Celebrating over 130 years of family ownership.
In 1880, Moses Smith, was a successful banker in Buffalo, New York. He met Charles Legg who was an ardent state and city promoter from Coldwater, Michigan. Charles was promoting investment opportunities in Michigan, especially in Coldwater. He recognized the opportunities created by the hard times following the Civil War and wanted to take advantage of them. As a lawyer of a growing Law Firm, who was to become Probate Judge, Circuit Judge and the Mayor of the City of Coldwater, he saw opportunities others hadn’t . He hoped that Moses’ Bank could find investors and bring money back to Michigan and Coldwater. Charles kept in contact with Moses and during their association, Moses was introduced to Charles’ sister and soon Mary Legg and Moses were married.
Life in Buffalo, while brief, was good for the young couple. Mary quickly became a Socialite and volunteered for many charities. Unfortunately, Buffalo was not Coldwater and she increasingly missed her family and friends. She pressed Moses to find a way to move her back to Coldwater.
Knowing that Mary was unhappy and ready to return to Coldwater, he suggested that Moses start a business in Coldwater. He said “Start a lumber business in Coldwater and bring Mary home.”
Moses decided to move to Coldwater and opened a lumber business specializing in hardwood and home building lumber. The Company was called Moses Smith Hardwood and Building Lumber. Moses sold directly to the new settlers and farmers. The building materials were delivered directly from Detroit. Delivery was always a problem because of the roads between Coldwater and Detroit were so bad. Charles thought that Moses should partner up with a local lumberyard and take advantage of their inventory. He suggested Z.T. Merrill Lumber, Lath and Shingles. Merrill owned the city’s main lumberyard. It had been in business since 1837 when Coldwater was a village and known as Lyons. The village’s founder, Allan Tibbets, sold Silas Holbrook the villages’ first two plats, #1 and #2, on the corner of Monroe and Pearl streets. Silas opened a dry goods and lumber store. The business changed hands over the years but had always been a lumberyard. The store burned to the ground in four successive fires between 1849 to 1853. The fires destroyed the city’s central business center each time. In 1853 a new law was passed that banned wooden structures in downtown Coldwater. In 1854 when Marsh & White, Dry Goods and Lumber Yard reopened their lumberyard, it was a two-story brick building. In 1860 it changed hands and became Snider & Keller, Dry Goods and Lumber. During the war it was David H. Sweet Grocery, Provisions, Fruit and Lumber. In 1873 Winfield McLane purchased the business and named it Winfield McLane, Lumber, Lath and Shingles. In 1879 Zachara T. Merrill purchased the business and was the current owner.
Moses negotiated a deal with Merrill where Moses would sell lumber for Merrill and get part of the business if he was successful. After a successful year, Moses merged his business into Z.T. Merrill Lumber, Lath, and Shingles and became a minority owner along with Z.T.’s son-in-law Elnathan D. Chapman. Moses targeted builders and large business customers in Northern Indiana and Coldwater Michigan and as a result Merrill Lumber’s business doubled.
Z.T. Merrill died unexpectedly making E. D. Chapman the major share holder of Z.T. Merrill Lumber. Chapman immediately changed the company name to E.D. Chapman Lumber, Lath and Shingles but continued to work with Moses. Although Z.T.’s death was a setback to Moses’ plan to own Z.T. Merrill Lumber outright, he was not deterred and later that year Moses bought Chapman’s interest in the business and took control of the lumber yard’s finances. Moses placed Chapman, Charles Legg, and his wife, Mary Legg, on the Board of Directors of the new company. Charles Practiced Law in the 2nd story offices and became the Mayor while Chapman continued to work in the lumber yard. Moses worked with builders and industrial customers and under his management, found new profitable business month after month. He ventured into products Merrill had never dreamed of. Chapman Lumber began selling lumber wholesale to other lumber yards. Moses recognized the benefits of newly introduced mass produced products that were being introduced into the building industry. He jumped at the opportunity to be the first to sell factory build items to his carpenter customers.
Moses hired young builders from the Coldwater area to work with his customers. These employees understood the business and knew how to help the customers get the right products for the house or barn they were building. Hiring employees was the key to Moses’ success. Another new young employee came on board about that time. It was his wife’s brother, Edward Legg. Edward started cleaning the yard and filling orders. He was to become a key employee and in 1897 he was pretty much running the business. In 1897, after many successful years, Elnathan Chapman retired. In 1889 Chapman Lumber was supplying most of the lumber to all of the projects in Coldwater. Almost all of the big homes and businesses being built in Coldwater had Chapman Lumber in them, that included a substantial home on East Chicago Street which was eventually known as the Moses Smith House.
One of Moses’ secrets to success beyond hiring qualified builders to work in the store was hiring Edward Legg. Edward had all the qualities he admired, down to earth and a hard worker who had grown up on the family farm. Edward had lumbered in the county, worked in the lumber yard for years, was a Captain in the Coldwater Army Reserve and had fought with Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish and American war. Edward was very sharp and a confident manager who helped Moses with the many difficult decisions running the lumber business. It was obvious that Edward was the best person to succeed Moses when he retired.
Moses had come to Coldwater at the right time. The economy had improved and the future looked bright. He was able to run and grow the business and contribute to the city while helping the city grow. Under Moses’ control E.D. Chapman Lumber flourished. Moses and Mary were happy and became involved citizens. They attended City and County functions, took pleasure in charitable activities and worked to help Coldwater meet the needs of its citizens. Mary occupied her time as a volunteer to many Coldwater charitable societies.
