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Mortuary museum features five generations of treasures

Gene Reis and son Kirk Reis pose with some of the memorabilia found in a museum beneath San Luis Obispo's Reis Family Mortuary and Crematory, including a never-used washing machine.
Gene Reis and son Kirk Reis pose with some of the memorabilia found in a museum beneath San Luis Obispo's Reis Family Mortuary and Crematory, including a never-used washing machine. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Buried beneath Reis Family Mortuary and Crematory in San Luis Obispo is a hidden treasure trove.

Established in 1975, the Good Ole Days Museum houses a hodgepodge of personal mementos and antique treasures amassed by five generations of the Reis family.

But one man is responsible for the majority of the collection: 93-year-old patriarch Eugene “Gene” Reis.

“It’s unusual for a mortician to have a museum,” acknowledged his eldest child, Kirk Reis. “Nothing in here has anything to do with the mortuary business.”

A shipwreck deposited Gene Reis’ great-grandfather Frank De Rosa, a whaler from the Azores, on the Central Coast. Since De Rosa settled Morro Bay in the 1850s, family members have worked as bait sellers, farmers, ranchers, railroad workers and morticians.

The family’s first funeral home, Reis Colonial Chapel, opened in January 1955, in the Nipomo Street building that currently houses the AIDS Support Network of San Luis Obispo County.

In 1969, Gene Reis purchased a former dairy plant belonging to the Harmony Valley Creamery Association. Reis Family Mortuary opened its doors at 991 Nipomo St. in November 1970.

According to Kirk Reis, workers used to process cheese upstairs, then bring it downstairs to age and package.

Now the building’s basement is home to a museum accessible only by stairway. (The Reis family plans to replace a crank elevator that once serviced the floor.)

Walls are covered with newspaper articles and family photos. Stacked on shelves and arranged in glass cases are mementos from several lifetimes — button hooks, piggybanks, typewriters, tools, toys and more.

Some of the items are souvenirs picked up on trips that Gene Reis and his wife, Irene, took with their children. Others were donated by community members on the condition, Kirk Reis said, that they can have the items back whenever they want.

“A lot of the stuff down here has no real value,” said Reis, Reis Family Mortuary manager and co-owner. “It’s just unusual. It’s something you don’t see every day.”

One example is a wooden McCaskey cash register from the Fulton Market, which once stood near the corner of Monterey and Chorro streets. It’s still stuffed with the grocery bills of delinquent customers.

Other keepsakes date from Gene Reis’ World War II service, including metal jewelry fashioned from GI ration cans in the Azores and a U.S. Army uniform shirt signed by entertainers including Bob Hope, Phil Silvers and Mae West.

The Reis family’s collection extends beyond the museum space to include about a dozen pump organs scattered around the chapel, reception and viewing areas. Space in a separate building houses Christmas decorations, animal figurines and jackets and sombreros worn during San Luis Obispo’s long-gone La Fiesta de las Flores.

Parked in garages and a converted stable are several vehicles, including a 1926 Model T, a 1964 convertible Lincoln Continental, buggies, carriages, wagons and sleighs.

The undisputed jewel of the collection is a horse-drawn hearse — purchased in Indiana in 1966 and restored by Gene Reis and Al and Tony Dutra — that has been used just five times to convey community leaders, including Alex Madonna, to their final resting places. When Gene Reis dies, the same ornate, turn-of-the-century hearse will transport his coffin, his son said.

According to Kirk Reis, the Good Ole Days Museum has weathered a few setbacks, including shoplifters who stole a helmet full of gold and silver coins given to Gene Reis by his great-grandfather. “He was so crushed that somebody would take something,” his son said.

Three or four years ago, about four inches of water flooded the museum, damaging the carpet and a few items.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the Reis family from offering free tours to the public year-round.

“I have people who come back all the time,” Kirk Reis said.

If you go …

Interested in visiting the Good Ole Days Museum? Contact Kirk Reis at Family Mortuary and Crematory at 544-7400 or

k.reis1958@gmail.com

.

Free tours are available most of the year except during holidays and times when services are scheduled.

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