CHICAGO - Fred Beckman III and his younger brother Wasson have come a long
way since they first started sweeping the floors at their family's sawmill.
The brothers, ages 31 and 27, are the fourth generation of Beckmans to own
and operate Calumet Harbor Lumber Co., 13651 S. Buffalo Ave., the last sawmill
in a city that once boasted more than 100 such businesses.
At the age of 10, each young Beckman boy was given the duty of sweeping the
mill's floors. For four hours of work on Saturdays, the boys earned 10 cents
Each year, their duties became more important as the sons learned their
father's business, which he learned from his father. "We were right here every
summer, working," said Fred III.
The Beckmans are proud of their achievement. "Four generations, that's
rare," said Fred Beckman Jr., 57.
The company opened in 1922 as Hegewisch Lumber and Supply. In 1958, the
business added the sawmill to their operation as a way to add a competitive
"I could probably name 26 lumber yards that went out of business within a
5-mile radius of here," said Fred Jr.
Chicago was once the lumber capital of America, boasting more than 100
sawmills in the late 1800s as the state was "logged off" for farmland. But as
the lumber industry moved west, sawmills became an increasingly rare sight.
The Beckmans point to their relative freshness in the field as their secret
of success. The sawmill was added to the lumber yard in 1958, allowing the
company to make specialty cuts for their customers.
The Beckmans and staff can now make wood creations for their regular client,
Chicago artist Terry Karpowicz, as well as 4,000 xylophone keys from imported
They also contribute regularly to local construction projects, fashioning
support beams for a sagging structure, wooden mats to transfer heavy machinery
and stable "shoring" to hold back walls of dirt.
Over the years, the Beckmans have worked on the collapse of the Grant Park
parking garage, the Deep Tunnel project and the transfer of a 550-ton nuclear
reactor for the Bailly Generating Station in Porter, Ind.
Calumet Harbor Lumber generally uses logs brought in from a 100-mile radius,
Fred III said.
Its employees, however, have to be brought in from much farther away. Since
Chicago lost its prominence in the sawmill industry, there are fewer potential
employees in the area, Fred III said.
Dewayne Eaves, 24, came to Hegewisch from Kentucky, where he grew up in the
sawmill business. Eaves has worked in sawmills since the age of 16, learning
the trade from his family. "Everybody does this where I come from," he said.
He moved to Chicago three years ago, attracted by the better wages up north.
"There are very few sawyers in Chicago. We're forced to go and find them, as
opposed to them finding us," Fred III said, adding that the company often
advertises in the south, trying to lure people who have grown up in the
After eyeing each log carefully, Eaves operates the large blades of the
sawmill itself, squaring off each side of the log and sending smaller blades
through the prime areas of the wood.
He aims away from dark brown, rotten areas, attempting to maximize the cut
on each log.
The boards are then taken to the woodworking shop, where workers shape the
wood into whatever special appliance, structure or artistic creation their
client is seeking.
The sawmill tries to avoid waste, using bark and other bad cuts of wood as
shredded landscaping material. Some leftover wood is minced into sawdust and
sold as horse bedding.
Their projects are almost always specialty industrial projects, Wasson said.
"They're getting tougher and tougher. ... Every day, it's a new challenge," he
Wasson and Fred III both went to college at Purdue University in West
Lafayette, Ind. Wasson majored in building construction, and his older brother
pursued a degree in business.
"I admit, I was looking to wear a white collar and a tie after school," Fred
However, both were drawn back to the site of their childhood floor-sweeping,
where the standard uniform is a flannel shirt, jeans and boots.
The family business is still profitable, the brothers said, and they hope to
pass it down to the next generation of Beckmans.
"I would love to see that happen," said Fred Jr. "But these boys better
hurry up and get married."