Business Spotlight Son, grandson continue Bob Grau’s legacy

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Chris Grau, left, and his son, Pat, are the second and third generation foresters of a sawmill established by Chris’ father, Bob, in 1948. The Graus help landowners make solid decisions about harvesting their woodlands.
Chris Grau, left, and his son, Pat, are the second and third generation foresters of a sawmill established by Chris’ father, Bob, in 1948. The Graus help landowners make solid decisions about harvesting their woodlands.

By Pam Reinig
Register Editor

It started as most new business ventures do—with a dream.

Robert Grau dreamed of working directly with landowners to show them how to make money from their trees while also preserving their woodlands for generations to come. He decided that the only way to realize his dream was to start his own sawmill.

Bob grew up in western Iowa, served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and earned a degree in forestry at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University). He worked as a forester with the Extension Service for a short time before his love for the heavily wooded bluffs of Northeast Iowa drew him to Clayton County.  With his GI insurance and a loan from the local bank he purchased a used sawmill and a couple of used trucks. In August of 1948 he bought four acres of land on the east edge of Elkader and started Grau Logs and Lumber.

“It caused a bit of a stir in his family,” said Bob’s son, Chris.  “My grandfather didn’t understand why his son was buying land and not putting it into soybeans or corn”
Bob had been in business less than a year before suffering a major setback.  He was severely injured in a serious accident at the mill.  He had surgery in Dubuque and was hospitalized there.  He returned to Elkader several weeks later—on crutches with his left leg in a cast and his left arm in a sling. His employees were gone and work at the mill had ground to a halt.

 “Members of the community really stepped up to help him save his business,” Chris said.  “They agreed that each one would work one day at the mill if Dad could find an experienced sawyer to operate the main saw.” This group included an attorney, optometrist, undertaker, newspaperman, hardware dealer and two auto dealers—plenty of hands but no knowledge of what was needed to run a sawmill.  A sawyer from Prairie du Chien offered to help and the mill was soon back in business. Under Grau’s supervision, his temporary employees moved lumber, stacked boards and sawed the logs in the yard so that existing orders could be filled.  

“When people of outside of Elkader ask me why we’ve stayed here, I tell them this story,” said Chris. “How could you ever think of leaving a community that responds like that?”

Bob not only started a business here but he and his wife, Ruth, raised their family here as well.  The entire Grau family has filled in when needed. All the boys worked at the mill or in the woods during summers when they were in school. Their son, Chris, joined the family business after graduating from Luther College in 1981. Chris’ son, Pat, became a third generation forester and conservationist when he joined the company in 2011 after earning a degree at Wartburg College.

 “When I started school, I really didn’t know if the sawmill industry was for me,” Pat admitted.  “But I guess I have sawdust in my veins because this is where I want to be. There’s nothing better than being outside all of the time and having the time and having the freedom to do what we want to do.  There is nothing like walking away from a well managed woodland and knowing that it’s going to continue to produce for many, many years.“

Their business has its share of challenges.  It’s hard physical work with a peak season—October to March—that coincides with Iowa’s worst temperatures.  “Since we are able to process and utilize all parts of the log, it is possible for the business to prosper even when lumber prices fall.  We can sell railroad ties, pallet stock, firewood, bark and sawdust to fill in the gaps when prices are in a down cycle.” Tariffs have created problems too, though Chris said that strong relationships with their overseas buyers have insulated them a bit.  The challenges are offset by the benefits.
Grau Logs and Lumber has changed considerably since Bob first realized his dream in 1948.  The company now has 10 employees and has added to the original two trucks.  They now have two log  trucks, two slab trucks, three skidders, two yard end loaders and four pickups and a significantly modernized mill.  The company now does more exporting--with about 30 percent of their product going to Japan, China and across Europe.  For example, at the time that Chris and Pat were interviewed for this article, they were getting ready to ship black walnut logs harvested near Elgin to China.

The children and grandchildren have learned the importance of stewardship and conservation first taught by Bob Grau.  They all believe in their responsibility to future generations.  One thing hasn’t changed since Bob started the company in 1948 or since his death in 2003, and that is the Grau family commitment to their motto: Timber is a crop: Harvest it wisely.


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