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Easterday Construction - ‘solo’ for 60 years

March 24, 2013

Kevin and Larry Berger circa early 2000s.

*In nearly 90 years’ total existence, company has helped build major structures of Culver, beyond*

Sixty years ago this month, Culver's longest lived construction company -- and one which not only built some of the most prominent structures in this and surrounding communities, but had been connected to prestigious and notable buildings around the country -- officially came into its own.

The Easterday Construction Company on Slate Street had already existed for some 30 years under the auspices of the James I. Barnes Construction Company, which was started by former Logansport mayor James Barnes in 1924.

BARNES CONSTRUCTION AND CULVER

The Barnes company, besides erecting many of the most prominent buildings in Logansport, was also responsible for the bulk of the Culver Military Academy buildings of the era, including the administration building, mess hall, Legion Memorial building, recreation building, natatorium, riding hall and stable, barracks buildings, the Naval building, power plant, and service building.
Additionally, the Barnes company would establish offices in Ohio, Santa Monica and Redwood City, California, and Seattle, Washington, from which a host of prestigious buildings for universities, hospitals, and even a 1959 addition to Disneyland in California and built the four-level interchange in downtown Los Angeles, an icon of southern California car culture.

The Barnes connection to Culver began with James I Barnes' father, John E. Barnes, who purchased an annex building to the old Arlington Hotel on Long Point circa 1895 as housing while he worked on construction of the first brick building on the Culver Academy campus, Main Barracks, in 1895. Barnes continued to maintain the home at today's 704 West Shore Drive, and his son James I. inherited the land at John's death in 1914.

James I Barnes died in 1956 and the summer home became was inherited by the seven Barnes daughters: Lucille Drompp, Emily Studebaker, Doris Hills, Marjorie Sparling, Clara Medland, Betty Muehlhausen, and Virginia Kniesley, all of whom had grown up at this summer home the lake. The families of all seven have owned property on the lake through the years and youngest daughter, Virginia Barnes Kniesley and her family own 704 today. Other descendants own land on both the west and east shores, making the Barnes name one of the oldest surviving on the lake today.

EASTERDAY BEGINNINGS

The Barnes-Easterday connection in Culver began with school teacher Russell Easterday, who worked for James I. Barnes during summers, in addition to a family farm he shared with wife Wanda and six children. Easterday would advance to the foreman position and his work overseeing major projects at the Academy eventually led to his being tapped to head the Culver division of the Barnes company, which he dubbed the Russell L. Easterday Construction & Supply Company.

Initially the company's offices were on the second floor of the State Exchange Bank Building in downtown Culver, with materials and equipment stored at the family farm at the edge of town on Slate Street, current location of the business (in fact, the original "pony barn” there is still used for storage on site).

Easterday's extensive farmland, in fact, stretched north to the present Culver Community High School property, and he owned the iconic barn at the north end of School Street, across State Road 10.

The Easterday name, of course, is familiar in Culver in various capacities. Russell's cousin Bill operated the town's first and longest-lasting funeral home on Main Street.

Melba (formerly White) Easterday, who began school in Culver in the first grade (her parents moved to today's State Road 110 for a time afterwards, though the family was back in town by the time she was 16), would marry Russell's son and her classmate Edward "Red" Easterday, and Melba's sons include Marty, Tom, and James Easterday, the latter a well-known attorney in Culver. Russell's grandson (via son Everett) Greg is a longtime dentist in Culver, to name a few.

BUILDING CULVER AND BEYOND

Besides the Academy buildings and a wide array of Culver homes, the Culver Elementary gymnasium, formerly the Union Township Community Building was built by Easterday Construction and dedicated in 1929; Easterday would also handle the major addition to the building of 1952, which forms the core of today's CES building today. Also constructed under Easterday was the K of P building at 110 N. Main Street, a staple of the downtown business district, among other major buildings here.

Family stories, according to current company owner Kevin Berger, tell of Russell Easterday taking the train overnight to Washington D.C. to bid on post offices throughout the Midwest during the depression era, which seemed to succeed, as the company built a number of post offices during this period, including not only in Plymouth, but Culver's (in 1935) as well.

During the World War II years, the Easterday company was involved in a massive effort to move housing from Ypsilanti, Mich., to the newly-created town of Kingsford Heights, Indiana, whose primary purpose was to serve as housing for workers at the large Kingsbury Ordinance Plant complex nearby, an important part of the war effort.

An Easterday crew ran ahead of moving houses to lift up electric lines and to make sure clearances on bridges were adequate (many of the houses are still in use).

Melba Easterday recalls working with sister-in-law Margaret (later Lowry) at the Kingsford Heights project while their husbands served in the military. Melba recalls Easterday constructing five buildings at the ordinance plant as well, during a time when the company had over 100 workers on its payroll!

"Margaret and I were the only girls in (the Easterday company), but across the street were two girls who worked for the government...it was an interesting place to work."

