Custer Cashway Lumber
Custer Cashway Lumber Company was a permanent fixture in Indiana for nearly a century, though the name changed several times, the same family owned it. The lumber store chain survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the racial tensions of the fifties and sixties; it was brought down for the last time in 2002, in one big bonfire.
The lumber store, which was started in 1907, by a man named Henry Ballard. This original lumber store, started in Amboy, Indiana, was called Ballard Lumber Company. In 1926, Henry’s daughter, Dorothy, married Bob Pence. Henry offered Bob Pence a job at Ballard Lumber Company; Pence accepted the job. Around this time the Ballard Family started vacationing on Yellow Creek Lake in Claypool, Indiana.
Bob Pence heard about a job opening at a Highland Lumber Yard, he applied and took the job. He held this job for a only about a year, before he moved onto a different job .
With the help of his father-in-law, he bought Custer Lumber Company on March 1, 1937. Pence paid 85,000 dollars for the goodwill and inventory of the lumber store. The “good” will they paid 1,500 dollars for turned out to be bad luck. The former owners of Custer Lumber Company had a bad reputation of taking out loans and not repaying them. Bob Pence said regarding the bad reputation of the former owners of the Custer Lumber Company, “I had to approach many of the wholesalers I had done business with in Amboy and Highland and ask them to trust us based on their previous experience with us, - not their experience with the former owners of Custer lumber Company.” The wholesalers agreed to extend Pence credit. In 1948 Dorothy’s Father, Henry, died. Bob Pence bought Ballard Lumber Company and operated it until it closed.
In 1954, Pence bought a 20 acre plot of land located on the south edge of Marion where a new lumber yard will be developed for 19,000 dollars. At this point in time, there were five Custer Cashway Lumber Yards open in Logansport, Peru, Marion, Kokomo, and Wabash. In the late fifties or early sixties Roberts son, Pete, started to slowly take over the lumberyard. It was a gradual process.
The Fire of 1968
In August 1968 there was a tragic fire at the Marion lumber yard store. In 1968 racial tensions were on high. People of color found it easy to dislike Caucasians; likewise, Caucasians found it easy to dislike people of color.
In the summer of 1968, Pete Pence’s son, Roger was fifteen. Roger had been around the lumber yard since he was about ten years old. On the weekend of the fire Pete Pence and his family took a weekend at the family lake house in Claypool, Indiana. Early in the morning Roger felt his father nudging him, telling him to wake up. Roger and his father left for Marion. They could see the orange glow from the fire ten miles away from the lumberyard, in La Fountaine. Roger writes “Pulling into the lumberyard parking lot was a depressing and scary experience."
The lumberyard was composed of a store building and several very large barn-like structures, large enough to hold several boxcars. Roger and his father, Pete, arrived at the lumberyard around 7:30 AM. By the time they arrived, every building except the store building was burnt to the ground. The steel roofing was on top of the cinders and debris. For the following days after the fire Pete, his brother Jim, and other employees were given special permission afterwards to watch over the lumberyards smoldering remains with guns (Roger Pence). There was a dramatic picture of the firefighters fighting the fire taken on that night.
The fire chief told his firefighters to keep the fire away from the store room where the important records, ledgers, files, and other contents from the safe were kept. While the firefighters were fighting the fire, Dorothy and Robert were in the store room removing the important documents. Dorothy writes “Since the worst of the fire was consuming the carpentry shop and bulk lumber sheds, we (I and Bob) were given permission to quickly enter the front show room and offices to remove as many ledgers, files, safe contents, and other important records as possible. The electricity had been shut of so we had to locate and gather things with flashlights,” about the fire.
Roger’s father and grandfather had both been the lumber business. Otis Scott had been the primary forklift operator for the lumberyard; he was responsible for the order of the piles of lumber, roofing, plywood and drywall. Otis was often known to keep an immaculate yard He had always heard it was a way of life and not just a job. In the days after the fire, Roger and a long time employee, Otis Scott, were walking through the charred remains. As he walked through the yard after the fire, he knew it would never be the same.
There was never any doubt that it was indeed arson that caused this fire. There was a telephone tip received later the day of the fire that “a lumberyard in Marion would burn. ”No group or person was ever formerly charged. The police at the time were fairly confident in their theory that it was an “out-of-towner.” They suspected a radical national organization known as the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers were a national militant organization of black men who were violently retaliating for racial injustices . It is unknown why the police suspected the Black Panthers.
Deaths and Closings
The lumberyard was rebuilt and life in the Pence family moved on. In the early 80’s Dorothy and Bob retired, giving their stock in the company to Pete and Jim. Pete Pence kept the business going until 2001 when he made the decision to close down the final two stores open, the Wabash and Marion store. Everything was sold, including desks, shelves and even the cash register (Isabel Pence). Pete Pence died on March 4, 2002. He went into the hospital and had several tests performed on January 9, 2002. He was released on the 11th of January. He was home until the 28th of February. On the night of February 28th he was rushed to Marion General, and airlifted to Parkview the same night. He passed away on March 4th. The viewing was on March 7th, and the funeral on March 8th.
In January 2004 the building Custer Cashway Lumber was once housed was once again torched by an act of arson. There was never anyone formerly prosecuted for this crime. This final act of arson was the final death blow to the family business that had survived three generations. It had lasted for nearly a century. Custer Cashway Lumber Company had an affect on Marion during all of its years open. After World War II the lumberyard hired newly released solders. It survived the Great Depression, a horrific arson, and the ups and downs of the economy.
Allie Pence is Roger Pence’s daughter, Pete Pence’s granddaughter, and Henry Guy Ballard’s great-granddaughter. Some of her earliest memories involve the Marion store of Custer Cashway Lumber, whether it was playing tag in the lumber barn, which frequently got her in trouble, or playing in her grandfather’s office. The lumber store has been a part of her life since she can remember. Pete Pence has instilled the values he held so dear to his own life: trust, honesty, hard work, and love, in his children and grandchildren. As this project progressed, it became less and less about a grade and more and more about preserving the legacy that Henry Ballard started in 1907, a legacy Allie is proud to claim.
- "Cause of Blaze Unknown At Business Closed Since 2001." Chronicle-Tribune 18 Jan. 2004.
- "Custers Closing Its Doors." Chronicle-Tribune 28 Apr. 2001.
- "More Than 250,000 in Damage Results." Chronicle-Tribune 20 Jan. 2004.
- N/A-. 1968 Lumber Yard Fire. Marion.
- "Officials Found Makeshift Home Near Biuldings." Chronicle-Tribune 23 Jan. 2004.
- Pence, Dorothy. Memories of Dorothy Ballard Pence. Marion, 1998.
- Pence, Robert B. Some Memories of Robert B Pence. Marion, 1993. 13.
- Pence, Roger B. E-Mail interview. 21 Mar. 2007.
- "Pete Pence- Obituary." Editorial. Chronicle-Tribune 6 Mar. 2002.
- "Pete Pence." Editorial. Chronicle-Tribune 2 Mar. 2002.
This paper was written for Bill Munns' IU ACP US history class by Allie Pence with the help of her grandmother, Isabel Pence.