R. J. Funkhouser (1885-1965)
The Lord of the Manse
(A web site on R. J. Funkhouser is at http://www. libraries.wvu.edu/funkhouser)
R. J. Funkhouser was probably 20th century Jefferson County’s greatest legend. A leading Charles Town resident and banker once observed that: “before R.J. came to town, there was nothing here in the way of big business or industry.” “R. J.” launched Ranson and restored five decaying Washington homes.
Born in 1885 in Cherry Run, WV, and growing up at his father’s prosperous store on the railroad tracks in Big Pool, MD, he became a lifelong dream-achiever. There and later working as a telegraph operator at the Shenandoah Junction train station, R. J. felt called to a bigger life stage “Somewhere,” whence came the whistling trains, their smartly dressed conductors, and exotic cargoes. He vowed to live a big life: with an office on Park Avenue and penthouse on Fifth Avenue in New York City; as owner of many businesses and then retiring at the age of fifty – like his father – to become a country gentleman. He stormed for years toward his goals with protean smarts, guts, and drive. He first sold railroad crossties at nineteen with a sixth-grade schooling.
He then partnered with his accountant-brother, Elmer, to expand Victor Products, a refrigeration company in Hagerstown. He made and left Victor by the early 1950s into one of the leading makers of beverage-vending equipment. (Dixie-Narco and Royal Vendors have been here because Funkhouser relocated part of Victor Products’ operation to Ranson).
Buying up mining interests and selling the stony grains for roofing shingle and high-quality tennis courts made him a fortune, all of which was sold to Rubberoid Company in 1958.
Of the eighteen companies R. J. at one time or other controlled, two ventures stand out: his purchase of the Baltimore Trust Company, the city’s then tallest building in the late 1930s, and his charge of the largest maker of shoe heels, the O’Sullivan Rubber Company in Winchester.
Having achieved all his goals handsomely and then some, R. J. – thriving as ever on self-dramatization - retired at the avowed age and moved back “home to be with my people.”
A large spread in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 captured R. J. at his zenith – as he jumped into state politics as a Republican, running for both governor and U.S. Senator using his wealth, preaching powers, and influential newspaper “The Jefferson Republican” to directly reach the people. During these glorious times, he lived at Claymont, discovered by chance by his son and wife on a motorcycling ramble over back roads. He restored this 34-room mansion and lived there while also restoring Blakeley, Happy Retreat, Cedar Lawn, and Locust Hill – all homes owned by members of the Washington family.
Claymont was furnished and decorated with extraordinary taste by professionals using purchases at the auction of the estate of William Randolph Hearst. The long stately entrance from the north was bordered its full length in spring by tulips. Any Sunday, the public was welcome to come by and visit, add to the perpetual festivity and witness R. J.’ s mandated softball game.
Always preaching impromptu the word of God, while thrice-divorced, Funkhouser required family to hear him read all of the book of Luke before they could plunge into piles of Christmas presents.
Charles town residents remember with a mixture of envy and resentment the royal arrival to the Asbury Methodist Church on Sunday mornings of the Funkhouser “entourage” – disgorging from a motorcade of fancy cars, all family and grandchildren, Carroll Jones, the chauffeur, Aunt Lucy, the nanny, and more. R. J., often wearing an operatic cape over his tailored suits, led his retinue into church to occupy much of the front rows.
Two visits to his plants say much of R. J. Once, a worker told the editor, that he was working at Victor Products in Hagerstown when R. J. came into the plant, supposedly
“anonymously.” “What are you doing?” R. J. asked this man, who shrewdly quipped: “Makin’ money for R. J. Funkhouser!” Quite pleased, Funkhouser gave him a phone number and said that if he ever needed a loan, to make an appointment with a certain officer at R. J.‘s bank, the Blakeley Bank. The man later found R. J.’s promise was good.
A greedier, less astute employee met R. J. on a similar unannounced visit to the Ranson factory. He said: “ Say R. J.! Could I get a raise?” R. J., redirecting himself, said over his shoulder: “Your reward will be in Heaven!”
