SOUTH BETHLEHEM — Heeter Lumber’s store in South Bethlehem has been a community mainstay since 1959 and since 1918 in two other towns, weathering the ups and downs of the local economy. Now owned and operated by the fourth generation of the Heeter family, there is a tradition of thriving and surviving no matter what happens in the outside world.
“Even during the 2008 housing crisis and the following years, we kept up a steady business,” Tim Heeter, owner and operator of the store, said. “We appreciate our very loyal customers.”
In an age of big discount hardware stores selling prepackaged screws and nails, contractors and do-it-yourselfers seeking out high-quality merchandise patronize stores such as Heeter’s. Nails are still sold by the pound, loose screws bought singly or by the dozen, and most are still made of American steel.
Anything needed for building and repairing a building can be found at the South Bethlehem location, along with the two older stores in Rimersburg and Sligo that pre-date it by several decades. Redi-Mix concrete became a lucrative sideline in the 1960s, but the focus has always been on lumber.
HC and Miles Heeter founded the family business in the late 1800s when they built a boat scaffold on the banks of the Allegheny River near Callensburg. There they constructed lumber barges that were floated down the river to Pittsburgh by tough creek pilots. Lumbermen crewing the barges made the journey home on foot before the advent of the railroad.
“There were creek pilots and then there were river pilots,” Heeter said. “The creek pilots were the ones who navigated the smaller streams and the Clarion River. River pilots took their boats out into the Allegheny, Ohio and the Mississippi.”
The founding brothers eventually built a planing mill near Callensburg, reducing rough-cut logs to usable lumber prized by builders as Clarion County went through its first building boom. Lumberyards soon followed in Sligo in 1918 and in Rimersburg shortly thereafter.
“My family still tells stories about the early days,” Heeter said. “We have all these newspaper clippings and photos that we need to pull together and preserve.”
One of his favorite tales is about his great-grandfather who bought one of the first Model T Fords in Piney Township.
“Some guys bet him that he could not drive his car up a steep hill in the area,” Heeter said. “They kept waiting for him, and eventually he made it. He had removed the body of the car to reduce the weight to make it to the top.”
It was that kind of ingenuity and foresight that allowed the company to grow through the years. Expanding the business to include pre-mixed concrete delivered to job sites was an inspired move in the 1960s when families were building bigger homes to accommodate their growing broods of Baby Boomers.
In the same era, the interstate highway system was being built mile by mile, served by an assortment of ramps and access roads. Redi-Mix concrete trucks thundered down the short hill between the Heeter facility and Route 28/66 on most summer days in the 1960s and 1970s.
The thunder, roar and grind of cement trucks is very subdued in 2019. Nevertheless, Heeter Lumber is still quietly meeting the needs of area residents throughout the year. With the advent of warm weather, the activity picks up considerably.
Tim Heeter describes himself as being the vice president, secretary and treasurer of the three-store chain, while his brother, Troy, serves as president. Each is involved in a hands-on way, often running a cash register or helping a customer.
“We are only open from 7:30 a.m. to noon on Saturdays,” Heeter said. “It gets pretty hectic even if it is raining outside.
The rest of the week, the store is open from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.
“We still do a good lumber business,” Heeter said, “in addition to all the household and garden tools we carry. It can get pretty busy in here at any time.”
That says a lot for a family-owned business founded on giving the customer quality and personal service.