CHICAGO — For decades, big box hardware stores have been driving out the little guys, including the few independent lumber companies still fighting to stay alive.
Lee Lumber is not only the largest lumberyard in Chicago, but also one of last standing. That changes when they will also close their doors next week on Tuesday, October 23.
Its iconic neon sign has been standing along Pershing Road and South Union Avenue since they opened their doors in 1952. Rick Baumgarten’s father, Lee, opened the lumberyard, building the roof extra tall to accommodate the giant stacks of lumber.
It was a time when the lumber industry was booming. Rick recalls a homemade map his father kept on the wall with pins marking the competition.
"There were 86 pins on the map, and now you'd be hard pressed to find a dozen,"Baumgarten said.
Lumberyards have been a dying breed for decades, due to a fatal combination of the recession and the influx of big box stores. Today the staff at Lee Lumber is half of what was 10 years ago.
Michael Heard started at Lee as a 17-year-old kid. It's the only job he’s ever known.
"I hate to see it go," Heard said. "I thought I'd retire from here. So it's gonna be hard to kind of adjust to anything else."
It's these relationships that make it hard to close their doors, Baumgarten said.
This week, they received a call from a Chicago history buff and collector looking making an offer on the old neon sign. It's one last indicator that the old lumberyard may not have survived, but it did leave an indelible mark.