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Wells County’s Oldest Continuing Firm Is Wells County 2003 Business of Year

By JIM BARBIERI
“Serving here since before Lincoln was President,’’ the oldest continuing-serving Bluffton-Wells County firm has pointed out over a number of years.
Wells County’s oldest continuing business was honored early this year as the county’s “most outstanding” in 2003.
Announced then was that Thoma-Rich, Hewitt & Chaney Funeral Home had been selected as the Wells County Outstanding Business of the Year.
Fittingly so because this is the firm’s 150th anniversary year! The Sesquicentennial!
The Outstanding Business award was presented officially at the 88th annual dinner meeting of the Wells County Chamber of Commerce last Jan. 27 at the Wells County Community Center at the 4-H Park.
Observation and celebration continue through this 2003 year -- the 150th birthday -- an unprecedented event in Wells County.
And Thoma family members were in direct leadership of the business and service in Bluffton for well over a century.
Roots of the Thoma history here actually were in Germany, where Henry Thoma was born in 1832. He came to America at the age of 17 in 1849.
After learning the cabinet-making trade at Findlay, Ohio, he came to Bluffton, Indiana, to launch a cabinetmaking business with Jacob Tribolet of Bluffton in October of 1853 -- 150 years ago this year.
That business was on South Main Street, just south of the Courthouse, and it was to be the Thoma location here in the funeral business continuously for more than a century until the 1964 move to the new, modern funeral home at 308 West Washington Street.
The Thoma furniture business, which typically accompanied the funeral home business for generations, continued at the 116 South Main Street location until 1984.
The Tribolet partnership had been dissolved back in 1861, and Henry Thoma continued the business then under his own name.
His son, Herman W. Thoma, born in 1872, joined his father in the business. Henry Thoma died in 1913.
Herman Thoma was in the business leadership through the early generations of the 20th Century, and he died in 1946.
However, Herman’s son, William Thoma, born in 1901, already was carrying on in the “Thoma tradition.’’
Howard Rich became associated with William Thoma in the funeral business here in the 1950s and as a partner in 1961.
The opening of the new funeral home in 1964 was a milestone. William Thoma remained active for the funeral home until his death in 1974.
Jeff Hewitt, who actually had been with the funeral home staff at an earlier time, returned to Bluffton and employment at Thoma-Rich in 1989.
He and Michael Chaney, who joined Thomas-Rich in 1986, became partners with Rich in December of 1990.
Rich, Hewitt and Chaney all have been active in Bluffton and Wells County leadership roles.
Rich is a past recipient (1991) of the Outstanding Citizen of the Year award and also was a recipient in 1977 of the Wells County Community Service Award.
He has been a premier leader here for funding successes for much progress in Wells County -- the campaign for the Wells Community Swimming Pool, the $1.4 million Bluffton Revitalization success for the Rivergreenway Trail, Kehoe Park and the Downtown Streetscape; the Wells County 4-H Community Center and most recently the record $2.2 million success for the Wells County Arts, Commerce & Visitors Center to be built in 2003.
He has teamed with William Lawson, the recently-retired Franklin Electric chairman and CEO, in large continuing community development strides here.
Rich and his wife, Beverly, last October were honored statewide as Indiana’s Outstanding Advocates for the Arts.
Rich and Michael Chaney of the firm both have been in chamber top leadership positions. Hewitt has been a Bluffton firefighter amid his services to the community. Jeff Lemler is a well-recognized rising community worker and leader.
The Monument Center and services for Bluffton Cemeteries Inc. have been further advances of the business.

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Last Updated: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 09:44 AM
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