacious selection room contains thirty caskets.
Upon the death of Samuel Oakey in 1942, Clarence Oakey served as president until 1943. Henry Oakey next served as president until his passing in 1963. At that point, Crawford Oakey assumed to the top office in the company. Within two years, Minor Oakey was elected as vice president of the corporation.
On March 5th and 6th of 1966, the Oakey firm celebrated its 100th anniversary by opening the North Chapel at 6732 Peters Creek Road. During that two day open house, about 1,500 people toured the building, with twenty-five staff members on continuous duty to serve as guides and hosts for the visitors. The site includes a parking area for 250 cars in the rear, with space for additional 35 cars located on both sides and the front of the building. The chapel and family room provide seating for 250, while the selection room displays 20 caskets.
Upon the death of Crawford Oakey in 1970, his brother John Oakey, was named the new president. Later that same year, work began on Oakey’s Vinton Chapel, located at 627 Hardy Road in Vinton, Virginia. Built on a 3.5 acre site, the building, land, and furnishings represent a $300,000 investment. The 10,000 square foot building is styled in much the same manner as the North Chapel and can comfortably seat 225 people and twenty caskets are displayed in the selection room. The Vinton Chapel was formally opened in January of 1971.
Of all the accomplishments and honors bestowed upon Oakey personnel throughout the years, perhaps the greatest one was the selection of John Oakey as national president of National Selected Morticians (NSM) for 1969-70. NSM is, along with The Order of the Golden Rule (OGR), the “Rolls Royce” of funeral service organizations. Oakey’s is one of only 127 firms in the country to belong to both NSM and OGR. Having one of our own elected to the highest office of such a prestigious is truly something we can be proud of.
Although the North Chapel was only eight years old in 1974, its early success prompted its expansion in September of that year. Three new slumber rooms, an apartment (now a slumber room/office), and restrooms were added onto the south side of the building, and the lounge was doubled in size.
The Seventies were times of tremendous growth for Oakey’s, not just in volume of service calls, but also in the number of employees. The local ownership and family atmosphere of Oakey’s was a direct contrast to our competition. Roanokers responded to our claims of “locally owned and operated” by allowing us to serve more families in their times of need.
In 1980, John Oakey became Chairman of the Board of Oakey’s and Sam Oakey, II, his son, became president. In the early 1990’s, Sam Oakey, II also assumed the title of Chairman of the Board, after John Oakey suffered a serious stroke, passing away in 1995. The smooth, orderly transition among officers in this firm, since its inception is a key to the success we all enjoy.
The fourth Oakey facility was opened in May 1985 on a five acre tract of land on U.S. 221 (Brambleton Avenue), one block south of Route 419. Although the colonial style exterior of the South Chapel is similar to North and Vinton chapels, the interior follows a more modem motif and is compatible with the community surrounding the chapel. The chapel seats 200 people and families have approximately 20 caskets to select from.
Valley residents also began turning to us in times before need. Although Oakey’s began making pre-arrangements in the mid-fifties, the seventies and eighties can be seen as the years that pre-arrangement truly mushroomed. In 1987, the officers of the firm voted to create Oakey’s Service Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oakey’s Funeral Service, to sell pre-arrangements in the Roanoke area. Oakey’s Service Company is an insurance agency licensed to do business in Virginia.
Major renovations were done at our Vinton Chapel in the latter half of 1988. An additional 3,200 square feet were added and turned into four small (or two large) visitation rooms and a much needed second arrangement office.
In July of 1989, a major renovation of the business offices at the Roanoke Chapel began. Additional office space was provided by building above the lounge area.
In July of 1990, construction began on an expansion project for the South Chapel. This project added an additional 1,504 square feet to the facility that could be used as one large visitation room or divided into two rooms if needed.
A massive project took place at the Roanoke Chapel in 1993-94. This enlarging and renovation involved the business offices, foyer, arrangement offices, dispatchers’ office and the lounge. We added a history room and lounge to the configuration. While the moves were costly and inconvenient for a time, the end result was nothing short of magnificent and a complete success.