In 1901, after 17 years at the helm, Moses decided to step aside and arranged to sell his business to Edward and Charles Legg. After the purchase was complete, Charles continued to practiced law in the lumberyard’s 2nd story offices while Edward ran the lumber business. Edward changed the company name to Legg Lumber Company. Edward’s management of Legg Lumber was like that of Moses’. The company continued to grow and was getting stronger each year. Edward decided to start selling manufactured products such as factory build windows and doors from a company called Andersen. He continued running the wholesale lumber business selling to other lumber yards in county. Edward helped start a lumber yard in neighboring Quincy which was managed by Charles’ son Hal.
Edward’s son, Louis, began working in the lumberyard as a kid and learned the business from his father. After graduating from school he received a degree in design and worked for Aladin Homes in Bay City, Michigan. He learned about the burgeoning business of kit homes, where all the components were precut and numbered for assembly by the homeowner or builder. Home kits were shipped throughout the United States by rail. Kits could be bought from many different sources including Sears and Roebuck in Chicago, who had home plans and kits available in their catalog. In 1919, Louis served in the U.S. Army and went to France as a Lieutenant. After returning from the War, Louis saw that Florida’s population was booming. Land speculation was taking place and he expected a building shortage in the state. He wanted to be on the ground floor of the building boom and moved to Safety Harbor, Florida to start a lumber yard like his father’s.
Things went well for the first few years in Florida but when business declined in the mid-1920s, Louis was forced to streamline the business to survive. Florida was one of the first states to experience the downturn of the Great Depression and only through hard work and creativity was he able to keep his business alive. Seeing what was in store for the rest of the country, Louis returned to Michigan to help his father with his business. Together they streamlined the Legg Lumber Company and tried to turn adversity into opportunity. Louis commuted between Coldwater and Safety Harbor until he was able to sell Safety Harbor Lumber and concentrate all his attention on his father’s business.
Michigan and Indiana businesses suffered during the Great Depression and while those with resources survived, most businesses were forced to close. Believing recovery was just around the corner, Edward and Louis began purchasing struggling lumberyards. in 1933 they purchased lumber yards in Huntington and Marion Indiana. In Huntington, Louis started a home manufacturing facility at his yard where he began building agricultural and industrial building packages. In the late 1930s, they set their eyes on lumberyards in Michigan. They purchased lumberyards in Marshall and Albion in Southern Michigan and started a second manufacturing facility in Marshall which they named PermaBilt.
In 1948, Legg Lumber suffered it’s first major loss when the main store in Coldwater burned to the ground. The fire consumed the whole city block and damaged buildings from the flames which were hot enough to melt the windows of the Pratt Manufacturing Plant across the street. Louis decided to keep his business in Coldwater and rebuilt where the original store had once stood. He soon opened TrimBilt, a kitchen cabinet company to work with PermaBilt in Marshall. At one time, PermaBilt and TrimBilt were two of the larger employers in the city.
Louis’ son, Louis Jr. known as “Ned”, grew up in the lumberyard just as his father had done. He joined the family business after graduating from Michigan State University. Ned started developing land for subdivisions and began building homes for his father. In 1952, he purchased a lumberyard in the Lansing, Michigan area and opened a third home manufacturing facility at the new location. His plant, Pageant Homes, was different from PermaBilt in that it specialized in custom designed homes, all weather wood basements, and commercial buildings. Ned purchased another yard in Marion, Indiana, merged it with Marion Lumber and started another manufacturing plant there. Under Ned’s leadership, Legg Lumber provided “The Complete Package” to home builders. Through the family of companies, you could get a building site, a construction loan, complete home package, kitchen and bath cabinets, furnace, refrigerator, and a stove. When the homeowner finished construction, Legg arranged a final mortgage. Homeowners love it!
Ned’s sons, Louis III ‘Louie” and Thomas grew up in the lumberyard like their father and grandfather before him. Louie joined the family business out of college. Louie, like his father, developed land, built PermaBilt homes and purchased a lumberyard in Allegan, Michigan. In 1981, he encouraged his brother, Tom, to return to Michigan and help manage his new store. Tom worked in the family business, attained a law degree, and began practicing law. In 1990, Louie purchased a lumberyard in Battle Creek, Michigan. Ned and Louis relocated TrimBilt Kitchens to a new facility in Marshall while the manufacturing companies continued to build homes which were shipped throughout the Great Lakes Region and overseas.
Today, the flagship store is still located on the same land that Allan Tibbets incorporated as the city of Lyons. The lumberyard sits on plats #1 and #2 on the corner of Monroe and Pearl streets. It was a prime location for the lumber business back then and still is today. The lumberyard sits one block south of the Historic Old Sauk Trail or Chicago Road which was to become US12. The roadway provided travelers with a direct route from Detroit to Chicago, traversing Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Prior to the introduction of the interstate system in the 1940s, it was the most traveled roadway in the United States.
Today, as it was one hundred years ago, Southern Michigan, is a wonderful place to live. The citizens and businesses continue to thrive. Our agricultural and manufactured goods are shipped throughout the entire country and Branch County’s resort and tourism industry still brings vacationers from Detroit, Indianapolis and Chicago to summer along the many lakes and rivers of the county. Many of those early tourist made Branch County their home.
Legg Lumber has been family owned since 1884 and the yard has been in continuous operation since 1837 years, making it the oldest continuous operating lumberyard in Michigan. We are proud to be in Southern Michigan and part of the historic Coldwater community. Where the value of the original settlers can be seen today; hard work, trust, and a “stick to it” attitude that is as evident today as it was when the town was first settled. We look forward to being part of Coldwater for another 100 years.
View our video about our 130th Anniversary