Growing up in the Brace Lumber Company family (South Lake Union, Seattle)

  • By John and Marta Brace; edited by Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/27/2007
  • Essay 8293

In this reminiscence, John Brace, great-grandson of Brace and Hergert Mill founder John S. Brace and grandson of Brace Lumber Company cofounder Nick Brace remembers life in the Brace Lumber family and discusses the Brace Lumber Family legacy in Seattle. It was written by John and Marta Kelso Brace and edited by staff historian Paula Becker.

The Brace Lumber Family

Lumberman John S. Brace died in 1918 and in 1921 the Brace & Hergert Mill Company, built in 1909 north of Valley Street in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, was sold to Stimson Timber Company. Soon after, John S. Brace's sons H. Dominic “Nick” Brace and J. Benjamin “Ben” Brace along with John C. Jorgensen established a partnership under the name Brace Lumber Company. The Brace family had retained lumber from the mill and a parcel of land on the south side of Valley Street at Terry Avenue. Using the slogan "A board or a building," Brace Lumber Company sold retail lumber, handled all kinds of building materials, and maintained a large custom cutting shop. The company served local customers and shipped orders within Washington and Alaska.

On May 10, 1935, a fire broke out at the lumberyard early in the morning causing estimated damages of $15,000 and also damaging other surrounding buildings. A new lumber shed was built that year. This shed retained a fair amount of physical integrity until it was torn down on July 25, 2007, for new development. At the time of its demolition, this shed was the last historical building reflecting the lumber industry that once thrived along the southern shores of Lake Union. The property is still considered a historical site.

Brace Family on Queen Anne

Nick and Ben Brace grew up in the family home at 170 Prospect Street on Queen Anne and attended Queen Anne High School. The house, which had been built in 1904 of old growth timber from their father's mill, is now commonly known as the Brace/Moriarty house, and is a designated City of Seattle landmark. Both Nick and Ben graduated from the University of Washington, were veterans of World War I, and were members of the Chamber of Commerce and other various civic clubs.

In later years, Nick Brace and his wife Isabel Martin (the girl next door) acquired the home at 170 Prospect Street and raised their sons H. Dominic “Sam” Brace Jr. and William M. “Bill” Brace there. Both sons were veterans of World War II and attended the University of Washington. In 2007 most of the family toured the landmark home and all had stories of who slept where and what improvements had been made. The stories of the Queen Anne neighborhood were endless.

Jerry Bach Remembers

Jerry Bach remembers his father-in-law, John C. Jorgenson: John Jorgensen was an equal part of the trio of young men who started up the Brace Lumber Company shortly after World War I. John was born and raised in the Cascade neighborhood, so he knew the area well. When the decision to start up the lumber yard was made, John had to sell his brand new Flying Cloud car to raise the cash.

I always purchased my lumber, paint or nails from Brace. Did I ever get a deal or freebee from them? No. If it was only a single piece of wood a foot long I always had to pay a dollar for it. And my small cash sale always went into the “stamp drawer” located just under the counter top.

The Brace property was surrounded by: McKale’s Gas Station to the northwest, a little restaurant called Rosies Café to the west of the shop area (very good roast beef and gravy sandwiches, a buck and a half), Sick’s Brewery to the south (Sick’s Select Beer), and rail tracks to the east where box cars of lumber came from various mills and were hand unloaded into the side of the shed on Terry St.

My wife June remembers the telephone call late at night in 1935 when her dad went out the door to go to the yard and watch the firemen trying to save what they could. Must have been a terrible moment for them all. June her mom and sister Jeanne went down there to see the smoking ruins the next morning. After the fire, the men salvaged a lot of the burned lumber by cutting off the scorched portion and saving the rest, therefore a 12 foot board could be salvaged into an 8 foot board.

