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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Everybody Has a Story: Working at the lumber store


I might be the last surviving employee, or among the last, who worked at the former Central Wood Products in downtown Vancouver. It was located where the New Seasons Market is about to open at 1506 Main St.

Our family arrived in Vancouver in 1951. I was 6 years old. My father, Jeff Nelson, got a job at Central Wood Products because of his years of experience managing lumberyards in the Midwest and Canada.

Central Wood Products took up the entire block on Main between 15th and 16th streets. Owned by James Hutton and his family, it was the “go to” full-service lumber and hardware store for midcentury Vancouver.

On most Saturdays during my years at Lincoln Elementary School, I would accompany my dad to work at Central Wood Products and walk across Main Street to the old Carnegie Library, built in 1909 (where the Clark County Historical Museum is today). This is where I met Eva Santee, a wonderful librarian, who helped improve my reading skills with books from the children’s section in the library basement.

As I got older, I would walk down Main Street to the Kiggins, Castle and Broadway theaters for Saturday cartoons and Flash Gordon matinees. I remember a beautiful mural of Lewis and Clark painted on the Kiggins ceiling. Unfortunately, it did not survive subsequent remodeling.

In 1960, when I started at Fort Vancouver High School, I got a part-time, Saturdays-and-summers job at Central Wood Products. My dad retired around this time, and I’m sure he was instrumental in getting me hired. I had a head start because I knew everything about the place from my Saturday visits.

This was a great job to have at my age because it taught me about responsibility, having respect for my customers and my boss, and the value of money. I began with menial tasks but soon was allowed to add others, like locking the doors and gates at closing. (Some of the locking mechanisms were quite dated, such as rolling gates with metal and wood drop bars, like those in forts and castles.) Later I was allowed to use the crosscut saw to cut lumber to length, and glass cutters for window glass.

Late one Friday afternoon in October 1962, 100 mph winds rolled into Vancouver, causing extensive damage. The Columbus Day storm caught everyone off guard. The wind felled trees, knocked out power and blew shingles off roofs in bunches.

I arrived at work on a Saturday amid all this chaos. A large crowd of customers gathered by the front entrance and extended halfway down the sidewalk. I knew right away they were seeking supplies for roof repairs. Power was off so we conducted business in natural daylight, using a manual cash register. Even though we limited each customer’s purchase, we were out of roofing material by noon.

My job lasted through high school and continued in summers through four years of college. I was asked to join the sales team and worked the cash register as a full-fledged salesperson. (After graduating from college, I became a music teacher in the Renton School District and taught for 33 years before returning to Vancouver in 2000.)

I remember going past the old Central Wood Products building after it closed in the early 1970s, and wondering what would become of this storied location. Now we know.

My generation always felt like Vancouver was the center of the known universe. It was a wonderful time to grow up here.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.