A stately and venerable funeral home on the corner of Starr’s Road and Main Street in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia owes much of its longevity to a man who sailed the seas at the age of ten years and went from cook’s helper on a ship, to furniture maker, and finally, funeral director and businessman.
Generation after generation of the Sweeny funeral service clan had their start with Jacob Sweeny and the name is known far and wide along the southern Nova Scotia coast.
Although the Sweeny name is carried on the funeral home, it has been over thirty-five years since a Sweeny has owned the business. Most recently, three long-term employees have purchased Sweeny’s Funeral Home: Mark Stevens, Ray Smith and Michael MacIsaac. Jacob Sweeny was one of the most prominent and popular of the old-time business figures of Yarmouth. He was born at Carleton, October 25, 1838, son of James Sweeny, of that Yarmouth County centre. He came to Yarmouth as a young boy, and strange as it may sound in this age, was only ten years old, when he went to work in a brig on a voyage to Ireland. It was said to be a terribly rough crossing, both ways, and the youthful Sweeny promptly decided that life on the open sea was not for him; so he learned the carpentry and cabinet-making trade. The ornate finish in the cabins of many fine Yarmouth ships was his skilled handiwork. For a time he managed the Rialto and wood working mills at Milton, later entering the employ of J.G. Allen, a furniture dealer and undertaker; a well established firm having its start in 1840. When the Western Counties Railway was built, its line ran precisely through the Allen store. And so it was that in 1860, Sweeny bought the business and buildings, and moved them to a site just north of where the Rogers furniture firm is now located. From the outset, both furniture and undertaking business prospered. In the one, quality and absolutely fair dealing, and in the other, his genuinely kind and sympathetic nature made him universally respected, and even beloved.
In 1893 building and contents were destroyed by fire; but literally while the embers were still aglow, Sweeny began construction of a much larger building, now the Rogers Company store. He continued the business in that location until 1905 when son Vernon S. was placed in charge and the two carried on together until 1918 when father Jacob retired and Vernon assumed sole control. Finding that both the furniture and undertaking business were demanding too much time, Sweeny disposed of the furniture business in 1919 to the newly-established Rogers Company. Under Vernon’s management, the Sweeny funeral business grew and developed, equipment was kept up to changing standards and in 1920 a move of major proportions was made.
Back in 1859 the gracious building most residents of Yarmouth now know as Sweeny’s Funeral Home, was the new home of William K. Dudman and his family. Dudman owned shares in at least eighteen ships during his lifetime and served as High Sheriff for the town of Yarmouth. His sturdily built, thirteen-room mansion rang with the voices of his ten children. In 1895, Dudman’s granddaughter, Mary and husband Edgar J. Vickery, bought the residence and raised their family. Vernon Sweeny and his wife purchased this beautiful home to live there for the next thirty-seven years, raise nine children and conduct their funeral business from the same premises.
Nor did the Sweeny generations fail in their public duties. Jacob Sweeny was a volunteer firefighter and was Chief of the North End Company from 1880 to 1896. He died January 24, 1924, survived by four sons and one daughter. Vernon Sweeny and two of his sons served on the Town Council and all played active parts in other local clubs and associations. He died in 1959 and the business evolved with two of the sons, Kenn and Robert. After a period of some years, Kenn withdrew from the firm to establish his own business in Weymouth, and the old firm was capably carried on by Robert Sweeny until April 1, 1973, when it was purchased by Layton Goodwin, a popular employee for several years. Layton Goodwin is Yarmouth County native, born at Lower Argyle in 1936. He entered the employ of Sweeny’s in February, 1984, having obtained his professional license in October, 1968. He and his wife Maria have three children. Over the years he added a new chapel, offices and parking lot, bearing consideration in their design to the existing architecture of the Dudman landmark. On December 20, 1996, twenty-four years after purchasing Sweeny’s, Goodwin decided to retire from funeral service and sell the business to three long-term employees, all having apprenticed and obtained their professional licenses under the supervision of Goodwin: Mark Stevens, Ray Smith and Michael MacIsaac.