LOCAL HISTORY: Salem’s unlikely undertaker-turned-poet

Portrait of Winfield Taylor Rigdon (1849-1942), Salem undertaker turned poet and lyricist. Portrait printed in his 1927 book of poems “Truth in Pleasant Rymes” (Willamette Heritage Center collections 91.27.1)

This summer at the Willamette Heritage Center we are celebrating music in conjunction with the June 21st National Make Music Day. A new exhibit highlights the history of Salem’s musical past. 

One piece of sheet music distributed by a Manhattan-based sheet music company from 1923 featured in the exhibit, tells the story of an unlikely lyricist. 

Winfield Taylor Rigdon was born in Iowa in 1849. As a small child he made his way with the family across the Oregon Trail settling east of Woodburn. He attended Willamette University for a time and patched together a very wide variety of odd jobs to support himself. He worked as a druggist and in a sawmill in Jefferson, served as a state legislator and U.S. Customs agent, was a partner in a hardware store and sold real estate. He started his last business in 1891 – a mortuary.  His obituary states he was among the first undertakers in Oregon to learn embalming. The business flourished and eventually would involve two of his daughters as company officers. 

Advertisement for the W.T. Rigdon Co. Funeral home in Salem from 1941 Salem City Directory. The building now houses the Ike Box Coffee Shop. (Willamette Heritage Center collections 2010.080.0020)

In the meantime, the undertaker Rigdon had a side hustle: in poetry. His poems were distributed in newspapers, magazines and bound volumes on their own, but they also worked their way into several musical collaborations. At least one was with Willamette University Professor of Music Z.M. Parvin. 

Many of Rigdon’s poems were written with “CHORUS” section, which lent themselves to song.  He even made suggestions of tunes to sing the poems to in some of his publications. “That Blessed Old Cradle of Mine” was one such poem with a delineated chorus. Hear a performance of the sheet music in the WHC’s collections, of Rigdon’s poem set to original music by Arnold T. Lax: https://youtu.be/6Dx–9H22uU

You can even visit Rigdon’s mortuary today, perhaps in his jack-of-all-trades spirit, now doing duty as the Ike Box Coffee shop.   I think he would have approved. 

Sheet music cover for song composed by Salem-based undeteraker-turned-poet and lyricist Winfield Taylor Ridgon (1849-1942). (Willamette Heritage Center collections 2004.016.0002)

Editor’s note: This column is part of an effort from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate in Salem Reporter’s local history series, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected].

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Kylie Pine is the curator of the Willamette Heritage Center. She regularly shares historical photos with Salem Reporter and invites readers to share what they may know. Contact her at [email protected] or 503-585-7012.