BURKE — The first to the scene, Jason Witt broke the news to his father.
Vern Witt didn’t believe his son. The family business — the Burke Building Center — couldn’t have been destroyed by a tornado. Damaged, maybe.
“He said the lumberyard is gone,” Vern Witt recalled of speaking with his son, a Burke firefighter, at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2019, with the tornado moving through about a half-hour earlier.
“I said, ‘No, it can’t be gone,’ Vern said. “We might have had some damage but it can’t be gone.”
When Vern — who has owned the town’s lumberyard for 27 years with his wife, Carole, and children — got to the lumberyard, a firefighter stopped him and said he couldn’t go into the building site because power lines were down.
The firefighter was a friend and recognized Vern and broke news again.
“He said, ‘It’s not good.’ And it wasn’t. It was pretty devastating,” Vern said.
The Witt family won’t forget that day. And Aug. 7, 2020, won’t soon be forgotten either, as the Burke Building Center held its official grand opening in a new location and a revamped building.
As the community of Burke crossed the one-year anniversary mark of the EF-1 tornado that hit in the center of town, no other business in the community sits as perfectly at the crossroads of where the town was before the storm and where it is now.
The business’ new location along U.S. Highway 18 and State Highway 47 was born of necessity three days after the tornado. Among the remnants of a destroyed business, the Witts had lumber they believed they could salvage, and rainy weather in the immediate days after the storm made finding a temporary home a critical task.
The Witts worked out a deal to purchase the 11,000-square-foot former Johnson Implement building from owner Joel Johnson. Nearly all of the building’s interior was torn out, from the horseshoe-shaped service desk to the wood paneling on the walls. At the same time, the business was still getting lumber out to customers to make fixes and cover broken windows.
“It was more impulse than anything,” Vern said. “We were just trying to salvage what we had and we had nowhere to go.”
Burke’s sister store — the Gregory Building Center — is also owned by the Witts and Vern’s son Bryan manages the Gregory store, which proved to be a valuable asset in helping its neighboring community get supplies. Because of the nature of the new Burke store, larger pieces of lumber are still stored in Gregory because there is more lumberyard space there. (Burke’s old site took up most of a city block and a lot of it was covered shed space for lumber.)
Now, there is an appealing retail space for the business in Burke, including prominent displays for name-brand items, an automated paint mixer, and hand-made signage for each aisle of the store, something that is a first, Jason said. A collage of storm damage photos is now on a wall, a reminder of how much has changed in the past year.
“It was nasty. It was all on the ground,” Jason said, saying he remains grateful that nobody died in the storm. “Everything is good. Buildings are replaceable.”
The Witts admitted there was only a glimmer of a thought of not rebuilding but the opportunity to move into an existing, attractive location was “too perfect,” Jason said.
“It hit just right,” he added.
The business carries building materials and also does contracting for houses. Jason Witt said there’s a great deal of pride involved in rebuilding his own store and helping repair and build new houses in the community. While the business has been working fully out of its new location for months, Friday's grand opening date was symbolic.
“We’re pretty fortunate to have everything back where it was,” he said. “If you didn’t know we had (a tornado), you wouldn’t know it.”
It’s the third time Vern Witt has stepped in to keep Burke’s lumberyard around. He was farming and milking cows in the early 1990s when the business was having trouble and he accepted a job managing the lumberyard. Two years later, the previous owner said he was going to close it and sell the business, and the Witts bought it.
Vern and Jason Witt said there wasn’t much time spent on what to do with the business’ future this time around, considering how tightly bound the family is to the business. On Friday, three generations of the family were in the store, including Jason’s 1-year-old daughter trotting around the lumberyard floor.
The former site of the Burke Building Center has also been replaced in full, with the Fox Brothers Grinding business building a new larger shop on the lot, moving across the street to its new location. Also in the surrounding blocks of the old Burke Building Center is the newly repaired Burke School complex and the Burke Civic Center is back up and running with a new gym and community center.
Vern joked that sometimes his business is the Grim Reaper when storms and building damage occurs. He described Burke's last 12 months as a rebound.
“Everyone is taking pride and fixed their things up,” he said. “The town looks better, except for all of the trees. … Life goes on and we have great people here.”