Driving north through Forest Lake’s downtown, one might not think twice about the historical significance of Mattson Funeral Home, 343 North Shore Drive. On the surface, the 20-year-old funeral home and cremation service facility gives no hint of its long tenure here. It is a modern-looking facility that speaks to current times.
But long is its history. This year marks the 100th anniversary for the funeral home in Forest Lake, and its roots go even deeper in Washington County’s history. The business relocated here from Scandia in 1920 after serving families there for many years.
In a century of service, Mattson’s has been under the ownership of the Mattson family – three generations to be exact, and it may have involved a fourth generation, but early family records are sketchy, said Neil Mattson, the third generation involved with the business.
Neil Mattson succeeded his father, Archie Mattson, in 1963. Archie Mattson was the son of Charles Mattson, who relocated the business from Scandia to Forest Lake in 1920. Years ago, Neil Mattson and his father found funeral home records written in Swedish that date back as far as 1890. Although the family can’t document it, Neil Mattson says it is possible that Charles Mattson’s father, Andrew Mattson, may have worked as an undertaker during those early years.
Charles Mattson was born in Scandia in 1873 and would have been 17 in 1890. Neil Mattson says his grandfather was college-educated in mortuary science and ran the Scandia business between 1900 and 1920. Brothers Charles and John Mattson were partners in the funeral home and a dry goods store that operated under the name Mattson Brothers. The brothers were two of five children born to Andrew and Anna Mattson.
The FL move
In the years leading up to 1920, Scandia was served by two funeral homes, Mattson’s and a business operated by the Lake family.
To the west in Forest Lake, Pete Simmons was the undertaker and sold pianos as part of his business located on the west side of Highway 61 just north of Broadway Avenue, where Domino’s Pizza is today. When he put his business up for sale in 1920 and moved to Buffalo, Charles Mattson jumped in.
“It was a good business decision,” Neil Mattson said of his grandfather’s move. “Forest Lake was a bigger town, there was less competition and Pete Simmons was gone.”
John Mattson did not make the move with his brother, however. He remained in Scandia with the dry goods store before retiring to a home on Mille Lacs Lake.
Charles and Mary Mattson quickly put down roots in Forest Lake. Their children, Archie, Vivian and Eva, were now part of a larger town with better educational opportunities after their years at the one-room Goose Lake School north of Scandia.
Mattson expanded his business in 1924 to include a general store similar to what the brothers had operated in Scandia. As the funeral home business grew, space at the downtown location became tight. In 1936, Charles Mattson purchased a two-story home several blocks north on North Shore Drive. It was converted to serve as a funeral home.
The new location provided growth opportunities that allowed Archie Mattson to join the business. He graduated from Forest Lake High School in 1924 and attended Gustavus Adolphus and the University of Minnesota where he earned a degree in mortuary science. He came home in 1930 to join his father.
Archie Mattson worked alongside his father and settled into hometown life. He married Mildred Sarner, of Cambridge, and in 1934, a son, Neil, was born. The family of three settled in a home on Northwest Fourth Avenue that is today the home of Dick and Jan Stark, which is directly north of the Stark-owned Reub’s Tire Shop. The funeral home was just steps to the east.
“We would walk through the backyard to get to the funeral home,” Neil Mattson recalled.
How FL looked
The north end of Forest Lake had a different look in the 1940s. In those days, U.S. highways 61 and 8 took a different route. Motorists driving north through town would curve to the west near where Reub’s is today. The highway would bend back to the north and parallel what was then the Northern Pacific railroad tracks (now the Hardwood Creek Trail). Once north of town, the highway continued north along the same route as US-61 today.
By the mid-1940s, the state highway department began to study the need for an improved route through Forest Lake. US-8 from Minneapolis came into Forest Lake from the southwest (today’s CR-23 in Columbus and TH-97 in Forest Lake) and met up with US-61 where the far south roundabout in Forest Lake is today. The two federal routes ran together north to Wyoming where US-8 turned east.
In 1948, the highway department announced plans to reroute US-61 and US-8 directly north through Forest Lake. At that time, Northwest Fourth Avenue continued east where it intersected North Shore Drive. To accommodate the new road, three homes on Fourth Avenue and five on North Shore Drive had to be moved, including Mattson Funeral Home. To continue the route, land from the Anderson farm situated north of Fourth Avenue was acquired.
As Neil Mattson recalls, most of the homes along that stretch were moved. In October 1948, the 14-year-old watched as his father moved the funeral home some 200 feet to the east on land where the current funeral home stands. The five homes on North Shore Drive faced to the east on the west side of the North Shore Drive. The homes on Fourth Avenue all faced south. The block in question consisted of five 50-foot lots from Fourth Avenue south to Northwest Third Avenue, near the north end of what is now Mallard’s Restaurant.
Construction on the new highway was completed in August 1949. By 1955, the new U.S. Highway 8 from Forest Lake to Chisago City was completed, and thus began a new growth spurt for the Mattson business.
The third Mattson
It didn’t take long for Neil Mattson to follow his father and grandfather in the business. He graduated Forest Lake High School in 1952 and earned a degree in mortuary science at the University of Minnesota in 1956. He took a job at a funeral home in Austin and was there for a year when his father suffered a heart attack.
“I was going to stay in Austin,” Neil said. “I loved the town and the people.” But with family in need, Mattson came home. He went to work here in 1957. Six years later in 1963, Neil and his late wife Mabel purchased the business from Archie Mattson.
That was the start of a three-decade plus run as business owners in Forest Lake.
The relocation of the funeral home building had placed the business on land where expansion was possible. Neil and Mabel completed three remodeling and expansion projects. As the 1990s opened, the couple understood that another major expansion would be needed to serve the rapidly growing area.
As they neared retirement, they concluded the best move was to sell their majority stake in the business. Another third-generation mortuary owner, Tom Vertin of Breckenridge, stepped forward. The Mattsons had known the Vertins for many years and liked the idea that the Vertin family was related to the J.B. and Nellie Weisser family of Forest Lake, 40-years operators of a lumber business in the area.
In 1993, the Mattsons sold their majority ownership stake to Vertin. In the summer of 1999, Vertin began construction of a new funeral home on the grounds of the longtime Mattson site. That fall, the old building was demolished and the new facility was finished in February 2000.
In 2004, current lead mortician Susan Hutchison, a native of Ohio, joined the staff as a minority owner.
A test of time
For the Mattson family, the funeral home business has offered a true test of time, both in surviving the physical changes to the town’s landscape, but also major events in the history of the area.
Neil Mattson heard stories of how his grandfather handled the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, which followed the end of World War I, while in Scandia.
“My grandfather talked about the Spanish flu outbreak,” Mattson said. “He didn’t go home for six weeks.” To guard against spreading the virus to his family, Charles Mattson bunked at the funeral home.
As a boy, Neil Mattson observed as his grandfather and father dealt with funerals for local men who lost their lives during World War II. Forest Lake received few scars from the Korean War, but the area was not as fortunate during Vietnam.
“We handled a number of services for men killed in Vietnam,” he said.
The AIDS outbreak of the 1980s also presented challenges. Although there was little publicity locally on the health situation, Mattson says the funeral home handled a number services for area residents who lost their lives to AIDS.
As he reflects from his winter retirement home in Arizona, Mattson is free from the day-to-day challenges and tests of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I didn’t have to deal with anything like this,” Mattson said.
After 100 years of doing business in Forest Lake and another 30 years in Scandia, Mattson believes the business founded by his grandfather more than a century ago has passed the test of time and is positioned for many more years of service.