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Columbus’ Caldwell Lumber closing doors after 99 years

August 17, 2018
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Doug Caldwell, co-owner of Caldwell Lumber in Columbus, works on making a key for a customer at his store Aug. 10. After nearly 100 years in business, the lumber and hardware store will close its doors Aug. 31.

Local residents will soon say farewell to a business that’s been a cornerstone in Columbus for nearly 100 years.

Caldwell Lumber Company has started the process of closing its doors. Co-owner Doug Caldwell said employees’ last day will be Aug. 31 and the hardware store and lumberyard will begin selling off the rest of its products in the ensuing weeks.

“There will be many loose ends to tie up after (Aug. 31) so if customers want to come in after that, there will be somebody here yet,” Caldwell said. “As the product dwindles down and we may not have the necessary items to fill an order, people are going to have to be understanding. We want to liquidate the stock we have.”

Caldwell said the business could have an auction to sell remaining products.

Caldwell Lumber, 300 N. Dickason Blvd., opened in 1919 and has operated under three generations of Caldwells. Doug Caldwell, who runs the business with his brother, Tom, said while ending the business was a difficult decision, the time felt appropriate.

“I turned 64 years old a couple months ago and there have been some health issues in my family and I thought now is as good of time as any,” Caldwell said. “My wife is also retired and I would like to spend time traveling with her.”

Caldwell said three of his employees are very close to retirement age and are ready to move on.

Drexel Supply Company, which opened on the west side of Columbus in May, brought new competition to Caldwell Lumber. But, Caldwell said he has a good relationship with Drexel’s owners and believes they can fill the void his business will leave behind.

“It wasn’t Drexel, necessarily, that drove me to my decision,” Caldwell said. “Their customer base is a little different than ours.”

Caldwell admitted that in recent years it’s become increasingly more difficult for small, family-owned hardware stores to compete with “big box” facilities like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

“You can go to Menard’s looking for a 2x4 and end up bringing home a gallon of milk,” Caldwell said. “It’s a grocery store, too. They are such a large company that they can do those types of things.”

Caldwell said large companies like Menard’s can buy products at a lower rate and sell them for reduced costs. While product quality might not be the same, the variety of products is a major attraction.

“We would like to think our quality and service is second to none,” Caldwell said.

Historic roots

Caldwell Lumber’s origins began in 1919 when R.J. Caldwell and cousin William Mair purchased the Brittingham and Hixon lumberyard in Columbus. There was also a feed mill and coal station at the lumberyard and the sale of coal kept the company afloat during the Great Depression.

After Mair’s death in 1940, the business was renamed R.J. Caldwell Lumber Company. In 1949, R.J.’s son Bill Caldwell joined the company and his brother, John, teamed up a couple years later. After R.J. Caldwell died in 1954, the two sons became business partners.

“My dad, John, had a master’s degree in chemical engineering yet he ended up running a lumberyard,” Caldwell said.

Doug Caldwell began working at the lumberyard in 1970 and his younger brother Tom started in the late 1970s. They kept the family business alive and well for three generations. The store’s final day will be bittersweet for the Caldwells.

“You need to take the emotion out of the decision and then it becomes an easier decision to make if it’s a business decision,” Caldwell said.

Through the years, Caldwell Lumber has been known for its quality service and taking time to meet customer needs. During a recent Friday at the store, Caldwell spent time making a key for a customer, working until it was just right.

“Let me know if that one doesn’t work,” Caldwell said as the customer walked out.

Caldwell believes spending a little extra time caring for the customer can make a lasting impact.

“If we can make a job go easier for somebody, we try and do that,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell will leave his family’s business with many fond memories. In 1999, the Wisconsin Retail Lumber Association chose Caldwell Lumber as the Lumber Dealer of the Year.

“Sometimes you second guess yourself and wonder if you’re making the right decisions, but for them to pick us as Lumber Dealer of the Year, out of all the lumberyards in Wisconsin, that really meant something,” Caldwell said.

While closing the company means the end of one chapter, Caldwell is excited for the next phase in life.

“As long as I got my health now, I would like to enjoy a few years of retirement with my wife,” Caldwell said, “and ride off into the sunset.”

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