ELGIN, Texas - A sawmill south of Elgin, for more than three decades, has cut through piles of logs. It’s a family business that Stephen Wusterhausen continues to operate near Elgin. The job originally was to provide special cuts of lumber to local builders.
"Mostly framing lumber, we did a lot of log cabin components. then we went all the way down to finished tongue and groove, V groove, beaded ceiling, crown molding, siding, if it was a wood pattern we could make it,” said Wusterhausen.
Things started to change after the recession, and then in 2013. That’s when Stephen’s father, who was ill, asked him to make his casket.
"It was like my dad's final gift,” said Wusterhausen.
After the funeral, that special order spun the sawmill business in a new direction, leading to the creation of the Star of Texas Casket Company.
"I never, ever, would have guessed I'd ever be building caskets,” said Wusterhausen.
A growing list of orders made it necessary to hire two employees, Debra Trevino and Charlie Champagne. Debra was hired after retiring from a local computer company and said she could not visualize doing anything else right now.
“No, I found my calling," said Trevino.
The caskets and coffins are made entirely out of wood. Some of the lumber is brought in by customers.
"She said she had a mesquite tree that she used to play in when she was a little girl, and so she wanted to make her husband's casket out of it,” said Wusterhausen.
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Every piece is hand-cut and shaped, glued into place, sanded down and sealed. It’s a process that initially took two weeks.
"So when we first got it down to like a week, I was like man, we got it done in a week. Then we got it down to three days, and now we can do it, without hardly any effort, in two days,” said Wusterhausen.
He sells them, typically for less than $3,000, custom-built and personalized, and some for first responders, others for military veterans. They've come in pink and green camouflage and a few are made to be environmentally friendly.
"I've built one that has steel plates around the outside and chain handles, kinda like a Mad Max theme,” said Wusterhausen.
The idea is to celebrate a life. The smallest ones, that can be made with superhero and cartoon themes, typically come with the biggest heartache.
"What’s hit me the most are the kids' caskets, losing a little one, or a young one in the family, that should not have been lost in the first place," said Champagne.
A Texas tag is attached with every order. Stephen and his crew have made about 200 caskets so far. Some remain in the Elgin area, others have been shipped off, as far away as California to the west, South Carolina to the east and even to Mexico. While each one has its own story, there are a few that Stephen says hold a special place in his heart.
"The first casket I ever did for a family, I didn’t even know them, and when I was done, I was bawling like a little baby, it isn’t right to bury your child,” said Wusterhausen.
It hasn’t gotten any easier. Back in June, four caskets were built for children killed in a crash near Giddings. The work was done at no charge.
"I just like to be able to help the family when I can, to release a burden,” said Wusterhausen.
In December this casket was built for a police officer in Louisiana who died from cancer. A fundraising campaign offset costs, and he was given a police escort. The job is a reminder of the harsh reality of death. Like the start of each project, a rough cut that requires a lot of attention and care.
"I guess this is why I do what I do, trying to help ease that burden, a little bit, it may not be much but it’s what I got,” said Wusterhausen.