60 Years of Cascade
60 Years of Cascade
Ever hear someone whip out the phrase, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” to describe a situation? When the situation is tenuous, you wonder what that phrase even means. But when it’s used properly, you have to just nod your head and smile. The 60-year history of Cascade Lumber Company is definitely one that exemplifies this sentiment.
On the southwestern edge of Dubuque County sits the small town of Cascade, Iowa (pop. 2,122). Only a few miles of cornfields separate it from Cedar Rapids to the west and Dubuque to the east; yet it has maintained its time-stood-still look and feel. According to the Census Bureau, there are 511 families in Cascade, but there are few of them that have made as big an impact on this community as the Noonan and Althoff families. To understand the effect one company and two families can make, it’s important to look first at the foundation of that company, its growth over the years, and the character of the people who worked and continue to work there.
Clan Noonan and…
The 1840s was a watershed decade for Ireland as it struggled through the potato famine – a tragedy of historical proportions. During this time, more than one million died and another million emigrated from Ireland to seek a better life; many to the United States. Among those fleeing their homeland were the ancestors of Ray Noonan Sr. They homesteaded in eastern Iowa, which, according to the 1872 census, was about as far west as the Irish settled during that time.
In 1947 after serving in the Navy during World War II, Ray Sr. and his new bride Mary moved from Chicago to Manchester, Iowa; near his ancestral homestead where his parents had recently retired. Not long after moving there, a friend suggested he look into getting into the lumber business. After all, it was one of the three basic human needs of food, shelter and clothing. It was a radical idea, however, particularly given Ray Sr.’s admission, “In the beginning, I didn’t know the difference between a sheet of drywall and a piece of plywood.”
With an entrepreneur’s spirit, and a strong relationship with his local bank, Ray Sr. and wife Mary opened Cascade Lumber Company on May 19, 1953. At his side were his first two employees, Harry Thomas who ran the business side of things, and Denny Leib who managed the daily yard operations. In starting his company, Ray Sr. adopted a unique approach. “He acted as a one-man sales team, traveling around the area to visit prospective, and eventually ongoing, customers,” says Mike Noonan, VP of Marketing. “He not only sold products, he also sold himself.”
As business grew, more good people came to work at Cascade Lumber. In the early 1960s a distant cousin, Bill Noonan, began his 30-year career with Cascade Lumber as the foreman of the construction crew. “He was a skilled carpenter and problem solver,” says Pat Noonan, VP of Manufacturing. It was not uncommon for Cascade’s high school students to spend their summers working with Bill on the crew, or at the lumber yard. Many of those who worked on the crew ended up choosing to make the construction industry a career.
As construction in the Cascade area boomed during the 1960s and 1970s, Ray Sr. introduced his four sons and daughter to the lumber business. “During summers and school breaks, we did everything from picking up the yard and straightening lumber piles to working in the shop or on the carpentry crew,” says Ray Noonan Jr., President. “It was good training for a life-long career in the business.”
Success Through Diversification
Ray Sr. was a hard-working, forward-thinking man. He opened his lumber yard on two acres of land on the east side of town just off the highway. Most construction materials (lumber, bagged cement, roofing materials, etc.) came by rail to distribution points in neighboring towns, since Cascade had no rail service. There were no forklifts at the time either, so unloading was all done by hand onto trucks and then transported to the yard. Often times, the load exceeded the truck’s capacity (for a good example, look at Parting Shots in the June/July Issue).
In the early years, Cascade Lumber Company built feed bunks, hay wagon racks and portable buildings in the driveway of the lumber yard and offered them for sale. At the same time, the construction crew was looking for ways of building projects more efficiently. Ray, Sr. had read about connecting lumber by means of split-rings and bolts, which opened a whole new chapter for the company. “In the early years, the trusses were assembled using split-rings and bolts in the driveway,” says Pat. “They were then disassembled, transported, and reassembled by the construction crew onsite. They were extremely popular for agricultural buildings, due to the wider, clear span dimensions that could be accomplished.” In addition, the lumber yard branched out into panelizing walls for building homes that Bill Noonan and his crew would erect.
In 1963, Cascade Manufacturing was established to handle the swiftly rising demand for componentized framing, with most of their customers being other retail lumber yards. “The engineering behind trusses advanced from split-rings and bolts to plywood, then on to flat sheet metal and eventually to today’s metal connector plate,” says Ray Jr. “As it did, Cascade’s manufacturing process had to grow and evolve.” As construction remained robust throughout the 1960s into the ‘70s, Cascade Lumber expanded into building design and estimating to meet the needs of contractors looking for a reliable source for home and agricultural plan design.
In the early 1960s, Cascade Lumber did something else considered revolutionary at the time; they sold hardware, paint and tools. While it is commonplace today, back then, those things were purchased at a hardware store, not a lumber yard!
In 1976, Mel Staner came to work at Cascade Lumber while a high school senior, drawing up building plans and providing estimates. “His high quality of work earned him the trust of local contractors,” says Mike, “and for the next 35 years, Mel has been the first choice of customers.” Mel was also an integral part of another business venture of Ray Sr. The Circle C Buildings division of Cascade Lumber focused on a complete building package for agricultural and commercial applications. Circle C Buildings were marketed and sold through an independent dealer network and provided expansion and growth for many years for Cascade Lumber.
