1946-1950: The Early Years
It all began with Stanley Wilczewski Sr., who relocated to eastern Long Island from the coal country of Wilkes-Barre, PA, with his wife Adela (Puerta), affectionately later known to family and friends as “Babcia” (Polish for “grandmother”) . The couple soon built a modest home on Montauk Highway in Speonk, adjacent to what was to become the site of Speonk Lumber. Their family included six children: Edward, Stanley (AKA “Rush”), Mitch, Veronica, Paul and Peter. Ed, the eldest, spent some time working for Brower Lumber of Hempstead, and later at Long Island-based Grumman Corp., a major manufacturer of aircraft during WWII.
In 1945, Ed, then 21, left Grumman, as he felt that with the war concluded demand for warplanes would decrease. He surmised, correctly, that with GI’s returning stateside in droves, there would be a need for new homes and the construction industry would be a main economic driver. Not a builder himself, and with his experience gained at Brower, he decided to focus on the supply side of the business. He originally looked at purchasing a lumberyard in Nassau County, but in 1946, brothers Ed and Rush decided to open shop right next door to the Wilczewski home.
Ed’s uncle Stanley (Adela’s brother) gave them a 50 x 400 parcel of land to the east of the homestead on which to start Speonk Lumber. Funding for the brothers’ start-up came from Ed’s $5,000 savings plus $5000 put up by their mother, Adela, who soon thereafter put up another $10,000 for “the boys” to buy their initial inventory. The first building erected was in the vicinity of our current saw room, and was constructed with materials salvaged from the hurricane of 1938, when wreckage of numerous homes on Dune Road floated across the bay and was deposited on the shore in nearby Remsenburg and Westhampton. Recycling and being “Green” has a long history here at Speonk Lumber!
Another building to the north of the original structure was soon built by brother Paul (Butch) Wilczewski and local carpenter/woodworker Walt Stackow. Other structures were added for paint inventory, which in those years included Sherwin-Williams, Dutch Boy and Cook and Dunn, who had just introduced their latest innovation- latex paint! Employee Harry Kearns ran the “front end’ of the business in those years, selling paint, hardware and Stanley tools.
In the early aerial photo, circa 1950, looking southwest along Montauk Highway one can see the showroom and storage buildings, the Wilczewski homestead, and behind the house a small structure, originally a garage, which was used as the main contractors’ sales office. On its roof is a sign reading “Speonk Lumber and Supply Co.”, the original name, since changed to Speonk Lumber Corp. To the west is another larger house which for a time was occupied by Adela’s bachelor brother Paul Puerta. More about that house later.
1950’s-1960’s: The Boom Years
The rush was on to provide housing for returning veterans and their new families, as the Baby Boom overspread our country. Even on the sleepy east end of Long Island, communities grew as population increased. The lumberyard grew to keep pace with demand and the staff quickly increased to 4-6 people. Lumber inventory included Doug Fir framing lumber, #3 pine boards (1×12 only, which was ripped to width for customers) spruce novelty siding, cypress, beveled cedar siding, and Feldman molding, which can still be found in our molding bins to this day. Asphalt roofing and insulation came from Johns-Manville. To fill in holes in the inventory, Ed or Rush, with the week’s proceeds in their pocket would occasionally drive to Brower Lumber in Hempstead to pick up materials. Brower, Ed’s former employers, were retailers but gave the Wilczewskis wholesale pricing to help out their fledgling company.
As many lumberyards did at that time, Speonk Lumber built their own wood windows, starting first with window frames (KD and set-up) and then later offering complete windows, which were primarily simple wood double-hungs with single-strength glass, industry standard in a time well before the advent of insulated glass. Poured concrete foundations were rare, and Speonk Lumber kept a large inventory of concrete blocks and other masonry products. The company’s first flatbed truck was a 1946 two- ton Chevy flatbed, with body built by Clarence Barrett and lettered by Ansel Raynor, local family names still familiar today.
New houses began to appear rapidly along Dune Road, which had been largely deserted since the great hurricane of 1938, being considered too remote and dangerous. The local area had a thriving duck farming business, which attracted workers from as far away as Virginia and the Carolinas, all of whom needed housing. Land was cheap- an average 100’ x 150’ lot could be had for about $1,200. Oceanfront property went for about $50 per foot of waterline. As business grew, Speonk Lumber soon had another truck, a 1953 Dodge 1500 pickup.
