By Jessica Lovell
A Guelph institution is closing up shop after 107 years in business, but Knight Lumber Company’s owners hope to leave a lasting legacy in the neighbourhood that was home to the business for all those years.
“Change is hard for me and a tradition is important for me,” said Muffie Guthrie, who has run the lumber mill with help from her husband Jeff Brandmaier since her mother Lorna’s death in 2006.
In the wake of their recent decision to close the retail business, Guthrie said it is “really important” to her to see Raglan Street property become a community park that would retain some connection to the family-run business.
“We’d really like it to be a green space that would be the H.A. Knight Park,” she said, smiling as she listed some ideas for the space, such as a balance-beam and entrance archways constructed out of beams from the woodsheds.
Guthrie’s great-grandfather, John Knight, began the business in the early 20th century. It was later passed down to her grandfather, Harold Knight, who Guthrie remembers as always wearing a suit, tie and hat, and taking great pride in the business. “He was extremely proud of this,” she said.
It is clear that she too is proud, as she speaks highly of both her grandfather and her mother, Lorna Guthrie, who took over the business in the 1950s.
“I think it’s amazing that a woman started in the ’50s and ran a business,” said the younger Guthrie, describing her mother as both “tough” and “frightening.”
“When she was running it, there were a lot of men working here,” she said.
Muffie’s father, Hugh Guthrie, was also active in the business, though, he was a lawyer by profession.
“My dear friend Hugh Guthrie used to work every Saturday morning in the office taking orders,” said John Valeriote, a local lawyer whose woodworking pastime brought him to Knight Lumber.
“We discussed law and business and my lumber purchases,” he said, recalling sitting with his friend by the pot-bellied stove there.
“You’d sit there and reminisce and talk and it was like going into another age,” said Valeriote.
The business had five employees, one of whom has already found work elsewhere, said Brandmaier.
Several of the others will stay on for at least the next year, he said.
The business will not disappear entirely, said Brandmaier. The half-timber Raglan Street office building will remain, along with a small woodshop.
The focus of the business will be its rental real estate business. “We have a number of company-owned houses right around Knight Lumber,” said Brandmaier, explaining they plan to renovate the properties to bring them up to neighbourhood standards.
“It’s a neighbourhood that’s come up in recent years,” he said.
That is part of the reason that they believe the neighbourhood would like to see a park rather than another industrial tenant, he said.
However, the family does not own the property on which the warehouses and the mill sit. It is leased from the railroad, so being able to maintain it as a green space may depend on being able to buy the property, he said. Still, the land is leased to the company until May of 2013, so they will use that time to begin the process of converting it into a park, he said.
Demolition of the warehouses could start as early as next month, said Brandmaier. The process will be as green as possible, he said, speaking with enthusiasm about plans to allow Mennonites to reclaim all useful materials from the property – from belt-driven machinery to boards and beams.
“They just go nuts for five days and take out every useable piece of lumber that there is,” said Brandmaier.
When the warehouses are gone, the company will continue to provide lumber products to the equine community, things like horse jumps, horse fencing and tack boxes, he said. It’s a tie in to family’s hobby – horses, he said.
Horses have long been a love for the family. Recalling her grandfather, Muffie said, “he loved this business and he loved horses.”
Another important thing to the family, on both the Knight side and the Guthrie side, is giving to the community, which is why turning the site into a park is so important, said Brandmaier.
“One of the huge legacies of those two families is their record of community service,” he said. “My wife continues that tradition.”