Olinger Mortuary operated in this Highland neighborhood building in Denver, Colorado, from 1908-1999.
Collected by Jim Moshinskie, PhD
Olinger Mortuary was founded in 1890 first at 15th and Platte Streets in Denver, Colorado, by John W. (1851-1901) and wife Emma (1861-1932) Olinger, who came to Denver from Santa Fe, N.M. They were later joined by their son, George Washington Olinger Sr. (1882-1954) and his wife Margaret (1881-1968)
At the death of his father in 1900, George W. Olinger, Sr. and his mother took over the business. In 1908, they built the grand new mortuary pictured above at 2600 16th St., (16th and Boulder) considered the first building built as a mortuary in the Rocky Mountain Region.
The Olinger firm became very successful. In 1917, George W. Olinger Sr. became the founder and first president of National Selected Morticians (NSM). In the early 1900s, the Olingers pioneered the slumber room idea so families could gather and the deceased person could be viewed at the mortuary rather than being “laid out” at home, then a radical innovation.
In 1950, the firm added a new two-story heated garage capable of housing fifty automobiles of guests attending a funeral service in inclement Colorado weather. Later, on top of the garage, was placed a giant blue neon sign saying “Olinger Mortuaries” which still shines over downtown Denver.
Buffalo Bill Cody's body was stored in this building for six months while Wyoming and Colorado were fighting over it in 1917. He was eventually buried atop Lookout Mountain, above Golden, Colorado. The body of Checker Smaldone, the reputed head of the Denver Mafia, was prepared at Olinger's, as was that of his wife. It was estimated that the funerals of around 45,000 people were conducted at this north Denver landmark.
As the business expanded the Olingers purchased the former Rex B. Yeager Mortuary at Speer Blvd and Sherman St., built a mortuary at E. Colfax and Magnolia, and acquired the Englewood Mortuary. The firm grew to include mortuaries, crematories, and cemeteries throughout the Denver area.
By 1944, ownership of the business became a partnership of the Olinger, Bona and VanDerbur families . George Washington Olinger, Sr., 72, died March 9, 1954; Joseph E. Bona died in 1978; and Francis S. VanDerbur, son-in-law of George W. Olinger, Sr., died in 1984.
Throughout the years, five generations of the Olinger family were involved in the mortuary's management. In January of 1970, John J. Horan joined staff of more than 100 people as the 5th generation, and by 1983, he was president of Olinger Mortuaries, Inc.
In 1985, all the Olinger properties were sold to Morlan International, Inc., and in 1987, Morlan International Inc, sold all properties to Service Corporation International (SCI), a giant Houston-based funeral home corporation which still operates the business locations today (2010).
The 18,000-square-foot building at 16th and Boulder, which sat on a hill overlooking downtown Denver, remained a mortuary until it was closed in 1999 and was put up for sale. In 2002, the Highland neighborhood surrounding the building revived, and the former mortuary was remodeled to house several trendy shops, a restaurant, and a night spot. The Highland Bridge was opened in 2006 to connect downtown Denver with the Highland area. Now the area is filled with attractive condos, art stores, and restaurants.
Good singing was not a stranger to the Olinger building. For many years the Olinger Male Quartet was very popular. The American Funeral Director magazine claimed that the group “ranked second to none in the Rocky Mountain empire.” The magazine reported that on December 28, 1949, Francis S. Van Derbur, then the general manager of Olingers, entertained 40 oldtimers of the staff. This included C.H. Nichols, in charge of the embalming department, who began his career with Olinger in 1909; Martin Temple in charge of funeral directing, who had joined the organization in 1913; Joseph E. Bona, a general partner, who counted his years of service at an even 40; and Frank Farmer became associated with Olingers in 1913.
Researcher: Dr. Jim Moshinskie, Baylor University business school professor, Waco, Texas, also a licensed funeral director / embalmer and president of OakCrest Funeral Home of Waco,Texas.
Please send welcomed additions and corrections to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Morticians of the Southwest magazine (MOTS), 1-1950
American Funeral Director magazine, June 1925
John Rebchook, Rocky Mountain News, December 16, 2006
Westword magazine, May 22, 2003
History of Colorado Funeral Enterprises by City or Town, collected by Donald M. Chase, as an online site of Colorado Funeral Directors’ Association.