August 18, 2011

Middleton Celebrating Sixth Decade in Local Lumber Business



What started out as a part-time book keeping position has turned into six decades of life in the lumber business for Downing native H Middleton. The owner and operator of Memphis Lumber is celebrating sixty years in the business. Memphis Lumber invites the public to stop in Friday, August 19th and congratulate H, while taking advantage of store-wide deals.

Middleton got his start with the Downing Lumber Company, when he was hired in July of 1951. H was working part-time for the United States Postal Service at the time. He filled the rest of his work day as the book keeper for the Downing lumber yard.

When owner Forrest Rowe's father passed away, Middleton was turned to, to fill a full-time position. He worked with his wife's uncle for several years, with Rowe ultimately turning to H as his successor.

Downing Lumber Company dates back to 1895, when stock was issued for public ownership of the lumber yard started by the rail road. Eventually, the Rowe family bought out the stockholders and a father-son partnership was formed.

In 1967, Middleton partnered with Rowe to purchase Worth Lumber Company in Lancaster. The business was renamed Lancaster Lumber.

"I would spend the mornings in Lancaster and the afternoons in Downing," H stated. "It worked out really well for me. I liked what I was doing, and that is 90% of making it work."

In 1977, the business expanded to Memphis, when Middleton purchased Memphis Lumber from Charlie Cummings, a salesman who had bought the store from Hillis Weiner.

The expansion ultimately led to the closing of Downing Lumber Company.

"With three lumber yards, the one in the middle drew the short straw," H explained. "We decided to close the Downing yard and move the inventory that remained up to Memphis."

Ultimately the business shrank to just one store. Middleton sold Lancaster lumber to employee Ron Oliver.

"He worked for us a couple years as a COE student," Middleton explained. "He was a good kid, and it was a good opportunity for all of us. Ronnie has done really well with the business."

While the number of locations decreased for H, his workload did not. H, who still calls Downing home, attends to a number of other callings. He serves as deacon at the First Baptist Church in Downing. Middleton also is a Schuyler County Rotary Club member, and served as the District Governor for the region for Rotary International.

One of the main reasons Middleton's HDR Corporation was able to make the transition to just one location has been the success of the Lan-Dow building line.

"I can remember making deliveries to the first building site when I was a junior in high school, back in 1963," stated H's son Donnie Middleton.

The custom pole buildings really got off the ground in 1967, when a tornado damaged much of the area around Downing.

"The insurance companies were coming to us for estimates on how much it was going to cost to replace barns and garages and out buildings," H said. "We were doing all of the work to line out all the materials it would take to build new, when a builder tossed out the idea that he would build the buildings for so much a square foot."

Thus Lan-Dow buildings was launched, with Lancaster (Lan) and Downing (Dow) Lumber companies selling the materials and the labor in a one-stop package.

In 40-plus years, the company has built an estimated 3,000 Lan-Dow buildings all across the Midwest.

"It definitely is way bigger than we ever expected," H stated. "There are only so many buildings locally that you can erect, so the demand from outside of the region has been key."

That demand allowed H to combine two of his greatest passions, the lumber business and flying.

"We were putting up a building down near Mexico, Missouri when the crew called and said they were short a few items," H stated. "So we jumped in the plane and flew down to the work site. I flew over and Peggy shoved the stuff out the door for them to pick up."

Not your standard relief effort, but the air drop worked just the same.

Air traffic never became a standard for the HDR Corporation, but transportation was one of the major changes H witnessed in his 60 years in the lumber business.

"At Downing, we bought lumber by the car load," H said. That is by the train car load. It took the full crew of men, two days to unload and transfer the merchandise, and that was utilizing two wagons and teams of horses.

"They stacked the wood so high in the train car, that Dick was a little boy, and he was the only one who could fit through the door," H said. "So he climbed in on top and started the unloading for us, until the opening was big enough for the rest of us to get in there."

Today, the lumber arrives by semi-truck, and it takes one employee just an hour or two to unload a full load thanks to the use of a forklift.

Generally it's either a son or a grandson at the wheel. As the name denotes, HDR Corp. is a family business. H and his sons Donnie and Richard (Dick) comprise the three initials of the business name. Grandsons Jason and Andy round out the crew.

"My family has grown up around the business," H said. "We've lived it and breathed it."

And H plans to keep on living and breathing it.

"That's why it is nice to have this a family affair," he said. "I've never really given much thought to retiring. I've slowed down a lot, but I still love coming to work. One of these days my time will come. They'll close the doors for a few days to get me in the ground, and then it will be back to business as usual."

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