When Smith Lumber closes its door, probably some time this month, it marks an end to the oldest continually owned family business in Leadville and what is likely the oldest continually owned lumber yard in Colorado.
Dick Smith, representing the fourth generation to own and run the business, said it got its start in 1896 when his great-grandfather, Shadrack Lionel Smith, moved from Maine to Colorado Springs and then to Leadville. The company was incorporated in 1900.
Initially the lumber came from a sawmill at Copper Mountain; then the company built and ran its own sawmill.
“It was always a difficult business to run,” Smith said. “I can’t say it was ever highly profitable, but it was always sustaining.”
Shadrack Smith passed the business to his son, Charles Smith, who in turn passed it to Wilbur Smith, Dick Smith’s father.
Dick Smith initially seemed to be heading in a different direction from the family business, obtaining his Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University and then going on to teach school.
However, in the 1980s, Wilbur Smith was thinking of semi-retirement, and Dick Smith stepped back into the family business, noting the deep roots his family had in the community. The ’80s were tough times for Leadville and Lake County with the closure of the Climax Mine.
“Neither he (Wilbur Smith) nor I took income for five years during the ’80s,” Smith said. “It was a difficult time.”
When asked if there were any family tales about the business handed down over the years, Smith said there was never much discussion about business matters. Today both he and his sister wish they knew more, and even his dad’s sister doesn’t know much about the family.
It was his own research that discovered his great-grandfather came from Maine. He also discovered a document in the storage area of the building that disclosed that his great-grandfather was a Leadville alderman.
Smith does recall the time that a sawmill, owned by the company north of town, was set on fire. No one was hurt, but the building was next to Mallette Oil, which fortunately was spared. Otherwise the fire could have been much more serious.
At one time it appeared that yet another generation would be taking over the lumber business. Sadly, Chad Smith, son of Charleen and Dick Smith, died of cancer on Feb. 8, 2013, at the age of 36.
Dick Smith had the business for sale for some time before deciding to close, but there were no takers. The lumber company, at Hemlock St., actually sits on a parcel of 21 lots between Seventh and Ninth streets, but the utilities only extend to Hemlock, so the parcel would be costly to develop, he said.
Along with selling all his inventory, he also has some antiques for sale, including several radios, a typewriter and a scale. Then there’s the steam engine that has been sitting inside the building for 80 years after being used to power the company’s sawmill up until 1919. Smith would like that engine to find a new home.
Future plans for the Smiths include travel, which they’ve always enjoyed, but retirement gives Dick Smith a chance to get back to his art. He is building an art studio in his yard, complete with kiln, so he will have time to make use of his degree in ceramic sculpture.
Over the years, the best part of the business has been working with the building materials and the good friends that he’s made, he said.
Smith said that the person working with him on the sale was surprised at the number of accounts the business has. This includes families, fathers and sons. He is not worried that people won’t make good on what they owe.
Sometimes people have asked him how long the county has had an account with Smith Lumber. The answer: since the beginning.
“It has sure been a good experience,” Smith said.