After more than a century of ups and downs, Miner & Alexander leaves void as it closes for good
The Miner & Alexander Lumber Co., a longtime fixture in New London's Fort Trumbull neighborhood, is closing its doors. Squeezed by growing competition from big-box brands like Lowe's and Home Depot, New London's last remaining lumberyard has been winding down operations and selling off its stock over the past several weeks, said Robert Wildes Jr., the company's treasurer.
The owners will likely put the property at Howard and Hamilton streets, adjacent to Shaw's Cove, on the market, Wildes said. More than a half-dozen aging buildings, including at least one of historical note, remain on the site.
“This place is kind of a dinosaur these days,” Wildes said in recent interviews at the nearly deserted yard. “The handwriting was on the wall.”
Miner & Alexander sits on two parcels on either side of Hamilton Street that are envisioned for development by the New London Development Corp. NLDC President Michael Joplin said his agency doesn't have the cash to buy the roughly 31/2 acres of land, but noted that developers have been making inquiries.
“We've shown the property three times in the past four months,” Joplin said. “No one's actually put in a bid, but there are things on the docket that are being talked about. There has been interest.”
Meantime, area contractors are mourning the loss of a lumberyard they
say offered expert service and competitive prices on a range of supplies and materials that couldn't always be found elsewhere. Harry Mantzaris, of Yankee Remodeler of New London, estimates that Miner & Alexander's closure will increase the construction company's costs by between $20,000 and $40,000 annually.
“More importantly, we've lost the rhythm that you develop over the years,” he said. “Everybody knows what everybody needs, it's almost second nature. We were all playing the same tune.”
•••••The company that for years was one of the area's largest lumberyards had humble beginnings. Levi Q. Raymond founded the business in 1911, hawking lumber, window sash and doors on a vacant lot between Moore Avenue and Shaw Street, according to early press accounts.
The business took hold and Raymond & Alexander Lumber Co. was formed in 1914. Soon after, the company bought the Hopson and Chapin Manufacturing Co. foundry on the south side of Hamilton Street along with additional land across Hamilton along the cove.
“Much money” was invested to fill in waterfront and to build an office, warehouses, new wharves and a railroad spur, The Day reported in 1931.
But the Great Depression would take a heavy toll on the construction industry, and the lumberyard was forced to seek bankruptcy protection around 1937. For a while, its main lumber shed was home to a boxing arena, said New London attorney William Miner Jr., whose father was one of three local men who purchased the business in 1939.
Miner worked summers there in the 1940s and '50s. “It was the biggest lumberyard in southeastern Connecticut in terms of volume,” he said, serving customers from New London, Waterford, Groton and Ledyard and other surrounding communities.
Lumber, cement, lime, sewer pipe and other supplies were brought in by rail and unloaded by hand. There were no forklifts in those days.
“It was quite a different way of doing business,” Miner said. “A lot of man-hours.”
Steven Pearson, who has worked at Miner & Alexander on and off since 1971, remembers Saturday mornings when local homeowners would line up before the gates opened to buy supplies for their weekend chores.
“It was straight-out busy, every single day, 51/2 days a week,” he recalled.
Pearson was one of three employees who remained as the company's business wound down this summer. At its peak, the lumberyard employed about 22 people, said Wildes, the current treasurer.
The business changed hands again in 1963 when Robert Wildes Sr., of New London, and two other employees — Henry J. Maynard Jr. of Waterford and Lionel F. Ackerman of Groton — purchased it from William Miner Sr.
•••••Business began to slow for Miner & Alexander in the mid-1990s, as more lumberyards sprouted up in surrounding towns and retailers like Home Depot lured away younger customers with elaborate marketing campaigns. Today, Wildes figures there are about 18 actual or proposed competitors within a 50-mile radius.
“It's hard for a lumberyard to compete with the big stores,” said Miner, the New London attorney. “The average customer wants to go somewhere that advertises a lot. ”
In 2000, the city and NLDC proposed changes to the Fort Trumbull neighborhood that were designed to give New London a much-needed economic shot-in-the-arm. The Miner & Alexander parcels were part of the plan, and Wildes said his father was not opposed to selling.
The company watched and waited as the NLDC's proposals for the neighborhood were caught up in costly, long-running litigation. The parcels were never purchased, and now the agency is strapped for cash. “We're not going to contend to buy it,” Joplin said this week.
Whoever does buy it will likely have to follow the NLDC's municipal development plan, which is generally consistent with New London's existing zoning regulations for those parcels. That means marine-oriented business on the north side of Hamilton Street, where the property abuts Shaw's Cove.
On the south side of Hamilton, the development plan suggests office or research and development uses, with the possibility of some retail space.
Meanwhile, longtime customers are adjusting to the loss of the lumberyard. Mantzaris, of Yankee Remodeler, says he's pushing new suppliers — with some success — to increase their services and inventories. Still, he said, Miner & Alexander will be sorely missed.
“Tremendous company,” he said. “Tremendous loss.”