GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — Sawdust slowly fell through the air and lightly coated everything in the Hedstrom Lumber Co.’s mill last week — appearing much more like snow than wood shavings — while about a dozen staff members worked to produce lumber.

The lumber mill’s former president, Howard Hedstrom, walked among the loud machinery and cheerfully greeted staff. After quick “hellos,” workers returned to their jobs of monitoring lumber production, sharpening saw blades, sorting wood by species and aligning lumber under laser lights for measurement.

The Hedstrom Lumber Co. is more than 100 years old and is now in its fourth generation of family ownership after Hedstrom, 71, retired earlier this fall.

Photo gallery: Fourth generation now running Hedstrom Lumber

A group of family and non-family members say they’re well-prepared and eager to take over leading the Grand Marais lumber mill, which processes about 1,200 logs daily for nationwide distribution. Although the mill is losing Hedstrom, the rest of the lumber industry is also losing a major advocate.

The Hedstrom Lumber Co. is one of the last fourth-generation family-owned lumber mills in Minnesota. It’s a title that mill staff proudly wear — and is one that likely won’t change anytime soon.

Tina Hegg Raway is vice president of finance at Hedstrom Lumber Co. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Tina Hegg Raway is vice president of finance at Hedstrom Lumber Co. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“Howard had a pretty huge legacy here … and he is responsible for so much of what was built here and so much of our reach within the industry,” said Tina Hegg Raway, vice president of finance. “(Now) we all have a lot of hats to wear in the company.”

The lumber mill is tucked in the forest along the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais, a North Shore community of just over 1,300 people. Towering stacks of lumber and logs, a hot kiln building to dry wood, a mill building where the wood is de-barked and sawed, an office and more fill Hedstrom’s 30-acre site.

Howard Hedstrom’s grandfather Andrew Hedstrom, who founded Hedstrom Lumber Company in 1914. (Photo courtesy of Howard Hedstrom)
Howard Hedstrom’s grandfather Andrew Hedstrom, who founded Hedstrom Lumber Company in 1914. (Photo courtesy of Howard Hedstrom)

Howard Hedstrom’s grandfather, Andrew Hedstrom, started the mill in 1914 after emigrating to the U.S. from Sweden. It has been in the family ever since, during which it endured fires, major technology changes and numerous economic crises.

The mill isn’t the only entity affected by his retirement. The entire lumber industry will feel the impact as Hedstrom steps back from numerous boards and advocacy work, “which is really a shame," Hegg Raway said.

Howard Hedstrom, left, visits with Mike Spangle in the trimming area of the Hedstrom Lumber Company sawmill. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Howard Hedstrom, left, visits with Mike Spangle in the trimming area of the Hedstrom Lumber Company sawmill. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Chris Hegg, the new president, said Hedstrom advocated for lumber harvesting when the government would consider burning forests to manage growth. He also lobbied to fully fund the U.S. Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, ensuring they could proceed with harvesting.

These effects were at both the state and federal level, Hegg said. “We're one of the smaller operations in the country on a big scale. And yet, he was one of the more influential people in the industry, which was always a bit of an irony to the rest of us,” he said.

A semi truck loaded with sawlogs drives past the Hedstrom Lumber sign along the Gunflint Trail. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A semi truck loaded with sawlogs drives past the Hedstrom Lumber sign along the Gunflint Trail. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Industry challenges lie ahead; staff hopeful

The mill’s new leaders say they’re ready to lead the company without Hedstrom, but they know they face challenges in the industry.

One of these, said Hegg Raway, is the North Shore’s economy. She cited housing, employee and day care shortages, low wages and unaffordable lifestyles.

She said 70% of employees who left the mill in the past three years left the area.

Kelly Swearingen scales a load of sawlogs at Hedstrom Lumber. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Kelly Swearingen scales a load of sawlogs at Hedstrom Lumber. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“Most of the businesses up here are running a very thin margin — and that includes us, too. We're basically a break-even business that supports 40 people directly and several hundred people indirectly. So we just want to do what we've been doing and stay afloat,” she said. “This isn't a place to get rich.”

Hedstrom sees another problem: the housing construction industry.

Low housing starts — or the number of housing projects that start in a given time frame — are decreasing. This trend has affected Hedstrom, as lumber is crucial for building houses.

Even with some challenges ahead, Hedstrom and the new team all agree that wood products have a great future.

About 80% of its lumber comes from public land, Hegg said. “As long as they're still supplying it, and as long as we have a very strong management team and a decent workforce, we can always sell the lumber we make — as long as we get enough of it in the right price,” Hegg said.