ALEXANDER LUMBER CO.
HUNDRED YEARS OF LUMBER RETAILING
In 1991, Alexander Lumber Co. was able to look back on three generations and 100 years as a corporate entity in the retail lumber business. But, if you count the years prior to incorporation, when, in the early 1880's, John Alexander managed a lumber yard in Aurora, Illinois, then the Alexander family participation in lumber yard operation is even longer.
Wood, in some form, has been in the blood of the Alexander clan ever since the first family members came to Wisconsin from Scotland in the 1870's. First arrivals, according to Walter Alexander, president of the present company, were a sister of John Alexander, Walter's grandfather, and her husband. As they saved up some money, she brought over additional brothers and sisters. John was the youngest of the Alexander immigrants.
All the Alexanders were active in some way in the sawmill business. Those were the days when the great virgin forests of Wisconsin and the upper Midwest were being cut. The actual start in lumber retailing came in the 1880's when the Stewart family of Wausau, Wisconsin, which had some lumber holdings in Illinois, decided to expand in that state. They sent grandfather John Alexander to Aurora, Illinois to open a yard, and gave him a piece of the action as an incentive. John was a hard worker with a lot of drive. Under his management the yard prospered. He looked forward to a time when he could own his own business.
In 1891, with the aid of two partners, Tom Brittingham and Joe Hixon, and a loan of $ 5,000.00 from the Continental Illinois Bank of Chicago, John's dream as a lumber yard owner came true. The firm was incorporated as Alexander Lumber Co., but it probably carried that name prior to incorporation. With the Aurora Yard well established, John set his sights on expansion. The railroads were reaching out toward the west, and this provided him with his opportunity. John was able to negotiate a series of land leases with the railroads along the expanding right-of-way, setting up a lumber yard at relatively close intervals along the line. By the late 1920's he operated well over 100 so-called "line yards".
Lumber yards in those days were a far cry from todays establishments. All that was needed to be in business was a small, one room office and some storage space. Inventory was no problem because there was plenty of Midwest pine lumber to bring in by rail. The yards were spaced along the tracks at a distance that a farmer, midway between two yards, could drive his team into town, conduct business, and get back in the same day.
Over the intervening years, John Alexander's entrepreneurial spirit never faltered. By 1929 he had bought out all his partners and also acquired the Brittingham and Hixon Lumber Co. yards in Wisconsin, which Alexander Lumber Co. still owns and operates under the same name, as a wholly owned subsidiary. During the great depression of the 30's, and the advent of motorized transportation, there was some reduction in the number of yards. But prior to that, there was some expansion by acquisition. Fifteen yards in McLean County were purchased from John's cousin, who had no heirs interested in the business. Also acquired were a group of yards from W.E. Terry, an early associate of John Alexander.
In 1944, John Alexander, the company founder died. Full management responsibility fell on the shoulders of Walter's father, John Alexander Jr.. John Jr. had worked for the Alexander Lumber Co. since finishing college and had become president of the company in 1932. By 1940, a large part of the day-to-day management function of the company had been delegated to a very capable associate, Otto United, a vice-president of the company until his retirement in 1966. Otto was described as a very good administrator, many of whose policies are still in force today. As consumer trade began to grow in the late 40's and early 50's, Otto built showrooms around 1200 square feet, where paint, builders' hardware and other products were displayed. Prime emphasis of the company at the time was, and still is, on serving the contractor and the builder, but now, some large new stores recognize the importance of the consumer trade.
The company's present president, Walter Alexander, learned the lumber business from the ground up, working summers in company yards in the 1950's, before doing a stint in the Army. After military service, he got additional on-the-job experience working behind the sales counter in several different yards. With Otto wanting to retire, Walter came to Aurora in 1964 as a management understudy. Following Otto's death shortly after retirement, Walter was given the responsibility of the day-to-day company management by his father. He presently holds the position of president, but delegates many management functions to a group of four district managers, each of whom is responsible for a group of company yards. Tom Hodgson is the Executive Vice-President and Ed Winkless has joined Alexander Lumber Co. as its new Chief Financial Officer.
Presently, the Alexander Lumber Co. operates a total of 23 retail yards; 18 in Illinois and 5 in Wisconsin, a truss plant in Cortland Illinois and a show room/ sales office in Twin Lakes Wisconsin. .