Easterday Construction would be chosen to return to Kingsford Heights to construct its sewage treatment plant in the early 1980s.

She recalls husband Edward sent home from the war with rheumatic fever and eventually returning to construction work then in Culver, though for a long time his health forced him to work half-day shifts.

MELBA EASTERDAY REMEMBERS

Melba recalls her husband's work at Easterday starting when he was a young lad, carrying water for the workers (brother Everett, a year older, swept floors). The men began tripping young Edward to make him lose his water, an unpleasant prank he didn't report for fear of losing the quarter he was paid for his services; eventually Everett reported it and Russell threatened to fire the crew if it happened again, says Melba. The crew during many of Edward's years worked ten hour days, she recalls.

She also remembers being unable to make herself watch as her husband climbed a series of ladders to place the top piece on the spire of Wesley United Methodist Church, which -- along with its parsonage -- Easterday Construction built in the 1950s.

"He said it would take too long to put up the scaffold," she recalls with a laugh.

Among the homes the company built in town were Melba's own and the former Mikesell house on North School Street, both notable for their use of Bedford limestone.

Edward, who had retired from the company at age 62, died in 2000, after 59 years of marriage to Melba.

EASTERDAY GOES SOLO

An ageing James I. Barnes told Russell Easterday to name his price to purchase the Easterday branch of the company. Shortly after making an offer, Russell suffered a heart attack, and company bookkeepers began inquiries into various financial details. Barnes visited Russell's son Everett in 1953, asking why the company hadn't been purchased yet, and upon learning the hold-up was in his own offices, Barnes made a call and informed his staff to accept whatever Russell Easterday had offered, sealing the deal.

The Russell L Easterday Construction & Supply Company was organized as a partnership between Russell and his wife, Wanda (the name was shortened to the Easterday Construction Company after Russell’s death in 1976).

James I. Barnes Construction Company was a union contractor. This continued over to Russell’s ownership. In the war years and after, the South Bend unions did not want to provide men to Culver, so, even though the company had done a lot of things such as training masons who the union’s then assigned elsewhere, it only made sense for the company to stop being a union company. This let them hire and train many of their own people. Several family members were union members, but dropped out when the company dropped union affiliation.

The present office building was constructed in the 1950s, according to Kevin Berger, though he says the back side of the place is "a hodgepodge" with sections likely converted from old farm buildings. In fact, a caretaker had once lived for a time in what is today the tool room of the building.

A great deal of the work sub-contracted by Easterday today was once handled in-house, and for decades, Easterday kept a variety of construction supplies on-hand, not only for its own use but for sale to the public as well, during those years when transportation to pick up lumber or other building supplies would have been more difficult.

One building is still referred to as "the kiln," since Easterday used to dry its own lumber there, notes Berger.

THE LARRY BERGER YEARS

Easterday Construction was handled for the next several decades by Russell's sons Everett, Jack, and Edward, along with Russell's grandson Robert Berger and eventually Robert's son Larry Berger.

Robert Berger would eventually start Berger Construction in Plymouth, which operated for some years, though Russell Easterday's grandson Larry Berger (Kevin's father) stayed with the Easterday business.

For his part, Larry Berger began working for the family business during summers prior to college. After studying electrical engineering in college, he went to work for Delco in Anderson, Ind. prior to joining the ROTC. Everett would eventually approach Larry to see if he would work for the company.

"It's funny because I took electrical engineering in college so I didn't have to come back," recalls Larry with a chuckle. "But I did try it and I stuck with it; that was about 1963."

Larry started his tenure as an estimator, his first major project being the then-new Culver Community High School, just a few blocks north of company headquarters.

Larry began handling most of the estimating and business as Everett's health deteriorated; by the mid to late 1970s, Larry took over as sole shareholder.

During this period, he recalls Easterday handling projects ranging from Washington Elementary School in Plymouth (besides major school projects in Emma and Shipshewana, Ind), to several projects at the Culver sewage plant, as well as the sewer plant in Kewanna. The first of a number of assisted living facilities for the company began with a project in Logansport. Other Logansport projects including a large addition to a housing development and an extensive remodel of the public library there.

Easterday Construction was involved in all of the First National Bank of Monterey's buildings, including the first one in its home town as well as the Winamac and Culver branches, and a remodel of an office building in North Judson to become a bank branch there.

Indiana Tool in Plymouth was a major project which led to a relationship with the Neidig family there, which would also lead to Easterday handling two or three additions to the Grace Baptist Church on Michigan Street. Easterday designed and built Grace's elementary school as well.

"That was a fun project" Larry recalls. "We did a lot of work for them. It was very fulfilling to be able to be involved in those. They would call me if there was a light bulb burned out in the church, and I would go replace it myself!"

Other work included the Academies' ice arena and original girls’ dorm, the Plymouth Coca-Cola plant, and others.

Larry Berger says one project he's "really been proud of" is the former Edgewater restaurant building on Lake Shore Drive in Culver (today's Lakehouse Grille) in 1999.