The ineradicable tale of R. J. known by seemingly all of Charles town’s older residents was when the town’s leading ladies paid a welcome call on R. J. at Claymont – to find him playing cards with two of his wives, one his first and mother of some of his children, Merle, the other, his third and last wife, Flora Morningstar. True or not, his family finds such a scene hardly unusual at Claymont in the 1940s.
Political defeat and a third divorce quieted this giant who holed up in palatial Pioneer Point on Maryland’s eastern shore. He lived out his final days from a renovated home, the sometime Supertane building, with his past-time – Ranson. He died in March, 1965.
Moving in and out of grand settings, R. J. always took with him only his bed and a few things, even when he sold Claymont. All the extraordinary trappings of Claymont were scattered in auction. R. J. knew you could not take it with you.
His fortune disappeared more or less after his death, amid a thicket of lawyers and court appointed representatives. His legacy are the treasured Washington homes, the Jefferson Memorial Hospital’s first incarnation, the Blakeley Bank, the Victor Products factory (later Dixie-Narco), the endless stories, and what some students say was the first shopping center ever built in the country. Its then-president says R. J. also saved Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, WV.
A small-town’s ambivalence toward R. J.’s flaunted power and wealth wickedly expressed itself. When, after R. J. had an x-ray taken at the hospital he built largely with his own money - they sent him the bill. R. J. worked very hard in winning the Greater Game, though.
R. J. “lives” for his family in an old hymn he wanted sung at his funeral:
When the trumpet of the lord
and time shall be no more.
And the morning breaks eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I`ll be there.
On that bright and cloud-less morning
when the dead in Christ shall rise,
And the glory of His resurrection share,
When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,
And the roll is called up yonder, I`ll be there.
Let us labor for the Master from the dawn till
Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care,
Then when all of life is over and our work on earth is done,
And the roll is called up yonder, I`ll be there.
What follows are some of his writings and views taken from his book,
"RJ Sez," Whitney & White, Ranson, West Virginia, 1957; by permission of the Funkhouser family.
Years ago, I clipped some verse from a newspaper, which seemed to fit into the plans that I formed very early in life. I carried this clipping in my pocketbook until it became tattered and torn and almost illegible:
"Lord, let me live like a Regular Man,
With Regular friends and true;
Let me play the game on a Regular plan
And play it that way through;
Let me win or lose with a Regular smile
And never be known to whine,
And I want to make it mine.
Let me live to a Regular good old age,
With Regular snow-white hair,
Having done my labor and won my wage
And played my game for fair;
And so at last when the people scan
My face on its peaceful bier,
They'll say, "Well, he was a Regular Man!"
And drop a Regular tear!
The Trains of Childhood Shape a Dream – and a Vow
“The trains that passed (Cherry Run) stand out vividly in my memory. While I love the scenes of my childhood home, I knew, even as a small lad, that opportunities to realize my dreams of a measure of success were restricted in that small community, which I still hold in fondest memory. The trains told me that away ‘out yonder,’ where they mysteriously came from, big and interesting things were going on. They told me of a swift action coming to the world that would never let me catnap my life away, where opportunities were unlimited. When the ‘'local’ stopped at Cherry Run, to unload the barrel of brown sugar, keg of salt-fish, horseshoes and nails, axle-grease, and the big, square box of button shoes, calico and gingham, I watched with an interest that brought dreams of a swifter action ‘Somewhere.’ While the magic lantern, brought to the schoolhouse from ‘far-off’ Hagerstown, only had pictures to offer, here was evidence of the real thing!
“The engineer who stepped from the cab of the engine with his long, shiny oil-can, was a ‘furriner,’ as strange as a visitor from Mars. He wore no plow-shoes or boots, and his clothes were unpatched. His overalls were uniform in neatness, required in this strange, far-off land. If the imagined picture of the 'outside world' was poetically extravagant, I now look back and find it more or less true. I am not the least ashamed to say that sentiment still allows me to see visions from the goods the trains brought to the old country village store. It is probably of interest to no one when I say I have traveled over a considerable part of the world; however you may be interested in knowing the odors in my Father's village general store - from tea, spices, and all the things come from foreign lands, blended, let me, in fancy, ride Sahara camels, sail on dreamy waters through the Straits of Singapore, and touch the romantic shores of Borneo . . . but I know now the dreams were greater than real.”