When Curt Westerman took over the family business in the early 1960s, his father, Elmer Westerman, remained a fixture at H.E. Westerman Lumber Co. in Montgomery, a company his father had started in 1889. Elmer Westerman would walk the lumberyard, sometimes twice a day, cigar in hand, to chat with yardmen or customers. The lumber store was his life, and he simply couldn't say goodbye.

Today, Elmer's grandson, Don Westerman, and Don's son, Greg, are facing goodbyes of their own. After more than 120 years in business, H.E. Westerman Lumber Co. is struggling to stay open.

Unless he can find a buyer this year, Don Westerman says he'll have to close all three Westerman lumberyards.

"There just isn't the traffic in these small towns that there used to be," said Don Westerman, 64. "People shop online and go to bigger communities."

That's a hurdle the lumber company began to face as soon as trucks overtook trains for transportation, he acknowledged. The company is still situated adjacent to train tracks.

Changing times

In H.E. Westerman's heyday, it had 12 lumberyards scattered throughout Scott, Le Sueur, McLeod and Rice Counties. But by 1972, the company was down to six yards. And today, H.E. Westerman operates three: in Montgomery, Lonsdale and Belle Plaine.

It's faced tough times before.

"In the 1980s, the prime lending rate went to 21.5 percent and farm loans were in jeopardy," recalled Westerman. "We survived that, but this downturn in housing is hurting."

The hurt comes partly from the free-fall of direct sales of lumber and other homebuilding products, which have dropped 50 percent over the last five years. In addition, during the most recent housing boom, the lumber company itself expanded into housing, creating townhouse developments in eight communities, including St. Peter and New Prague. Now, Westerman said, as with most such developments, "More are standing in various stages of completion."

"Feeding the lenders drained cash from us," Westerman said. "Vendors are not getting paid on time, and the builders are not able to pay us. We tried awful hard, but we just didn't make it work."

He still holds out hope that a buyer will come along. "It doesn't matter what the name is out front -- our true asset is our staff."

The staff now stands at 19 people. Nine have worked for the company for 20 years or more --like Fran Zeiher, 62, who has put in 44 years.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Zeiher said. "I don't think it's hit me yet emotionally."

He does know there will be a void when H.E. Westerman closes its doors. "You can buy anything anywhere, but we prided ourselves on customer service and our knowledge," Zeiher said.

For Bob Janovsky, 61, his relationship with the Westerman family goes beyond his 39 years of service. His family settled in Montgomery in 1880, on land where Janovsky still lives today, and the two families have remained intertwined in the way of small-town residents. In fact, H.E. Westerman's son, Dr. Fred Westerman, a brother to Elmer, delivered Janovsky at the hospital in New Prague.

Customers feel loss

Longtime customers like the owners of Krocak Dairy, which has been a family farm since 1888, are taking the loss of H.E. Westerman personally.

"Everywhere I look around our farm, I see Westerman products," said Liz Krocak, who noted that each generation of the Westerman and Krocak families have grown up together.

Krocak said she has become accustomed to the struggles of operating a "family history," not just a family business, and the added pressures of that legacy.

"You're entrusted with that next generation and want to keep the business strong to pass it along," she said. "We feel it all the time on the farm, and I'm sure the Westermans feel the same way."

The feeling, she said, is that "Our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were able to make this work, given all of their obstacles. Surely we can."

As a customer, Krocak said she dreads the thought of having a quieted lumberyard in town and having to travel elsewhere to shop.

Janovsky said the town also will miss out on H.E. Westerman's support and involvement. Don inherited the social charisma of his father, Curt, and Elmer before him, Janovsky said.

"Maybe Don will carry on in a different way."

Kara Douglass Thom is a freelance writer living in Savage.