Sutherlands Building Material

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As one of America's first building supply stores, The Sutherland Lumber Company pioneered the "cash-and-carry" building material business and helped s.. read morehape the industry we all know today. Thank you for taking a few moments to read our proud history as told by Herman Sutherland, son of Mr. Robert Sutherland, Founder. In 1917 my grandfather, also named Robert Sutherland, died and left a small sum of life insurance to my father. My mother had some money given to her by her father, matching my father's inheritance. With that they formed a fifty-fifty partnership and built a lumberyard in Durant, Oklahoma. They sold materials for house patterns, or blueprints as we call them today. World War I had just begun to involve the United States. Commodities were in great demand to support the war effort. The developing farming communities in Southeast Oklahoma were prospering because the prices of cotton and food crops were stimulated by the war. New land after the Oklahoma land rush was being claimed for farms. Oklahoma had been backward in a depressed situation, but was catching up with the rest of the country. It had only been a state for eleven years, but was coming forward fast, and they were ready to take on the business that followed. Their partnership prospered and more yards were soon added: Hugo, Idabel, Ada, Norman, and Shawnee, Oklahoma. Around 1921 a big oil field was discovered very near to the town of Ada. This was the first big find in this area because most oil had been previously produced in Pennsylvania. The people in the Company and my parents knew nothing about oil fields, oil rigs, or oil boomtowns. It was all very new, but they quickly became aware of the tremendous increase in Ada's business and the profits from the yard in Ada, Oklahoma. Soon they learned about rig timbers, cement by the trainload, corrugated iron by the carload, and many items they had never dreamed of in the house pattern yards they had formerly operated. The Oklahoma oil boom was on. As they learned, it wasn’t long before they realized that all those new oil fields offered wonderful opportunities to anyone who had already learned about an oil field specialized lumber yard. And so for the next nine years their business concentrated on operating lumber yards near newly discovered and developing oil fields. They built their new lumberyards where the oil industry was just starting, and at the same time closing old yards where the oil field had petered out. The number of companies drilling the wells and developing the fields was limited. There were probably ten to fifteen principal oil producers, and they were all potential customers for us. Their offices were in Tulsa and later in Oklahoma City, Ponca City, Dallas, and later Houston. My father spent his time cultivating these few customers, and because of that, knew them well. He built new yards wherever they were opening new fields. Oil was soon discovered in Texas, Kansas and New Mexico. Once these fields developed, everyone moved to the new discovery: Barbers, police forces, paving contractors, roustabouts, drillers, lease brokers, tool dressers, restaurants, flop houses, and prostitutes, as well as lumber yards, all moved in a body to the new "find". The people in the little sleepy towns where oil was suddenly discovered didn't know what had hit them. By the time they woke up, the field had been developed and the wild people had gone on to the next field. It was a crazy time, a fascinating time, and never to be duplicated. Two things brought it to a halt. First, laws were passed which limited the amount of oil that could be taken from each well per month. Second, the great depression lowered oil prices to ten cents per barrel. This took the wild frenzy out of the "snatch, grab and get out" oil business that had been the tune for years. When the limits of the oil field were reached, comparative quiet and inactivity remained as each field had reached its potential. When the oil structure was all drilled out, there was no more business for the oil field yard. I remember my father saying once "We built 23 new yards this year and closed and moved out 15." Also, for the oil fields lumber dealers, their time came to an end when the oil rigs went to steel. Steel rigs could be used over and over again, which made them much cheaper than wooden rigs. So, in 1930 my mother and father were faced with finding a new kind of business. And it was not easy, because the Great Depression had started. They looked long and hard. Eventually, my father decided that the most stable part of the country would be where food was produced most efficiently. People had to eat, he reasoned. They could make do with several families to a house; they could make do with the old car; their clothes could be mended, but they had to eat every day. This led him to Iowa. He took the last dollar they had to their name and bought the old Randall Lumber yard in Des Moines. As they were stocking it, he noticed a great number of stock trucks bringing cattle and hogs to the stockyards. He reasoned that all those trucks meant dirt farm roads were being paved, and this was a whole new way for farmers to get their cattle and hogs to the stockyards. “Why not advertise to all those farmers?” he thought, by sending each of them a specifically addressed piece of mail. In that mailer, or “circular” as we called it, we showed the farmer we could give them the advantage of large volume, low prices, and as a bonus, they could haul lumber and building materials back to farms in those returning empty stock trucks. It worked! Father and Mother pulled another rabbit out of their hat. In 1932, I was in my second year of college. I was home for summer vacation, expecting to go back in the fall, when Father announced: “You are the oldest child. Our family finances are desperate, and we’re trying a brand new, precarious idea. The whole family's future is depending on its success! You aren’t going back to college but instead will work for the family business, because your help is now needed there more than any further education.” This was a shock. I was 19 years old, pretty well insulated from the realities of the times, and was enjoying school. But it was one of the luckiest things that ever happened. That plan allowed me to have nine years under my father's tutelage. On July 1st, 1932, I reported for work at the lumberyard we were preparing to open in Des Moines. This started a pattern of life for me that went on for several years. I would work in a lumberyard spring, summer and fall, and then spend my winters getting farmer's names for the mailing list. My father decided that our advertising circulars would get more attention if they were addressed with the farmer's name. The post offices had a rule prohibiting their employees from giving out these names. “So how are we to get them?” I asked my father, and he said, "That's your problem. Just go and figure out a way."
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