A big boost in business came in the mid to late 1950s with the construction of a military housing complex opposite the airport in Westhampton. Project general contractors Tufano and Grace had much of their lumber and building materials drop-shipped there by larger suppliers from outside our region, but Speonk Lumber became the go-to company for any extras – and there were lots and lots of them – as ultimately 210 homes were constructed. The 65-acre property was sold in 1976 to the A.G. Proctor Co., who named it Hampton West Estates, by which it is still known today.
Bookkeeper Lillian B. Frey, of Eastport, was hired in 1958 and stayed with the company throughout four decades, finally retiring in 1989. As recently as the late 1970s, when calculators were uncommon, Mrs. Frey and other employees added columns of numbers on a vintage hand-cranked adding machine. Ed’s son, Ed Wilczewski, Jr. graduated from SUNY Farmingdale in 1957 and came on as a full-time employee. Eddie Jr., as he was known to everyone, was a skilled woodworker and maintained wood shop on premise to serve customers’ needs and to manufacture windows, furniture and other pieces.
Business was strong and the company thrived throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Key builder accounts included Halsey Casey, Hillis Brothers (who developed much of the Pond Point area of Dune Road in Westhampton Beach), and E. Raynor and Sons. The architects of choice were the father-and-son team of Sears and Sears of Quogue. Eddie Jr., whose recollections inform a large portion of this history, remembers doing inventory on Christmas Day, as the Wilczewski brothers, dedicated merchants, did not want to close the store on a regular business day to complete the yearly task.
Speonk Lumber and the Cold War
Speonk Lumber’s location in strategically important eastern Long Island gave it a small but important role in the Cold War. In the late 1950s, an essential component of the federal government’s first line of defense against a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union lay hidden in the woods of Westhampton. One of 10 such facilities on the east coast, 56 nuclear-tipped missiles were stored in metal garages nestled in the pine barrens just north of Old Country Road. Their potential target: Soviet bombers whose mission was to drop atomic bombs on vital American targets, including New York City, some 75 miles to the west. The missiles, produced in a cooperative venture between Boeing and The Michigan Aerospace Research Center (MARC) were dubbed “BOMARC” and were in place, standing guard against Soviet attack, from 1959 until 1964.
The missiles are long gone, but the rusted sheds can still be seen near the current Suffolk County Police facility. During the construction of the facility, which was mostly concrete and steel, much of the lumber for concrete forms came from Speonk Lumber. We also supplied materials for some temporary buildings and storage structures. There was a considerable amount of concrete work including the missile silo roofs that were designed to have a tremendous weight-bearing capacity. To test the concrete to assure it met the military specs, the builders needed to pile tremendous loads of sandbags on the concrete. Unfortunately, there was no equipment available to them for that purpose. Speonk Lumber, however, came to the rescue, having recently purchased (in 1957 from Modern Ford in Riverhead for the handsome sum of $2,500) a Ford forklift, making them the only business in the area to own such a machine. Ed and Rush sent their forklift up to the site, where it made quick work of moving the heavy loads. Once the concrete structures were shown to have met their required capacity, the forklift returned to the lumberyard and to its civilian duties.
Late 1960’s-early 1970’s: The End of an Era
By the end of the 60s and into the 1970s, a combination of factors contributed to a decline in business for the company. Construction activity, notoriously cyclical, entered a downturn and many cash-poor builders and customers were in arrears. Ed Wilczewski suffered from ill health and eventually passed away in 1972, leaving his wife Alice and brother Rush to run the company. Through all this, Veronica (Wilczewski) Smith, the only female of the Wilczewski siblings, had remained in the house at Speonk Lumber with her mother (Babcia) and two sons James and Dennis. Dennis started his career at Speonk Lumber as a youngster, helping to manufacture windows in Eddie Jr.’s shop. After graduating Mercy High School in Riverhead in 1969, he left Speonk for a period to do military service and to later take a job as a tractor-trailer driver for King Kullen Supermarkets. Rush eventually bought out sister-in-law Alice’s share of the business and then worked out an agreement to sell the company to Dennis, then 26, and Dennis’ wife Christine (Buscemi). The couple took full ownership in 1977 and the next era of Speonk Lumber began.