Bill Brace Remembers

Bill Brace remembers: My father Nick was partnered with his brother Ben and John Jorgensen in 1925 in starting up the Brace Lumber Company. All three men had families to raise and the opportunity arose with the closing of the Brace & Hergert Mill Company to start up the lumberyard. As a young boy, I remember my mother and I racing to the yard when a horrific fire broke out. Dad had left the house prior to us and mom and I tried to go under the ropes the fireman had strung up and they held us back. My mother said, “This is our mill that is burning,” then the firemen gave us permission to join my father. It was quite a night I‘ll never forget. I was about 10 years old.

Later, as an adult, after returning from the Navy Air Cadet stint following the war, I joined my father Nick at the Brace Lumber Company. And later in life once Nick retired, he still would come down to the yard and check in on things.

Working on Lake Union was all I knew. In my off-time I took up flying lessons at Kenmore Air and learned to fly a float-plane. I took a trip over to Bainbridge Island and picked up Bob Smith. It was the 1st flight he ever took. We flew over the Bremerton Navy Ship Yard and Gazzam Lake. It was quite something -- we‘ll never forget it. I don’t think they would let you fly over the shipyard today.

John Brace Remembers

John Brace remembers: After graduation from the UW [University of Washington] I joined my father at the lumberyard. My job there afforded me to buy my first house in Magnolia for $42,000. It was a little two bedroom close to Discovery Park.

In heavy rains, the yard went under two or three feet of water. There was a large drain in the center of the yard. We would succeed sometimes in pumping out the flood waters but occasionally the fire department had to help out.

It wasn’t easy closing up the business with my dad in 1988. There was a lot of sweat equity put into the place and years of memories. I too had sons who I hoped one day would join the Brace Lumber legacy, but a sign of the times forced us to take a different fork in the road.

Bob Smith Remembers

Bob Smith remembers: After my father closed up his furniture business I went to John Jorgensen and asked to work at the Brace Lumber Company. My father-in-law, Ben Brace, was an owner but said he didn’t do the hiring. After joining the yard and after Ben’s passing, I purchased his shares and became part of the ownership of the lumberyard. 

It was a good job and afforded me to raise our three children and have a nice house on Queen Anne. My wife Jane and I recall Stew Carter, a yardman who could build a lot of things. And when business (over the 50 years we were down there) would have a slow-down, Stew would make all kinds of things for the families such as picnic tables, book shelves, and some simple furniture pieces, all custom made.

There were others who worked at the yard such as Dick Shepard -- he was a numbers guy and Jeanne Jorgensen Fisken who worked in the office typing invoices and keeping books. Joann Lamping Brace also worked in the office for a short time until her first son was born. The business seemed to be a lot about family.

A Lumber Family

In the 1950s Nick’s son Bill Brace continued the business as President, along with Ben Brace's son-in-law Robert W. “Bob” Smith. Bill recalls the many businesses that came and went around South Lake Union over the years during his life there. Brace Lumber endured the changing commerce in the area with rooted customers and pioneer relationships. A memorable employee was Dick Sheppard. Sheppard was part of the lumber team.

On May 13, 1971, the family land holders, under J. S. Brace, Inc., sold the property to the City of Seattle under Eminent Domain for $350,000 to improve the so-called Mercer Mess, one of the city's worst traffic bottlenecks. The Brace clan continued to run Brace Lumber Company as a tenant of the city, leasing back the land. One of Bill Brace’s sons, John S. Brace, joined his father in running the business, juggling school and various duties at the lumberyard including the accounting side of the business.

John graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Business Administration in 1977. A member of the last generation of the Brace family to operate Brace Lumber, John helped his father run Brace Lumber Company until the business closed in 1988.


The Brace Legacy

The Brace Family Lumber Legacy in Seattle had prospered through four generations since 1888. Many family members hold memories to share with later generations.

Recalling the historic lumber shed demolished in 2007, Bill Brace said, “The Brace Lumber shed was so reminiscent of an industry that helped build Seattle and it was always great driving by the old place. It was a part of our family for so long, it was like loosing a good friend when it was torn down. We look forward to enjoying the new South Lake Union Park, site of the old mill and pondering what our ancestors experienced over 100 years ago, a much different time.”

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