Mark Headlee is officially retired from Wayne Lumber Co. in West Waynesburg – he and brother Joe sold the family business in 2018 – but you might still run into him when you stop by to get that certain something you need for a project.
The workday starts early – by 9 a.m. when I get there, nearly every parking space in front of the store is filled with trucks as contractors, builders and home handymen shop from shelves stretching in every direction around the checkout counter that forms an island in the center of the store. Everything you need to build, paint or piece together and fasten with clamps, fittings, screws and nails can be found here. Need a posthole digger? A new Mr. Heater? Trim board? Work gloves? Want to get a deck or addition built? You’ve come to the right place.
“Well, I drive by here every time I come to town, so I usually stop in,” Headlee admits, grinning. “I don’t miss going to work every day, but I miss the people, the customers. I’ve known some for 50 years. When I was in fourth or fifth grade I’d come here after school and push a broom or stay around and go home with dad. We lived across the street beside Sophie Albert’s store. This is like home to me.”
Retirement is good – he and Joe now have time to travel. But this morning he’s happy to be leaning on the counter he worked behind for more than 40 years, listening to a salesman pitch a new product to new owner Ryan Mooney.
Quality products are what this family-owned business has been supplying neighbors and local businesses for more than 70 years. When Ryan Mooney and wife Greta took ownership in August 2018, the workforce stayed and so did Mark and Joe’s sister, Debbie Headlee Johnson, in the office. And so did those quality products, sold under the ACE Hardware banner since 1986, with many chosen from hand-picked sources that have earned the Headlee family and now the Mooney family seal of approval.
The wood stored in the numerous outbuildings is a good example of what that quality looks like – straight two-by-fours, knot-free boards and smooth sheets of plywood. Wayne Lumbers buys western fir, a more stable wood – it grows in a drier climate, Mark tells me. “We can get Douglas fir on custom order.”
Like generations of Headlees before him, Mark knows his wood and the tools of the construction trade. And so, it would seem, do the Mooneys.
When Ephriam Headlee and William Mooney arrived in the mid-1700s, fields were cleared with axes; timbers were shaped by adzes and used for building houses, barns and fences. These were the skills passed down father to son, along with the tradition of neighbors helping neighbors and being as good as your word. Farmers had to make what they needed, and sweat equity was the coinage of the frontier.
First settlers along the big creeks that feed into the Monongahela and Ohio rivers took advantage of this natural force to build grist and saw mills to grind grain and cut timber into lumber for themselves and their neighbors. By the mid-1800s, second- and third-generation sons were starting farms of their own. Some Mooney descendants settled in to raise sheep and cattle along the road that still bears their name above Spraggs. Mark’s side of the Headlee family farmed hundreds of acres near Garards Fort. When motor-driven tractors arrived, their engines and drive shafts spawned a new generation of on-the-go sawmills, cutting timber for local builders and later, planks and cribbing for the coal and gas industries.
Mark’s uncle Russell was born on the family farm in 1907, the oldest of seven sons. His father had a sawmill, and the boys grew up cutting wood for lumber and fencing. Russell was already a teacher and part-time sawyer in 1928 when he built his young family a home in Garards Fort with his own portable mill. Two of his brothers were also teachers, but the top pay of $90 a month was hardly enough to raise a family. The money to be made from making lumber became a family venture.
When World War II broke out, the younger Headlees, including Mark’s dad, Shirl, enlisted, and older men in the community took their place at Russell’s mill making timber for ships and mats for the Merchant Marines. In 1945, Uncle Russell bought two farms straddling the Monongahela and Greene Township line, put his mill on a permanent foundation and began building housing for returning veterans. The next year, brother Kenneth started Headlee Lumber Co. in West Point Marion.
Kenneth sold his share of the business in 1947 when Shirl got home from serving as an Army Air Corps flight instructor in Nevada. Together they started Wayne Lumber in West Waynesburg in an old feed store in front of the stockyard. They had enough pooled resources “to buy a railroad car of lumber,” Mark says.
The brothers bought the lot next door and in 1951 built a store modeled after a lumberyard they admired near Washington – 60 feet long, 40 feet wide and the whole front was glass windows. Additions were made, including a new roof over the original flat roof. More storage sheds were built as inventory grew.
“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, lumber came on railroad cars from the West Coast. We had three days to unload, and that was as much wood as three tractor-trailers – we sometimes worked all night,” Mark remembers. “You can still see the old tracks – you run across them when you drive in.”
Shirl bought out Kenneth in 1960, and by the 1970s Mark and Joe were onboard. Computers arrived in the 1980s, along with the ACE Hardware distribution rights. When Ryan Mooney graduated West Greene High School in 1992, shopping at Wayne Lumber was a family tradition.
Jim and Dorothy Walker Mooney left Mooney Ridge as newlyweds and moved to the ridge above Nineveh in 1946 to become dairy farmers. “We had free gas but no electricity, and we sold the cream to Bryans Dairy in Waynesburg,” Dorothy, a sharp-witted 94, tells me. “When Jim went to work for PennDOT, he needed a phone, so they put in a farmers line” that was maintained by Jim.
When Wayne Lumber opened, the Mooneys shopped there. “I remember Jim yelling to Jim Jr. ‘Just go to Wayne Lumber and charge it!’ We believe in supporting the county.”
So what about grandson Ryan?
“He’s a good kid! Always helping out.”
Ryan grew up on one of the two adjacent farms the family purchased later, grew up doing the work that needed done as the family switched to raising beef. He showed Ayrshire cattle while in 4-H and headed off to work after graduation. Ryan laughs when I ask him about college. “When you go for a job and tell them you were raised on a farm, you get hired!”
We’re sitting in the little kitchen vestibule between the store and the office as Ryan ticks off the places he got his graduate degree in hands-on learning – “West Penn Wire, John Wall plastics plant, extrusion, worked for Alfred Burns doing environmental work for stream mitigation. I shopped here a lot when I was working those other jobs.”
He and Greta Burns married in 1998, have a beef farm in Wind Ridge and two kids, Morgan, 15, and Wyatt, 12. As we talk, Ryan is multitasking – an employee brings over a handful of fittings and they discuss how to make the hookup work for a customer. “If we don’t have the part, we’ll have to call around and see who does.”
Greta comes out of the office. What to get for lunch? “Call and find out what 5 Kidz Candy has.” He turns to me. “I tell people why get fast food when you can get homemade food in town?”
Mark is getting ready to go – he’s heading out for a few weeks, and I was lucky to catch him. He takes a last look back, to the fire of 1990 when June lightning struck the wiring on the front trim and the roof went up in flames. The old tarred roof underneath saved the business – firemen were able to punch a hole through the new roof and “put it out just like that. We started tearing the burn off, Joe ordered trusses and half of Waynesburg turned out to help us.”
Then there was the flood of 2004 that brought “two feet of water in the store, and hundreds of people were helping us clean and carry out. Church groups came, and I finally had to tell people there wasn’t room for more. ”
So how did you end up selling to Ryan Mooney?
One last grin. “We were out back loading treated lumber and Ryan said to me, ‘Are you going to stay or leave?’ Joe and I had been going back and forth all year trying to talk ourselves into it. Ryan said, ‘Would you be interested in selling?’ So he went home and talked to Greta and I talked to Joe, and we had a meeting and ... we got along with them.”
By the looks of things, the customers – including me! – are getting along with them, too.