"That was an interesting one because you had to keep the kitchen open the whole time," he explains. "I think we shut them down for a week."

TECHNOLOGY AT THE FORE

One major transition launched under Larry Berger's oversight began when he first noticed the State Exchange Bank in Culver (for whom the company had also handled a number of major projects) had an electronic calculator with an LED readout. Soon after, he purchased the company's first calculator, an IBM model the bank was using, for $400.

When the time came for Larry to begin handling the books ("I had one hours' instruction on them!" he says), the first move he made was to computerize the company's accounting.

"The accountant at the time said, 'Do you understand it?' I said, 'Heck no!'"

Larry attended seminars and workshops and adopted a computerized bookkeeping system tailored to the construction industry, back in the early 1980s, surely making Easterday one of the earlier companies in the region to do so. The company has continued to utilize technology: Kevin Berger today maintains a regular blog at the company's website at easterdayconstruction.com.

"I spend a lot of time keeping up a website and blog and Twitter," says Kevin, and there's a methodology as work.

"Ninety percent of the time when people look on the Internet (for Culver construction), our name pops up."

KEVIN BERGER, FROM THEN `TIL NOW

Kevin Berger began his Easterday Construction journey outside Easterday Construction.

"One of the things dad always said was he didn't want me to start in the (family) business," he recalls, though that business was always open to him as a final destination.

Culver Comm. High School grad Kevin began his collegiate career at Ball State but soon transferred to Purdue to study landscape architecture, eventually working in Atlanta in civil engineering before returning to the Culver area in 1990.

During Kevin's tenure at Easterday, the company has handled more (though mostly smaller) Academy projects such as cabins and additions to existing buildings. An addition to St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in 2007 earned the company an industry award. Larger projects have included the Kent Soccerplex, Boys & Girls Club, and Young Amphitheater in Plymouth, the first phase of the Marshall County Historical Museum, renovation of the Dr. Richard Ford home in Wabash (as well as some innovative work on Richard Ford's home there, including an "endless pool" and conservatory there. Work for the Remnant Trust in Winona Lake required highly specialized details, and the company has added elevators to a large number of buildings.

Easterday has handled seven of the Garden Court senior living complexes in multiple counties, starting in Argos (the most recent being in Culver).

After Larry Berger retired at the end of 2002, Kevin became sole shareholder, as he remains today, working still out of the Slate Street headquarters, though he and his wife Becky relocated to Pretty Lake to help her in her commute to South Bend as a teacher.

CHANGES IN THE INDUSTRY

Both Larry and Kevin Berger acknowledge the economy of construction nationwide has had the most impact on what Easterday does as a company.

When Larry first came into the business, says Kevin, "we had masons, plumbers, electricians, and painters. It was one stop does it all.

More and more today, a person who has all those skills can't compete with somebody who concentrates on one of those for eight hours a day. We can't compete with a sub (contractor) that does all those things."
Larry agrees.

"For most of the time, we did general mechanical and electrical work ourselves and used finish subs for certain things. Then it got to the point when I was still there that guys like masons only wanted to do masonry work. We wouldn't have enough of that to keep them busy all the time. First we started subbing the mechanical work or portions of it, but we ended up without that, so we started subbing that almost entirely. We still do part of the electrical but also sub part of it."

"The industry is becoming more and more specialized," Kevin notes. "We are becoming more and more the general contractor; we organize and go out and get bids; we process and pull things together, so you the client only have to deal with us and we take care of all the little things behind the scenes."

Another factor in the changing world of construction for Easterday is related to the Internet.

"(Today) you can go online and see a lot of times the same prices I see," says Kevin, "which can make it more difficult to add the value to sell it."

And, he says, "It's more challenging to keep up on things. I used to show you three things I knew and was familiar with. Now you can turn around and say, 'But I saw this on the Internet.' It's changed that dynamic."

THE FAMILY WITHIN THE FAMILY

One ongoing aspect of Easterday's business approach which both Larry and son Kevin Berger point towards is its ability to keep longtime employees in an almost family-like atmosphere.

Larry points to now-retired, decade-plus employees such as company mill man for years "Cubby" Bair, Leroy Bean (who retired after 40 years with the company!), David Osborn, Norm Coby (who worked nearly 40 years), Bud Cripe, Gene Thomas, Bud Thews, and others.

Current longtime employees (of the 11 total today) include Kathy Pearson, who Kevin Berger notes started 37 years ago. Larry jokes that he hired her husband Willie to keep Kathy on.

"She was and is good," he adds.

Current employee Bobby Cooper, says Kevin, has worked with Easterday nearly 30 years and John Singleton close to 25.

"Even though we don't have any other family than me in it today, it's still been kind of a family business," Kevin says. "We try to treat people that way, and we seem to foster that kind of loyalty. It's funny sometimes to hear how many people have ties to Easterday back and forth."

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