Dennis and Christine Smith, Owners, 1977-2007: Struggle, Rebuilding and Growth
Dennis and Christine have often said that it would have been easier to start up a new company from scratch than to revitalize the now-forlorn Speonk Lumber. Their biggest obstacle was a shortage of credit lines from their various wholesale vendors. Dennis met with each vendor and gave his personal pledge that if their credit lines, which were desperately needed to bring in inventory, were re-opened, all debts accrued during the prior ownership would be repaid. Some vendors were not willing to agree, but many did, sensing the potential in this young brash “kid” with little or no formal business training or experience. To his credit, Speonk Lumber managed to repay those vendors, many of whom, including Sherwood Lumber, American Lumber, Weyerhaeuser and others, are still supplying materials for us today. With Dennis in charge of day-to-day operations the two set about rebuilding the once-proud company. Early employees included locals Rich Angus and Hank Nordman. Hank originally worked for Ed and Rush, then left and was re-hired by Dennis.
The mid to late 1970s were tough economic times. A nationwide recession, gasoline shortages and rationing, construction downturns and many other factors contributed to an extremely difficult business climate. Construction on the east end was a largely seasonal affair, unlike the year-round boom that would unfold later. The winter of 1977-1978, one of the worst in memory, left snow banks piled up to the catwalk in front of the molding bins and made for icy loads of lumber that would unexpectedly slip their way free of their constraints on the bed of a truck and tumble into the street. The entire company that year consisted of Dennis, Christine, Mrs. Frey and three employees, plus Dennis’ brother-in-law Chet Parr Sr., who worked weekends. (Old-timers will remember Speonk Lumber being open on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.). One of Dennis’ first investments was a Chevy flatbed truck and an Allis-Chalmers forklift, both purchased used from Steiner/Lawrence Lumber in Center Moriches who had recently folded. The flatbed joined our old rusted pickup truck to make a total fleet of two vehicles.
Scrap wood cuttings from the company’s saws were collected at the end of each day and delivered next door to Babcia, who used them to fire her wood-burning kitchen stove, which is still in place (although not in use) in the kitchen of the house today. Our large inventory of Cook and Dunn paint was stored in the house’s basement. In the late 1970s, the house to the west of the homestead, occupied for a time by Paul Puerta, was sold to Bob Strebel of Westhampton, who had the house moved to Oak St. in Westhampton, where it sits proudly to this day. Moving the house allowed us to create additional outside lumber storage space, critically needed as demand for inventory grew.
Dennis utilized a “Pony Express” delivery system; with only two trucks available and a single driver, one truck was always on the road making deliveries while the other was being loaded at Speonk Lumber, awaiting the driver’s return. No order was too small to deliver, as was proved by the many times a Speonk Lumber truck would make a run to Dune Road carrying a payload of a single gallon of paint or box of nails. Customers appreciated that level of service and soon the larger orders started coming in.
The 1980s and 1990s brought a period of strong growth, although the construction business was, as always, susceptible to cycles of boom and bust. Staff was increased, more trucks and equipment were purchased and Speonk finally entered the digital age with the addition of our first computer system. It came from TeleVideo, and while archaic by today’s standards, represented a huge leap in technology for the company. Another communications development was the fax machine, revolutionary technology in an era when the Internet and e-mail were still years away.
An outside sales team was assembled, beginning in 1982 with Grant Werner, our first outside salesman, who later stepped into the role of sales manager as the team grew, and is still with the company in the role of architectural representative and unofficial company historian.
Main-line products sold by the company then and to this day included Andersen and Marvin Windows, Simpson and Masonite Doors, Feldman and Consolidated Moldings, and many more. Speonk Lumber embraced the latest developments in building material technologies like steel and fiberglass exterior doors, engineered lumber, energy-efficient glazing and a host of other innovations that are now industry standards. Material handling equipment grew to include piggyback “spider” forklifts and boom trucks, designed to unload at jobsites quickly and efficiently, saving our customers time and money.
