Duncan Box & Lumber Co. (1895-2015)
The Duncan Box & Lumber Company was one of the earliest businesses in what is now Old Central City. The company was founded around 1895 and lasted longer than nearly every Huntington firm. The business specialized in manufacturing wood boxes, crates, and pallets for breweries, the military, and customers who shipped their goods from the growing river and railroad town. In later years, the company was known for custom millwork, cabinetry, lumber, and hardware supplies. Duncan Box outlasted other local companies and became one of the last surviving industries from the days of Central City. For most of its history, the company was owned and operated by the Duncan family. In 2012 the family sold the business to another local family who hoped they might reverse the trend that saw the closure of several family-owned hardware stores. This proved unsuccessful, however, and Duncan Box closed in 2015 after 120 years of operation.
Backstory and Context
Sometime between 1892 and 1895, (sources differ) M. L. Duncan and his brother-in-law J. W. Graham established the Beader Box & Manufacturing Company on Fourteenth Street West, right beside the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad tracks. After a brief time, Graham left the company and Duncan became the sole owner of the business. In 1917, the company was renamed the Duncan Box & Lumber Company.
Duncan Box began with four employees but grew steadily thanks to the growth of Huntington and a timber boom in West Virginia that began in the late 1800s and lasted into the 1920s. The region was blessed with large swaths of forested land, and with the proliferation of steam sawmills and the extension of railroads deep into the state, logging and lumber-related businesses were highly profitable. Huntington was a growing port, connecting the Ohio River with leading rail networks which provided many opportunities for industries in this section of West Virginia.
Duncan Box’s first major products manufactured were wood boxes, crates, and pallets. At first, these products were sold to brewing companies, including the Fesenmeier Brewery which was located just down the street. During the Spanish American War and both World Wars, Duncan Box was a major producer of supply crates for the military. Another noteworthy product was the Collapso Coop, a collapsible chicken pen patented by H. A. Duncan around 1929. The Callapso sold well and for a time was quite popular among poultry farmers.
After World War II, Duncan Box shifted from manufacturing boxes to producing cabinets, doors, and custom millwork. The company reached its peak during the 1950s when it employed around one hundred workers. At that time, the bustling complex included eleven buildings and an inventory of half a million feet of lumber board.
Fortunes at Duncan Box declined during the late 20th century. The company's millwork orders declined as the industry changed. The Duncan family responded by selling hardware supplies and lumber. In the early 21st century, however, local retail hardware and lumber companies closed following the arrival of national chains.
In 2012 the Taylor family, which owned the local Taylor Iron & Metal Inc., purchased the business from the Duncan family in order to save it from closing. It marked the first time in Duncan Box’s history that it was not owned by the Duncan Family. The Taylors attempted to revitalize the company by renovating its retail section, returning the mill to operation, and focusing on its core base of local, loyal customers. These efforts were unsuccessful, however, and Duncan Box was forced to close in 2015. One of the main reasons cited for its demise was the inability to compete with large-scale hardware retail chains. As of 2019, the Duncan Box building remains unoccupied.
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Casto, James E. “After 117 years, Duncan family sells to new owner.” Herald-Dispatch. January 31, 2012. Accessed May 21, 2019. https://www.herald-dispatch.com/business/after-years-duncan-family-sells-to-new-owner/article_8d58322f-7cd3-55a4-8fa2-ccc546e37af2.html
Casto, James E. “Lost Huntington: Duncan Box & Lumber.” Herald-Dispatch. March 14, 2016. Accessed May 21, 2019. https://www.herald-dispatch.com/special/lost_huntington/lost-huntington-duncan-box-lumber/article_a63aa7dc-b774-55b7-9102-6ad8a77d7b08.html
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Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Duncan Box & Lumber Co., one of several vintage commercial buildings in the Old Central City neighborhood of Huntington, West Virginia, which its promoters called the “Antique Capital of the Tri-State West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky Area.” Huntington, West Virginia, 2015. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2015631856/.
Miller, Lola Roush. Central City, WV 1893-1909: A Short History. Huntington, WV: Scaggs Printing & Office Supplies, 1993.
Miller, Lola Roush. Images of America: Central City. Arcadia Publishing, 2006.