The noise and hustle of the dispatch area was removed from where the general public was present. The area above the garage, was restored and now houses the business offices. A beautiful new facade was also added to the front of the building, and the entire facility was made handicapped accessible, as are all of Oakey’s facilities. All Oakey’s locations are also now modified to accommodate the hearing impaired.
By 1993, Oakey’s was a leader in both pre-need and at-need funeral service, and determined that the time had come to establish an aftercare program. This relatively new concept involves an Oakey’s staff member following up with all the families the firm serves, helping loved ones to realize our services do not end at the funeral. To say that it has been a success would be an understatement, with hundreds of letters, phone calls, and in person visits thanking the company for the new service.
Late 1996 saw Oakey’s begin an ambitious five year building, renovation and remodeling program that would impact all five locations. The first chapel to benefit from the project was the North Chapel. An addition was added onto the rear of the building in order that a crematory and expanded office space could be installed. This was finished in March, 1997. Next, the first new Oakey’s chapel in fourteen years was built in Botetourt County. Oakey’s East Chapel was opened in January of 1999, enabling the company to serve the burgeoning communities east of Roanoke City. Oakey’s South Chapel was completely renovated and expanded again 2000, and in the process made the back of the funeral home into another main entrance for the public. The downtown location was next on the agenda, and a new three story addition was added onto the west side of the 1938 building. The addition enabled a new state of the art embalming room to be brought online in June 2001. Shortly thereafter, a new passenger elevator was installed in the building. During the fall of 2001, Oakey’s Vinton Chapel was completely refurbished with new lighting, ceilings, chapel pews, and interiors. In a space of five years, Oakey’s proved its commitment to excellence by major work on all of its funeral homes.
Unfortunately, President Sam Oakey did not live to see the completion of the massive project he had undertaken. He was struck down by cancer in 1998 at the age of 63. His son, Sam Oakey III was elected President and Board Chairman, making him the fifth generation of the Oakey family to hold this office. By the end of the twentieth century, Oakey’s had become one of the Roanoke Valley’s larger employers, with over 130 staff members on its roster. With the addition of the Oakey’s website in 1997, the public has yet another way to learn more about Roanoke’s oldest existing business.
In the years since John M. Oakey carved his first coffin, our company has been fortunate to have staff who take an active interest in civic activities. Such fine groups as the Masons, Scottish Rite, Shriners, PTA, United Way, Lions, Jaycees, and neighborhood alliances. Chambers of Commerce, and numerous other associations are represented at Oakey’s. In addition, dozens of churches are attended by our staff and our involvement in National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), Order of the Golden Rule (OGR), Selected Independent Funeral Homes (SIFH) and Virginia Funeral Directors Association (VFDA) has always been beneficial.
As one may have noticed, Oakey’s added a new location each decade for the past half-century. You are already aware of the North Chapel being opened in the 60’s, the Vinton Chapel opening in the 70’s, South Chapel opening in the 80’s, and the East Chapel being opened in the 90’s. However, the expansion did not cease in 1999; the organization added Oakey’s Pet Funeral Home & Crematory in 2009, and Oakey’s Cremation Tribute Center in 2017. The pet location is Roanoke’s only full service pet funeral home, with two retort chambers in the crematory there. The Cremation Tribute Center was built with a dedicated entrance at the South Chapel in response to the growing demand for cremation and to give families who choose cremation an opportunity for a ceremony and to follow along on their loved ones journey as far as possible.
In 2016, Debbie Moss was named as Vice President for the Oakey’s corporation. Debbie, the daughter of Miriam Oakey Wagner and the granddaughter of Henry Oakey, becomes yet another descendant of the original John Oakey to choose to enter the family business. Along with Sammy Oakey III and Sam Oakey IV, this gives the firm three family members who are working on a daily basis in the Oakey’s organization.
As we move through our fifteenth decade of funeral service to area families, the rich and vivid history of Oakey’s continues to unfold, and is placed in the hands of today’s capable staff.
Setting Us Apart
Over the past 150 years, Oakey’s has been at the forefront of innovation and service. We’re always thinking of ways we can meet the needs of Roanoke Valley Families.more