Alta Vista will celebrate its 125th anniversary on Saturday, and it shares the occasion with a business has been around for nearly all of that time. Wolgast Lumber marks its 110th anniversary this weekend.
Bill Wolgast is the third generation to own and operate Wolgast Lumber in Alta Vista.
“Grandpa started here in 1902,” Wolgast said.
From there William Wolgast, Bill’s namesake and grandfather, started another lumber yard in Alma in 1912, so his brother operated the yard in Alta Vista for a time.
Then, in 1926, William bought out his brother and let his two sons run the yard in Alta Vista. Bill now owns and operates the yard.
“Dad had the yard in 1926 until he died in 1991,” Wolgast said. “I started here in 1951. Eventually, I started buying him out through profit sharing.”
Keeping a lumber yard up and running for more than a century is not easy. Wolgast said one thing that has kept him in business is the ability to keep a fairly low inventory. He said that today it only takes a couple of days to get supplies in - unlike the early days of the business, when the railroad was the main supply line for the lumber.
“Now it’s so easy to get materials, we don’t have to stock a lot,” Wolgast said. “Inventory isn’t what it was when we had to order in a rail car at a time.”
Wolgast said the reason the lumber yard has been in business for so many years has to do with the location. He said that while the town remains small, Wolgast Lumber has no real competition.
“We have sort of a monopoly in the area,” he said. “The closest competitor would be Council Grove.”
Wolgast said that while he and the Council Grove lumber yard serve some of the same area, neither tries to undercut the other’s business.
Being friendly is one of the valuable qualities Wolgast brings to the community, said Dennis Buckman, owner of Buckman’s Easy-Go in Alta Vista.
Buckman said when he needs lumber, Wolgast is the only place to go — not because he is the only lumber yard in town, but because Wolgast is an honest man.
“I’d play poker with him over the phone,” Buckman said.
Buckman said when he needed to use a forklift, he asked Wolgast if he could borrow it. Wolgast agreed without hesitation. When Buckman returned the forklift, he asked Wolgast, “how much do I owe you?” Buckman said Wolgast replied, “Nothing, just put some gas in it once in a while.”
Most of Wolgast’s business comes from contractors, not farmers living in the area. He said the farming community has become smaller over the years while individual farms have gotten larger.
To boost business, Wolgast said his father started offering installed sales, which is when a person contracts with Wolgast Lumber to build and install items like cabinets, fences and porches. He said his father offered the service because many carpenters in the area were moving or retiring from the business.
“If you want a back porch on your house, we could take care of it for you,” Wolgast said.
He said that installed sales account for about half the business. While the lumber yard is small and afternoons are typically quiet inside the store, the yard employs three people - one full-time employee in the lumber yard itself, and two part-timers who also do installed sales.
As with all work involving working outside, he said during the winter business slows down, but they do not see the peaks and troughs of larger lumber supply companies.
“We didn’t see much of an impact from the housing recession either,” Wolgast said.
Owning and operating a lumber yard in the small community of Alta Vista has insulated Wolgast Lumber over the years, and Wolgast believes it will continue to thrive in the years to come.
Wolgast said none of his four sons are interested in keeping up the family tradition. He plans continue to operate the business for at least another 10-15 years.
If he retired, Wolgast said he wouldn’t know how to spend his time.
“I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “I think people need a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
As for Alta Vista, Jean Andres, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, said she didn’t know what the 444 residents of the town would do without his store.
“A lot of people buy from there,” Andres said. “It would be really hard on the town if they were not here.”
To an outsider, it may appear the local lumberyard depends on the town, but according to Buckman and Andres, the town also depends on Wolgast Lumber for its longevity and community support.