Location: 918 S. River Park Drive in Guttenberg, Iowa
Employees: 20, including those at an Elkader, Iowa, location and Kuempel Hardware in Guttenberg
Hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to noon Saturday
GUTTENBERG, Iowa — Charlie Finch got his start in the family business 66 years ago.
“You name what has to be done in a lumberyard, and I’ve done it — twice,” he said.
Charlie is the third generation of his family associated with 114-year-old Meuser Lumber Co., of Guttenberg.
Charlie came out of the U.S. Navy in 1956 to join the company co-founded by his grandfather, Fred Friedlein. Charlie joined his father, Harold Finch, at the business.
“My father said, ‘Come down to the office tomorrow morning,’ but I said, ‘No, I’m going to work out in the yard. I want to take it from the ground up,’” Charlie said.
Charlie spent the next two-and-a-half days using a shovel to unload coal from a railcar.
These days, 88-year-old Charlie comes to the office every Saturday to assist with the firm’s books. His son, John Finch, owns and manages the business.
“We work hard at it, and we love what we do,” John Finch said of operating a lumberyard in a small community.
John, 63, became the fourth generation to work for the family business at an early age.
“I started working here when I was in grade school,” John said. “When I was 6 years old, I was over here and I fell off a truck. They told me to go home and come back when I was a little bit bigger.”
John did return and has been fully involved in the business since 1976.
“Lumber is definitely our main thing, but we’re also strong in plumbing and electrical (supplies),” John said.
Meuser is one of the two oldest businesses in Guttenberg, along with Kuempel Hardware, a 122-year-old business that John Finch purchased four years ago. Several blocks from the hardware store, the lumberyard takes up about 10 acres on the southern end of Guttenberg’s River Park Drive.
“From the chamber’s perspective, we’re very thankful to have (Meuser Lumber) here,” said Patty Schwarz, owner of Guttenberg Motel and president of Guttenberg Chamber of Commerce. “It’s really a special thing for the city of Guttenberg. It brings so many people into town.”
19th century origins
A sawmill began operating in the vicinity of the current Meuser Lumber site in 1854.
“My great-grandfather, Fred Friedlein, worked for the sawmill back in the late 1800s,” John said. “They saw that he had some aptitude, so they sent him to (business school in Dubuque). He graduated with the class of 1900.”
Two brothers, Joseph and William Meuser, launched the Guttenberg lumberyard in 1908, and Friedlein managed the yard while owning 10% of the company’s stock.
“Through the years, he gained more stock, and in about 1941, the Meusers sold their interest and my great-grandfather Friedlein owned it all,” John said. “It’s been fully in our family’s hands since 1941.”
Friedlein’s initial holdings in the 1940s included the lumberyard in Guttenberg and two smaller lumberyards in Garber, Iowa, and Garnavillo, Iowa.
Charlie Finch said one of his favorite stories from the company’s history concerned a reciprocal arrangement made during wartime. Friedlein had trouble acquiring lumber amid the shortages of World War II, so he made a pact with a traveling lumber salesman who sought a consumer good heavily rationed at the time.
“There was a creamery right across the street,” Charlie said. “This salesman asked, ‘Do you have anything to do with that creamery over there? Can you get butter? Can you get more butter than what you want?’ A lot of people (at the time) couldn’t buy butter.”
Friedlein reached out to the creamery, secured a steady supply of butter for the salesman, and in return found his lumber yard at the top of a list for obtaining building materials.
More than a lumberyard
Friedlein eventually passed the firm onto his son-in-law, Harold Finch, who was Charlie’s dad and John’s grandfather.
“That’s when it went from Friedlein to Finch,” John said.
The firm’s holdings also changed during the course of the past decades. The company sold the Garber lumberyard decades ago, then closed the Garnavillo yard last year and purchased a lumberyard in Elkader.
“So we still have two yards,” John said.
John said the scope of the company’s services always has extended beyond merely selling lumber but has evolved through time.
“We used to have a feed mill. That got destroyed by fire in the 1950s,” he said. “We harvested and sold ice. That’s something that a lot of yards did. We had a ready-mix plant from about 1955 to 1971.”
The company dealt in coal until 1979.
“The biggest thing you want to be is diversified,” John said. “We’ve (currently) got duct work for furnaces and air conditioners. We sell water heaters.”
Into the future
Schwarz said Meuser Lumber supports the Guttenberg community.
“I’ve worked with John on quite a few things,” Schwarz said. “They’ve always been very active in the community, including with our local Germanfest.”
On the business front, Meuser provides building supplies for customers across a wide swath of northeast Iowa.
“We do a lot of business between here and Sherrill (Iowa), along the Great River Road,” John said. “We go north to McGregor (Iowa) and also west. The last couple of years, while COVID has been going on, we’ve been extremely busy because of the low interest rates. It’s been a challenge getting materials, but there is an unending demand for people wanting to build houses.”
A fifth generation of the family, John’s son Alex, works at Meuser. His duties include using computer-aided design software to help customers craft building plans.
“It used to take me a week to draw up a set of plans, and he does it in a day,” Charlie said.