BOODY, Ill. — Tom Curry never had a problem seeing the wood for the trees.
The former UPS driver with a passion for raw lumber drove around all day nurturing a dream of starting his own sawmill business. In 2006, he pulled a hard right in pursuit of his goal and started the Curry Sawmill, just off busy Illinois 48 in the very unbusy burg of Boody.
A man who could read a book or watch a video and learn to do pretty much anything, Curry instructed himself on how to run a sawmill. He built a 4,000 board-foot capacity (lumber-speak for pretty huge) drying kiln with the help of his brother-in-law, Chuck Levandoski. He added a suitably massive bandsaw, along with planers and joiners, which would handle a cascade of raw material flowing in from The Mill Tree Service, another business sideline.
Prime boards cut from walnut, oak and hard maple, along with lumber shot through with exotic grain patinations through a decay process called spalting, saw the woodworking fraternity carve a deep path to his door. With eBay as his coast-to-coast marketplace, Curry’s custom-cut lumber, traveling via UPS (of course) was soon zipping all over the country.
“If it was going full steam right now, just off of eBay alone, he could be doing $2,000 to $4,000 of business a week,” says his stepson, Jason Largent, 38, who helped out in the mill. “He had a great rapport with customers, and people loved to deal with this guy.”
And then Curry, a man with a natural energy overdrive, began to slow down. He would come home feeling even more tired than his punishing sawmill work days warranted. Doctors eventually diagnosed pancreatic cancer. He fought it like the former Marine he was, struggling into the mill and planing away at his prize lumber even as the disease planed away at him.
“He became a shadow of what he used to be,” recalls Largent.
And then he was gone: Tom Curry lost his battle with cancer on Dec. 11, 2010. He was just 45. In the years since, his brother-in-law, Chuck, who lives in Colorado but visits in the summer; Largent; Curry’s stepdaughter, Allison Largent; and Curry’s wife, Grace Curry, all pitched in here and there to keep the mill sort of hobbling along.
But Colorado is a long way away, and the rest of the family have other lives: Jason Largent is a conductor on the Canadian National railroad, his sister is a restaurant cook and Mom still works in operations for UPS, which is how she met her husband in the fist place. They’ve decided to keep the tree service going, but have also decided that running the sawmill is just too much. Curry’s wife hasn’t made her mind up yet whether to try and sell her husband’s dream as a going concern, or just sell off the equipment and then the property.
What cuts the deepest is that none of it was supposed to be this way, which makes the final choice about what to do so hard. Every time his widow walks into the sawmill with its raw wood smells and sawdust, she feels her husband’s presence. The prospect of selling it is to face losing another part of who he was, acknowledging absence where there should be his energetic presence.
“And I would be retired one day and helping him here,” says Grace Curry, late afternoon light in the empty sawmill gilding the tears in her eyes. “That was our plan.”
So it’s back to wrestling with the question of what to do with the Curry Sawmill: sell it piecemeal or as a going concern? Grace Curry is willing to entertain serious offers and, depending on how serious, they will probably help shape her ultimate decision.
Whatever branch of the road taken, however, she remains glad her husband got to run after his great dream and catch a hold of it for a while.
“We don’t know why he had to pass away, and Lord knows we didn’t want him to, but that wasn’t our decision,” she says. “But I’ll always know, and I’m very happy to know, that he got to run and enjoy his sawmill business. It’s like his parents told me: 45 years is a short life, but he got to live a whole big life in that time.”
And it turns out that dealing in wood ingrains its own sense of vicarious immortality: the lumber Tom Curry lovingly cut, dried, planed and prepped with his own hands is now part of exotic floors, décor and heirloom furniture from sea to shining sea.
“Yes, it’s kind of nice to think about that,” says Grace Curry.