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Retrospect: Charles Zimmermann held the reins at Sussex Lumber for 42 years

Posted: April 2, 2008

Sussex Village Historian

Sussex Lumber went by many names between its beginnings in 1886 as Sherry Lumber Co. and its demolition on Sept. 13, 2004.

The owner of the land that the lumberyard was built on was William Graeves, who had bought the land from a couple who marked the abstract papers that acknowledged the purchase with X's because they could not read or write.

Graeves split off a portion of the property in 1885 for the incoming Wisconsin Central Railroad's right-of-way and sold it to the Connell brothers, Richard, James and Thomas.

They then resold it to Sherry, Welton and Co., a major lumber baron from Neenah in the Fox River Valley, which also owned other lumber operations in Mannville, Aniwa and Vesper.

Prospects for the Lisbon lumber business, and its attached coalyard, looked good in 1886 because the Wisconsin Central Railroad was extending its tracks to the area.

One of the company's principals, William Paddock, died suddenly in 1891, however, and the new Lisbon lumber business never recovered. It went into receivership Nov. 17, 1897, and was taken over in 1900 by Allan Lumber Co. The Caldwell and Gates Lumber Co. bought the operation in 1911.

The lumber barons were not the only ones looking at the opportunities created by the railroad's plans, which included a crossing in what was then known as east Sussex, just one mile east of Sussex's center at the four-corners intersection of Maple and Main streets.

Sussex powerhouse James Templeton, village postmaster and general store owner, saw them, too, and transferred both those operations plus a grain elevator and mill to the planned crossing, naming the new community that grew around it Templeton. (Templeton disappeared in 1924 when Sussex incorporated, including the smaller community as the eastern wedge of the new village.)

Meanwhile, the lumber operation changed hands again. Fuller Goodman Lumber Co. took the reins in 1926 and pulled the operation through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the start of the Vietnam War - 36 years, the longest run until then for any one owner.

In 1962, a former local farmboy, Charles Zimmermann, bought the old lumber firm.

Zimmermann was raised on a farm on Town Line Road in Menomonee Falls directly across the street from where Hamilton High School stands today and attended Willow Spring School.

He married Sussex girl Shirley Schlei while he was still in basic training before being shipped to Germany in the U.S. Army of Occupation.

He worked as a carpenter when he returned and joined the Sussex Fire Department, serving 33 years, including seven as chief. He was also a longtime Sussex Lions Club member and served for a while as commander of the Sussex VFW post.

When Zimmermann took over the business in 1962, he changed the name to Sussex Lumber and Building Center, but it eventually came to be known as the Sussex Do-It Center.

Back in 1962, the company was still operating out of its original office sales building (with attached living quarters), but he replaced the entire structure in 1971.

In the lumber operation's 122-year history, probably its greatest day was Oct. 31, 1992, when it appeared on national TV as a whistle-stop for President George H.W. Bush's unsuccessful re-election campaign. The event attracted about 20,000 people.

As the 21st century rolled in, Zimmermann put the lumber company up for sale, but he couldn't find a buyer at first. Ultimately, he had to split the property, with the back acres sold to a storage business and the front parcel, where the lumberyard had stood, sold to the owner of Seigo's Japanese Steak House, which tore down the old Do-It Center to make way for the new upscale restaurant.

The March 2004 closure of Sussex Do-it Center marked the 74-year-old Zimmermann's 42nd year as its owner, the longest span of any of the lumber operation's proprietors.

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