During the 1970s, computer-aided truss design became the next area of focus at Cascade Manufacturing. In 1976, Ray Sr. hired Bill Weber to work in the truss plant. Bill may have started in the truss plant, but he soon moved inside to manage the fledgling truss design department. Today, Bill manages the truss tech department for Cascade Manufacturing and runs the engineered wood products division. “Over his 35 years with the company, he has become an expert on the development of truss design software,” said Ray Jr. “He often serves as a consultant to our plate supplier as they update their software.”
By 1979, Cascade Manufacturing had grown too big for its current home. A new facility was designed and constructed by employees. Its 90-foot width was touted at the time as the widest clear span post-framed structure in the Midwest.
During the 1980s, home construction began to go through a radical change, and Cascade Manufacturing changed with it. “While wide solid sawn wood joists had long been how floors were constructed,” says Pat, “man-made composite lumber I-joists promised an end to the twisting, splitting and bowing that plagued solid wood joists.” In addition, laminated veneer lumber (LVL) for use as garage headers and basement beams promised even greater strength than solid sawn lumber beams. Cascade accepted both products early on. In 1992, Cascade built a warehouse and distribution yard for these now popular products known now under the category of engineered wood products.
Cascade’s diversification continued in the 1990s as well. Alpine Engineered Products had developed a cold-formed steel truss product. “We embraced this concept as well,” says Mike. “We built our first steel project in 1998, assembled on wood truss production tables.” By 2002, the steel component division was so robust, an additional facility was acquired to handle production. Today, Cascade furnishes steel components to projects in many states; providing the company geographic and product diversity.
Today, several second and third generations of clan Noonan and Althoff are actively involved in operations at Cascade Lumber or one of its subsidiary companies. In addition to Ray Jr., Pat and Mike; second generation members John Althoff and wife Mary Beth (Noonan) Althoff are involved in accounting operations, while brother John Noonan works in sales and purchasing at the retail store. Additionally, quite a few third generation family members of both the Noonan and Althoff families have come to work at the business, giving the term “family business” a whole new meaning.
A Company of Character
While it is true that Cascade Lumber and Cascade Manufacturing succeeded and grew partly because of its diverse product offerings, fundamentally it had more to do with the character of the people who worked and continue to work there. Thanks to the principles Ray Sr. exhibited in the workplace and the stability Ray’s wife Mary provided at home, it is not so surprising the Noonan clan is a close-knit group of dedicated and passionate individuals. What is jaw-dropping is the number of individuals who have made working for Cascade their entire career.
It’s a culture that may have started with Ray Sr’s first employees, Thomas and Leib. Ray Menge was hired in 1954 to do deliveries, but switched over in the early ‘60s to work in the retail store and run Cascade’s flooring division for the next 40 years. Bob Takes started in 1956, and spent 52 years at the wheel of a delivery truck. “He used to fondly say that, in his career, he drove three million miles,” says Pat. “Two million miles going forward, and one million driving in reverse; delivering products in difficult jobsite conditions.”
Staner and Weber, as mentioned earlier, have stayed for over 35 years. Bill Then managed truss production for most of his 35-year career, until his untimely death in 2009. Roy McDonnell started on the carpentry crew in 1979. He moved into dispatch after a time and used his “best Irish diplomacy” to manage the realities of today’s dispatch office during his 30-year tenure. The impressive list continues with a litany of current employees hired in the ‘80s and ‘90s whose only excuse for not being there as long as those mentioned is the fact they haven’t been alive long enough yet.
A story that illustrates how much Cascade means to its employees, its customers and its community is from 1997. In the early morning on January 5, a fire swept through the wood truss plant and attached offices. “In a matter of only a few hours, the only thing left of the entire complex built up over 20 years was ash,” says Ray Jr. “It was a complete and potentially devastating loss.” Ray Sr.’s advice as he surveyed the devastation? “Keep going.”
“Local news stations covered the story extensively, helping to proactively get the word out to our customer base,” says Pat. “And our plate vendor, Lumbermate (eventually purchased by Alpine), worked with us to help facilitate replacement of machinery, computers and our computer network.” Even competitors lent a helping hand, allowing Cascade Manufacturing to lease their idle production time during evening shifts. The community also rallied around the company, with several local businesses chipping in to help in various ways.
Instead of creating a barrier, the fire actually motivated further growth. “The resulting reconstruction process and ‘keep going’ attitude became the mantra of our company as we rebuilt,” says Mike. A little less than a year after the fire, Cascade became a two-location company, purchasing the plant of a competitor in Eldridge, Iowa. They eventually built and opened a third location in Pleasantville, Iowa in 2005.
Over their 60 years of business, a lot has changed in the lumber and building material industry to keep up with changes in building construction methods and materials. Few have weathered these changes as well as Cascade Lumber Company. Through Ray Sr.’s forward-thinking commitment to embracing change and innovation, he acted as a pioneer and model for others to follow. It’s a lesson his descendants have learned. Through them, his vision of a company that “keeps going” no matter the challenge (think: recent economic past) is still alive and well. It’s a philosophy that has united their employee base to the point of radical loyalism, and has earned them the admiration and support of their community.
So while much has changed since Ray Noonan Sr. opened his doors in 1953, Cascade Lumber Company’s approach to meeting its customers’ evolving needs remains the same.