Chester T. French came to Duke City to help his brother, but stayed to help ABQ move on

·4 min read

Aug. 5—Editor's note:

The Journal continues "What's in a Name?," a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.

Chester T. French stepped off a train into a windy Albuquerque at 7:30 p.m. on June 11, 1904.

Decades later, he would describe his first night in New Mexico to a local reporter.

"The wind was blowing hard that night and the horse-drawn fire wagons kept dashing back and forth through the streets with their bells clanging," he said. "I thought, at that time, that if this town didn't burn up, it certainly would blow away."

He had come to Albuquerque with hopes the city's dry climate would help his ailing brother who was suffering from tuberculosis.

His brother Jesse E. French would not survive, but French, a man still in his early 20s, remained. He had fallen in love with the city. He would leave temporarily to pursue his schooling but he would return. French opened his mortuary, called C.T. French, Undertaker, in 1907, at the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue and for nearly six decades he helped community members say goodbye to their loved ones.

His legacy lives on in the full-service mortuary French Funerals and Cremations, and Sunset Memorial Park cemetery, which was chartered in 1929. The funeral home has four locations in the greater Albuquerque area and his grandchildren are still involved in the business.

According to a story in the June 11, 1954 edition of the Albuquerque Tribune, French spent his first summer in Albuquerque living in a tent with his brother near 10th Street and Mountain. He told a reporter people would ask him if he came to the city for his health or to evade the law.

After enduring the windy night, he woke up after his first morning here, went to church and decided to explore the city. French got quite the shock when he went to check out the city's mighty river in hopes of watching boats sail back and forth.

One of 10 children, he was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on Feb. 5, 1882. To say the least, New Mexico had a lot less water than his home state.

"I walked a mile west of the river before I realized that I already crossed it," he said. "I was used to those big rivers back in Tennessee — and thought the Rio Grande would rival them."

French's parents had passed away when he was a teen and when his brother died, he left New Mexico and moved to New York City to attend Renouard Training School for Embalmers. It opened in 1895 and was the first of its kind there.

He returned to Albuquerque in 1907 and bought controlling interest in Adams Undertaking Parlors. A newspaper clipping from the Nov. 3 Albuquerque Morning Journal announced the deal.

"Mr. French is well known here and needs no introduction to the business community in which he is thoroughly respected. He is also thoroughly trained in his profession, having devoted much time in acquiring full command of the latest scientific methods under the most capable instructors in the country."

He married his wife Elizabeth in 1908. He also taught Sunday school at First United Methodist Church for more than 40 years.

His mortuary remained in the same location until 1935 before it moved to Grand. During those years, he formed a partnership with Charles E. Lowber and the business became French & Lowber. But the two went their separate ways in November of 1912.

He formed another partnership with Robert M. Fitzgerald in 1941 and the business became French-Fitzgerald Mortuary. That would also dissolve. His last partnership would come in 1966 when an 84-year-old French offered a partnership to his then 26-year-old grandson Chester French Stewart. He took out a full-page advertisement on Saturday, Sept. 24, 1966 announcing the new partnership.

He died the following Tuesday.

The younger French told the Albuquerque Journal in 2002 that initially he had not intended to go into the family business, but was persuaded by his father to consider it.

"To be honest, I came to town out of a profound love and respect for my grandfather," Stewart said then. "I began to see that it was a great opportunity to really be involved in the community."

Today, the company strives to follow the example set by French. According to its website:

"It is our legacy and our calling to continue to serve families during one of the most difficult milestones in life, and to help them honor their loved ones with dignity, compassion, and a deep respect for their needs and unique pathways through grief."

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at ebriseno@abqjournal.com as she continues the monthly journey in "What's in a Name?"