Oldest Orillia company a monumental success

Original article by Kathy Hunt Jul 21, 2022 12:30 PM

Built on a foundation of family values and personal service, Sanderson Monument continues to thrive, with a sixth generation in the wings.

In 1872, a stone mason from England came to Orillia and began what has become the oldest and longest-running business in the community (a title earned following the closure of The Packet & Times).

The downtown storefront business is one that many people walk by every day, not realizing the extent of the extraordinary work accomplished inside its walls.

For the past 150 years, Sanderson Monument, founded by R. J. Sanderson, has been working with families to create unique and lasting memorial tributes.

What began as a one-man operation, has grown through five generations to become a deeply rooted local business known for its high quality craftsmanship and service. With over 30 employees at the main office and manufacturing plant on Peter Street in Orillia, the company has expanded to 10 satellite locations, serving all of central Ontario and beyond.

Current sales manager, Scott Sanderson, is a fifth-generation family member now running the company, along with his siblings. He started working in the family business as a young teenager and, after graduating from university, began what has become a full-time career with the business.

“It’s an interesting industry,” said Sanderson, “and not dark and gloomy like some people imagine. It’s meaningful work and is highly customized.”

Sanderson explains that it is the personalized effort put into every monument that sets the company apart.

“These aren’t just stones with names on them. It’s meaningful, there’s emotional attachment. We try to design monuments that are unique and personal, representing whatever the family wants. Even if what they like is plain and simple, we put the same care and attention into the work.”

With such a customized product, there is a need to have talented artists and technicians for the many processes involved. Sanderson employs three artists, along with skilled technicians and monument engravers.

While people may imagine someone sitting in front of a piece of granite with a hammer and chisel, the process of creating a memorial monument is fascinating and involves many steps, with the hammer and chisel sometimes still playing a small role.

The first step is creating the design, done by artists at a computer. Once the client approves the design, the work is reproduced onto granite using rubber stencils, sandblasting, computer-controlled fine etching and special carving techniques to add shape and texture. Some effects can also involve the traditional hammer and chisel.

“One of the most popular trends in monuments is personalization,” explained Sanderson. “There are all kinds of different ways to do that – with the shape of the monument, creative design, a special verse, or detailed etching. Fifteen years ago, people preferred light grey or charcoal coloured granite. Today people want black and high detail images. It could be a portrait, picture of their car, pet, cottage view, you name it. There is almost nothing we can’t do.”

Sanderson said he has also noticed a change in how people wish to commemorate their loved ones. In the past, plots in cemeteries were purchased for traditional burials, but not for cremated remains.

“Now, we’re finding people want to use a cemetery instead of having their loved ones end up on a shelf or scattered somewhere. There is a trend back to wanting to have a safe spot for a loved one’s remains and a place to visit or search for ancestors.”

While Sanderson’s primary product is memorial monuments, the company also often works on special projects such as civic memorials, and more recently, cemetery management and burial services.

And in the community, being located in the Peter Street Arts District, Sanderson Monuments takes part in the annual Starry Night Studio & Gallery Tour and provides support to the Streets Alive public art program.

During Starry Night, the business gives over its showroom to local artists to show their work, while also opening up the monument workspace to visitors.

“The first year we had 400 people here,” said Sanderson, who added that many who toured the facility were intrigued with the kind of work done in the shop. “I think it’s fitting, so much of what we do here is artistic.”

As for the future of Orillia’s oldest company, Sanderson says he is hopeful the business will remain in the family.

“I think the fact that we are a family-run business has helped us retain a great team of long-term employees,” said Sanderson. “We like to treat our employees as family. Work is important and we want dedicated employees, but we also want to be dedicated to them, and we realize there’s life outside of work.”

Sanderson’s parents, Don and Donna Sanderson, who still own the company, have 11 grandchildren, almost all of whom have worked part-time with the business at some point.

With such a large pool of sixth-generation candidates, the family is hopeful that one or two will follow in the footsteps of previous generations.