Soon it was time to think about expansion and the Smiths purchased the former Cor-Ace Lumber in Mastic Beach in 1985, renaming it Smitty’s Home Center. Mike Delvecchio, a Cor-Ace employee, came on board with Speonk as a member of our outside sales team. Five years later, in 1990, they purchased Norwich Lumber in Lisbon, CT which, coincidentally had also been originally founded in 1946, the same year as Speonk Lumber. Dave Camasi and Karl Knerr from our staff were re-located to eastern Connecticut to manage the Norwich location. Both are still there, helping the company to become a strong regional supplier. For a period of time we operated a sister business, South Shore Treated Lumber, on a parcel of land near the Speonk train station. It specialized in CCA treated lumber and was managed by Mike Shannon. With an eye toward centralization, we eventually combined that business with Speonk Lumber.
Other advances and developments included the creation of our website, which went live in 2002 and was completely updated in 2012, our monthly customer newsletter, The Speonk Spotlite, which debuted in October 2001, and the revival of our yearly builder trade show, once held at Brasby’s Restaurant in Aquebogue but discontinued when Brasby’s closed their doors. The building was later renovated and re-opened as Vineyard Caterers and our show was held there for a number of years. Speonk Lumber took a strong position in builder and architect education, holding regular seminars to offer a wide range of educational programs to the industry.
Through years of steady growth, Dennis and Christine brought the company into the new millennium, establishing Speonk Lumber as one of the pre-eminent suppliers in the region. When asked in 2012 to what he would attribute his success, Dennis simply replied, “Just showing up.” A simple response to a much deeper issue, indicating a revered and steadfast tradition, upheld day-in and day-out, year after year, of being there for our customers.
2007-present, Shane Smith Owner: Recession and selling lumber in the information age.
Dennis and Christine’s son, Shane (b. 1977) had essentially “grown up in the business,” starting at the bottom and working in every department. After high school, (Mercy, of course) Shane completed a B.S. degree in Building and Construction Technology from the University of Massachusetts. The stage was set for the next generation to take over, and in 2007, Shane took ownership of both Speonk Lumber and Norwich Lumber.
The transition could not have come for a tougher time for Shane. Our country was mired in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, construction had dried up to a trickle on the east end and nationwide, many lumberyards closed their doors and those that remained found themselves in a fierce battle to claim what little business was left. On top of it all, Shane and his wife Renee welcomed twin daughters into the world. Talk about sleepless nights! Speonk Lumber, under Shane’s guidance, instituted a program of belt-tightening measures and a series of cutbacks, doing so without any layoffs or sacrificing the high level of customer service for which they were known.
Shane also seized on the revolution in information technology; salesmen got smart phones, computer technology and in-house phone systems were updated as the company pushed ahead, determined to ride out the economic storm. Lumber and building materials sales is still in many ways a very old-school business, with salesman taking orders, yardmen loading trucks and drivers delivering to jobsites, much as it had been done for the past 100 years. Now in the IT age, we are able to track inventories, automate ordering, quickly produce computerized estimates and quotes, and utilize state-of-the-art communications technology to stay in touch with customers, vendors and staff. The establishment of our iNet program allowed customers 24/7 online access to their account information. We also added a Paperless Billing Option, designed to minimize paper, in an effort to do our part for the environment. Online shopping was added in 2012.
Long-time Andersen Windows dealers, Speonk Lumber became part of the Andersen Dealer Service Network, through which we provide Andersen service, performed by our own factory-trained technicians, shortening the wait time for customers who need field service. We were also established as an Andersen “A” Series Dealer, one of a select few on Long Island to offer the company’s line of premium windows and doors. Shane was quick to recognize advances in building material technology and moved quickly to establish the company as pre-eminent merchants of new products like PVC trim boards and moldings, composite and PVC decking and railing systems, next-generation fastening systems and much more.
Through the recent economic downturn and others like it in the past, Speonk Lumber has survived by putting customers first. It’s that simple. Styles change, fads come and go, and the Wilczewski brothers, Ed and Rush, would hardly recognize the place today. One thing they would recognize and remember quite well is the company’s commitment to customer service. That has never gone out of style.