In the early 1900s, Claude Gray graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Law and moved, along with his wife, Cora Frances Oeder, to Tacoma.
Lumber had emerged as the city’s leading export, and sawmill employees were tirelessly working day and night. In fact, Tacoma had become known in many circles as the lumber capital of the world.
No longer was Gray interested in a law career, nor did he have a desire to return to the newspaper business he had once dabbled in. Now, Gray’s sights were set on the lumber industry.
When he arrived in town, Gray jumped into the action and began working at several mills, including the Old Tacoma Mill, and sold wagons of lumber to farmers in the Puyallup Valley. It wasn’t long, however, before he went to work for himself.
In 1903, Gray opened the Independent Lumber and Fuel Company, known today as Gray Lumber, in a small lean-to nestled on South M Street. According to the company, the new yard was quite efficient for its time, using the facilities of the Tacoma Eastern Railway and the Tacoma Railway and Power Company, along with its own switch track and trestle with coal bunkers, and a large saw. Coal, cut slab wood, lumber, hardware, paint, and glass were made available for purchase.
Business was good, and between 1905 and 1910, the company added a handful of locations in Tacoma and opened a lumber mill and shingle mill in the Midland area. Gray would soon discover that more changes lie ahead.
In 1912, fires devastated the Midland-area mills, and they were never rebuilt. In 1928, the company exited the fuel business and would further scale back its operations by eventually shedding many of its locations. It wasn’t long before just the South M Street yard and Sixth Avenue yard remained. But the story proved far from over.
Over a period of nearly 70 years, the Independent Lumber Company operated two cabinet shops and a wooden box factory, and constructed more than 500 new homes in the Tacoma area. It also supplied the planks used to lay the original roadbed for Sixth Avenue from Jackson Avenue to Titlow Beach.
In 1985, brothers and third-generation owners Neil “Mac” Gray and Steve Gray bought the business from their father. They continue to be closely involved in the leadership and direction of the company. Now, a fourth generation is on the rise and among the 60 employees at Gray Lumber.
Still thriving after 115-plus years, Gray Lumber today deals in wholesale and retail building products. The company attributes much of its long-standing success to such core values as honesty, integrity, quality service and products, and dependability, as well as its commitment and support of the community it has served for so many years.
“Why are we successful? Those core principles that have been passed down since 1903,” said Blake Fransen, marketing coordinator and a fourth-generation family member. “We do things the Gray Lumber way. They definitely are unique, but that’s what kept us alive. It carried us through the Great Depression and it carried us through our most recent [Great Recession].
“From top to bottom, the level of service you get here at Gray Lumber (differentiates us),” he continued. “You are going to have salesmen with easily an average of over 25 years in the industry, so they know what they’re talking about. Then you get down to our sales counter, and everybody is happy to share their wealth of knowledge with every customer and help them walk through their project. Then you get out into our yard … and you aren’t walking around like (at) a big-box store with a cart. We load to you with our forklifts.”
Obviously, the industry and the region have undergone significant change since Gray established the business in 1903. But given the company’s impressive endurance and unwavering commitment to both family and customers alike, one can easily imagine just how proud founder Claude Gray would be.